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Clutch performance in sports is the phenomenon of athletes under pressure, usually in the last minutes of a game, to summon strength, concentration and whatever else necessary to succeed, to perform well, and perhaps change the outcome of the game. It occurs in basketball, hockey, football, other sports and esports. The opposite is "choking": failing to perform as needed, when under pressure.
It is a phenomenon that is studied in psychology and in the more specialized area of sport psychology. The term gained popularity due to repetitive use among sports commentators, particularly baseball announcers. Consequently, a portion of the academic literature is focused on baseball, more specifically on clutch hitting, and addresses the academic issue of whether it exists or not.
A great deal of the academic literature shows that is important for athletes to be able to control their anxiety if they are to produce peak performances in clutch moments.
Early academic literature presents evidence for the clutch player in the Yerkes-Dodson Law. In this 1908 study, psychologists, Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson, found that Stress, or arousal (pressure), increases performance to an extent, but too much or too little stress causes a decline in performance. The level of pressure necessary for maximum efficiency increases due to task, with those tasks requiring endurance and stamina being completed with higher levels of arousal. A bell curve is often used to represent the relationship between pressure and performance as indicated by empirical evidence. The Yerkes-Dodson Law suggests that arousal has positive effects on cognitive processes such as motivation, attention, and concentration. In effect, an athlete should be able to play at an elevated level with adequate amount of pressure. Further research is necessary in order to more clearly define the effects of momentum on a player′s in-game performance.
Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning
The Yerkes-Dodson Law spurred further research into its direct application in athletics. As a result, Sport psychologist, Yuri L. Hanin, developed the Zone of Optimal Functioning theory, which states, ″In order for an athlete to perform to their highest capability, they must experience their preferred level of anxiety.″ Hanin used a sport-specific version of the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory to measure the cognitive and somatic anxiety levels of each player before his or her performance. Hanin determined that each player has a certain range of pre-performance anxiety which leads to optimal performance. Hanin later postulates the functional relationship between emotions and optimal performance differs between each individual based on emotional factors, thus the revised version was called the Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning (IZOF). The newer model better accounts for ″the multidimensionality of emotional constructs″ by accounting for both positive and negative affect in athletes prior to the beginning of the sporting event. The study confirmed the existence of an ″association of the intensity of pre-competition state anxiety to optimal athletic performance.″
A majority of elite athletes perform personalized pre-game rituals in order to mentally prepare themselves for gameplay. Players may revert to these rituals immediately before the clutch moment so as to stabilize cognitive and [somatic anxiety] in order to revert to their individual zone of optimal functioning. This type of self-control is what leads to the ability to excel in the clutch.
Cognitive behavioral therapy in sports
Hardy et al. (1996) researched the psychological preparation of elite athletes and found that "Cognitive-behavioral interventions are effective for the purposes of performance enhancement." A number of cognitive-behavioral therapies have since been incorporated into the field of athletics in order to help athletes self-regulate their anxiety during sporting events. One of the most common techniques used is mental visualization. Miguel Humara explains that ″Imagery and mental rehearsal of tasks are beneficial for the individual seeking to improve athletic performance. These tactics provide familiarity with the task at hand and also provide positive feedback of their imagined performance.″ Mental visualization allows elite athletes, who are consciously aware of his or her abilities, to complete the task more naturally and with higher coordination. Players are able to boost self-confidence by picturing themselves taking the shot, hitting, throwing, or catching the ball, etc. before the play actually occurs.
The situation presented here is ideal when a stoppage of play, such as a timeout, occurs directly before the clutch moment. The timeout situation allows coaches to make adjustments and call plays uniquely designed for late-game situations. Players have often simulated and successfully completed multiple repetitions of the shot or play in practices throughout the season and preseason. In team sports, the previous exposure to the situation at hand, even if only simulated, allows the group to understand the plan and act cohesively when executing. On the individual level, mental visualization enables a player, before action even resumes, to focus on the mechanics and techniques necessary to achieve a favorable outcome. The player may consider situational factors, such as a specific angle and motion to utilize or a speed at which he or she must accelerate. For Kobe Bryant, this may mean making sure that he extends his leg when shooting his signature fade away jumper.
Clutch situations are commonly defined from an offensive perspective, but clutch moments may also come in the form of defensive plays. Coaches of the defending team often use the tactic of calling one timeout immediately following another late-game timeout. The latter of the two is called after the players have entered into the playing area but before play resumes, allowing the coaching staff to see how the opposing team sets up their offense and giving them an opportunity to scheme a defensive tactic that gives their team the best opportunity to win. Teams then execute the gameplan and are sometimes able to make remarkable comebacks.
In the 2016 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament, the Texas A&M Aggies made an improbable comeback against the Northern Iowa Panthers. The Aggies’ defense forced four turnovers while their offense scored 14 points, all in less than 35 seconds. The 14-2 scoring run tied the game at the end of regulation, although the Aggies had only about a 1-in-3,333 chance of winning just 44 seconds of gameplay earlier. The game extended into double overtime where Texas A&M claimed a 99-88 victory over Northern Iowa.
Statistical Analysis has vastly improved with the evolution of technology. Today, computer software allows statisticians to track, analyze, and compare a broad range of statistics, even in terms of specific game situations. Sports organizations, such as the National Football League, have entire branches devoted to analytics. Sports analytic researchers use sports science to present data on optimal practice lengths and days of rests. During gameplay, they also communicate directly with the coaching staff to make game decisions based on present and potential situations, which can be especially important when determining the play call for the clutch play. Statistical analysis researchers are able to assess the current game situation given data from recent (within the same game) and historical (earlier in the season or in previous seasons) games. Researchers provide information pertaining to where specific players are most effective in a given situation, such as in the clutch. Therefore, they can provide coaches with empirical evidence for choosing certain plays and present them with the probability of alternative options. Statistical analysis helps to highlight the significance of clutch moments. ESPN's Sport Science Host, John Brenkus analyzes hundreds of moments, players, and performances in the world of sports. Players across a number of sports recreate sports circumstances in a lab-like setting. Sport Science simulates in-game situations in a lab-like setting and analyzes, from a scientific perspective, individual aspects of the player's performance, probability of success given the circumstances, and additional influencing factors.
- M. Otten (October 2009). "Choking vs. clutch performance: a study of sport performance under pressure". J Sport Exerc Psychol. 31 (5): 583–601. doi:10.1123/jsep.31.5.583. PMID 20016110.
- Humara, M. (1999). "The Relationship Between Anxiety and Performance: A Cognitive-Behavioral Perspective". Athletic Insight, 1(2).
- Yerkes, R. M.; Dodson, J. D. (1908). "The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. J. Comp. Neurol. Psychol". Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology. 18 (5): 459–482. doi:10.1002/cne.920180503.
- Kamata, A.; Tenenbaum, G.; Hanin, Y. (2002). "Determining the Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning by a Probabilistic Method". Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 34 (5): 84. doi:10.1097/00005768-200205001-01782.
- Hardy, L., Jones, G., & Gould, D. (1996). Understanding Psychological Preparation for Sport: Theory and Practice of Elite Performers. Wiley, Chichester.
- Paine, N. (2016). "Texas A&M Pulled Off a 1-in-3,00 Comeback". FiveThirtyEight.