Extreme Fear

Getting a grip on the brain's alarm system

The Mystery of Clutch Performance

Is the Ability to Pull Out the Stops Under Pressure an Illusion?

A few days ago I was contacted by Mike Sielski, a Wall Street Journal reporter working on an article about New York Rangers hockey player Chris Drury. Drury hasn't been having a very good season, but in the past he was legendary for his ability to pull of amazing feats of athleticism just when his team needed it -- when the pressure was highest. Writes Sielski, in his piece which just went up today:

In Game 5 of the '07 Eastern Conference semifinals, as a member of the Buffalo Sabres, Drury scored a tying goal with less than eight seconds left in regulation against the Rangers, lifting a rebound over goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Buffalo won the game in overtime and the series in six games, and Lundqvist still remembers shattering his stick to pieces by slamming it against a wall after Drury's goal.

Sielski had called me to ask how it might be possible, in psychological terms, to account for such phenomenal feats of skill. I pointed out to him that my book Extreme Fear is pretty much geared to answering that question -- the book is framed around the mystery of how aerobatic pilot Neil Williams managed to figure out how to save his life when his plane's wing started to fall off at low altitude. The conclusion I reached in writing the book, I told Sielski, is that a person who is highly skilled in a particular domain can tap the automatic part of their brain to an astonishing degree even when under the sort of life-or-death pressure that shuts down the conscious mind. As Sielski quotes me in the article:

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In stressful situations, certain individuals with expertise in a given field-an elite ice hockey player, for example-"can make connections automatically and quickly and effortlessly in a way that might seem impossible," Jeff Wise, author of the book "Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger," said in a phone interview. "They're seeing the opportunity, the chance. They're able to play the odds in a way a less sophisticated person wouldn't. There is a kind of athletic intelligence that can emerge most powerfully in a clutch moment."

As a reporter myself, I fully understand the understand the necessity of keeping quotes short and to the point, so I never expected Sielski to include the caveats that I expressed over the phone -- above all, the fact that the issue of clutch performance in professional sports is a contentious issue, with some arguing that it doesn't exist at all. In his wonderfully entertaining book The Psychology of Baseball, Mike Stadler describes how sports statistician Dick Cramer argued that baseball players who had earned reputations as clutch hitters were actually only the beneficiaries of statistical anomalies:

Cramer [used] data from the 1969 and 1970 seasons to tackle the question of whether or not clutch hitting was a matter of luck, or a trait that some players had and some did not. Cramer reasoned that if there is some ability that players have in varying degreees to perform in the clutch, then clutch hitting out to be stable from one year to the next like other abilities (the number of home runs a player hits in one year is a pretty good predictor of the number that player will hit the next year). Of course, some luck would be involved, but there ought be some correlation between clutch performance from one year to the next. Cramer found that there was none; a player might be at the top of the list one year and at the bottom the next. A similar analysis around the same time yielded the same conclusion. There did not appear to be any stable ability for hitting in tight situations.

This analysis was, and is, controversial. Opponents of this view assert that (as Stadler quotes one saying) "the trends are undeniably apparent except to those who choose not to see." And even if Cramer's analysis is correct, it might only be that clutch performance isn't apparent because everyone on a major league team is of such high caliber that they're ALL engaging in clutch performance, and so canceling one another out.

I'm convinced that the latter argument is correct. There's no question that when pressure is intense, skilled performers are able to tap abilities that are otherwise kept in reserve. In my book, I describe the work of research psychologist Gary Klein, who conducted a study of expert and intermediate chess players engaged in blitz-style tournament, in which they were allowed only an average of six seconds per move. Under this time pressure, the intermediates made twice as many bad moves as when they were allowed several minutes per move - whereas the experts actually made slightly fewer.

Klein went on to explore how expert decision-makers functioned under even more intense stress. He interviewed the fire-fighting commanders who had spent years battling potentially deadly blazes, and found that, when faced problems like how to get a team into a burning building, they did not consciously deliberate between the pros and cons of various possible options. Instead, they instantly matched the situation to the one most similar in store of accumulated experience, and chose a solution accordingly.

This kind of strategy has been dubbed "satisficing," because it results not in the absolute best conceivable answer, but one whose speed makes up for its shortcomings. "The commander... never seems to decide anything," Klein writes. "Even when faced with a complex situation, [he] could see it as familiar and know how to react." If the plan turned out not to be very good, he would simply summon a new strategy in response to the evolving situation. The whole process happens so automatically that one commander that Klein talked to was convinced that he had ESP.

Like master-level chess, then, expertly fighting fires requires a rich store of past experience, organized into a deep intuitive understanding. So does playing sports at a professional level. And that, I think, is the truth behind clutch performance.

 

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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