Extreme Fear

Getting a grip on the brain's alarm system

The Science of Sports: Is There Such a Thing as a Clutch Performer?

The Science of Sports: Is There Such a Thing as a Clutch Performer?

In Slate today, writer Alan Siegal poses the burning question: "Is Kobe Bryant really the best clutch player in the NBA?" That is to say, does Bryant possess that ineffable quality, so highly prized among athletes, of being able to respond to the highest degree of pressure by pulling out the stops and performing at an even higher level of performance than usual? Which, as Siegel acknowledges, raises a corollary question: does such a quality even exist? A growing consensus among sports statisticians is that the answer is no, as attempts to identify clutch players based on their average performance under certain high-stress conditions (the last shot of a game, say) have so far come to naught. Writes Siegal,

The topic of "clutch" is a contentious one in sports. In baseball, the debate over clutch hitting has raged for decades, with sabermetricians arguing there's no evidence it's an actual skill and wizened baseball men claiming they've seen it with their own two eyes. In basketball, a sport that's been slower to embrace modern statistics, the fight over clutchness is in its relative infancy. Perhaps Kobe Bryant, then, will become the NBA's Derek Jeter: a player whom the media and the fans perceive as clutch despite a lack of statistical evidence to prove the case.

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The piece goes on to identify various statistical grapplings with the data before coming to the conclusion that, no, Bryant is not a masterful performer in the clutch, if indeed anyone is. But as the saying goes, an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. So allow me to address the topic from a different perspective: is clutch performance biologically plausible? That is, could the human brain be capable of responding to intense pressure by performing outstandingly?

In some regards, the answer is clearly yes. Gross-motor skills like running and punching improve steadily the greater the pressure; even when we're on the verge of death -- when, say, a bear is nipping at our heels -- the added intensity only pushes us to dig a little deeper. As I write in Extreme Fear, it's no coincidence that world records are often set at the Olympics, where the competition is fiercest and the stakes are highest.

With more refined, fine-motor skills, such as shooting a basketball or hitting a thrown ball, however, the picture is more complicated. For over a century, psychologists have recognized that the performance of complex skills improves with a certain amount of stress, but then declines if the stress increases further -- a relationship that can be plotted as an "inverse U" shape, also known as the Yerkes-Dodson curve. More recently, researchers have come to understand that under high stress -- such as one might experience in the final minutes of a close-fought NBA game -- performance can decline not smoothly, but catastrophically, a phenomenon known in sporting parlance as "choking," which I've written about before, and which indeed occupies a whole chapter of my book.

A clutch performance is essentially the opposite of choking -- the dramatic improvement of performance under pressure. According to psychologist Tim Woodman, "when people are low in cognitive anxiety, or low in worry, the difference between their best performance and their worst performance is not very big. They can perform pretty well, but it's not fantastic, and it's not crap. But if you put them in a very high-worry situation, like Olympic Games, what you find is that their best performance is significantly better than before and their worst performance is significantly worse. So what that tells you is that when you're under a very high-stress situation, you either perform very well or very badly."

The difference seems to be the amount of training that the person has. Like gross motor skills, very well learned skills seem to thrive under intense pressure. It's a phenomenon that has earned pilot David Rose numerous racing trophies -- and has saved his life. In 2003, Rose was flying his biplane at the Reno Air Races, roaring along at 250 mph about 80 feet off the ground, when suddenly his engine started to sputter. Rose knew the plane well -- he'd designed and built it himself -- and so he wasn't particularly worried until the cockpit suddenly filled with smoke. The prudent course of action would be to turn and head for an immediate emergency landing. But then again, prudent flying doesn't win you races. Instead, Rose nursed his stricken racer across the finish line and then turned back for the runway. He crossed the end of it going 170 mph over the numbers, and with a strong wind at his back. It was a potentially deadly situation, but Rose's decades of experience left him with a finely tuned sense of what he could get away with.

"There was no way I was going to get it stopped," he recalls, "so I radioed the control tower and said, "Roll the abulences, I'm never going to get this thing stopped." The plane rolled to the end of the runway and flipped over. "I came to rest upside down in my harness," says Rose. "I had a slight cut, a scratch a quarter of an inch long on my finger. It wasn't even bleeding."

That kind of performance can only be called clutch. So why can't statisticians find similar types of performance patterns among baseball and basketball players? The answer might be that team athletes are not performing in a vacuum. They're up against elite athletes who themselves are under the very same pressure. If everyone at the professional level is a clutch player, to some extent, then statistically it will seem as none of them are. Excellence pitted against excellence might yield something that looks a lot, in the crunching of numbers, like mediocrity.

 

Jeff Wise is a New York-based science writer and author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger.

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