The Psychology of Pressure and “Clutch” in Sports

If you dig into sports writing and analysis, you will hear the words “pressure” and “clutch” used all the time. Analysts love to debate the hypothesized effects of pressure of the situation on athletes’ performance, whether it is the deciding game of a playoff series, the potential game-tying shot in a game, or the bottom of the 9th in a close ball game. Going hand-in-hand with pressure is the idea of clutch, which holds that some athletes have the ability to resist the pressure of tense situations and either perform up to expectations, or even supposedly exceed their normal ability and perform better in pressure situations. There’s even statistical metrics devoted to clutch ability in the pursuit of a way to define what being clutch means. Clutch is debated like a personality trait, in that analysts and fans posit that some athletes have it and some athletes just don’t have it in their DNA. So what’s the psychology surrounding this?

One of many ways to try to heap pressure on athletes

To understand pressure and clutch, we should turn to the Social Facilitation/Inhibition literature. The idea behind pressure impacting performance comes from early studies about performing tasks in front of other people. In these studies, the way other people’s presence would affect your performance would depend on the tasks you were performing; intellectual tasks were difficult, physical tasks were easier, new tasks were harder, familiar tasks were easier. It was theorized that arousal was the key factor here; others’ presence would physiologically arouse the subject, which would make the dominant response (things learned well and accessible) easier to undertake. So the more aroused you were, the easier dominant responses would be.

Billiards skills interacted with pressure

Michaels et al., (1982) tested the effect of arousal on performance on pool players. Michaels found that good players made more shots in front of people compared to in front of no one, while bad players did worse in front of people than when alone. This makes sense when applied to pro sports, as professional athletes who are very good at what they do and very skilled should do better than the average non-athlete when put in front of people. But within that subset of professional athletes, are some better in front of people than others?

Looking at a study by Otten (2009), we see some evidence for being clutch, albeit in non-professional athletes. Otten had college undergraduates shoot 15 basketball free-throws, first without any sort of pressure at all. After that initial round, he told the students that they were going to be video-taped for the purpose of studying the effects of pressure on their performance, and additionally, that a psychology class would be viewing the video (which wasn’t actually true). After that, all the participants completed a battery of measures, including anxiety and self-focus measures, among others. Otten created a model using the various measures to understand what exactly contributed to performance under pressure, and found that perceived control (in relation to the task/sport) was the only significant predictor of performance under pressure.

These results would suggest that if there is something such as being clutch, it is related to feeling in control when you are playing a sport. So maybe being clutch isn’t some personality trait and isn’t part of a “have it/don’t have it” dichotomy. Rather, it might be tied in to the athlete’s mindset, the degree to which they feel mastery of the task and that they control the task. So perhaps clutch can be trained; maybe we can coach athletes to always try to maintain a sense of control over their sport in the face of pressure. But for now, what exactly makes up the supposed quality of being clutch is not completely realized and begs for more research.

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