Clutch Is Not Mental

One of the lines in Clutch that has gotten a bit of a chuckle from readers comes at Roger Clemens’ expense. I interviewed him in 2004 and walked away thinking: you can either have blond highlights in your hair or you can be an arrogant jerk, but you shouldn’t be allowed to have highlights and be a jerk. The anecdote was one of many illustrating the flaccid thinking behind claims that great athletes – and top performers – were mentally superior to the rest of us. I have met enough of them to know that isn’t the case.

Now come two sports pieces that make my point. In The New York Times, Larry Dorman writes about Matt Kuchar and how he has gone from being off the PGA Tour to the hottest player around in just four years. This quote, in particular, captures how the five traits of being clutch help make somebody better under pressure:

He had an objective in mind, and he was going to achieve that objective. When he was done practicing, he was going to be better.

In other words, he was focused, showed discipline, adapted when things went badly, and was always present. He was not thinking of his fall from grace or how great his comeback would be: he was just getting better.

In baseball, there is a story in the Wall Street Journal about Troy Tulowitzki, the short stop for the Colorado Rockies. It begins by quoting people who marvel at his ability under pressure. This type of hagiography is what I wrote against in my book. Being clutch is not the realm of the gods and has little to do with the mental toughness of the athlete. But midway through one of his coaches explains why Tulowitzki has always been so good coming down the stretch:

Ken Ravizza, who worked with Mr. Tulowitzki when he was a college player at Long Beach State, said the shortstop had a precocious ability to forget his failures, maintain control, and focus relentlessly on the next pitch. “It’s always been effortless for him,” Mr. Ravizza says.

And that’s clutch – it’s not the previous at-bat; it’s focus on what you’re doing now.

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