Many behavioral economists and stat crunchers decry the notion that “clutch” players exist. Here is an excerpt from Dan Ariely’s The Upside of Irrationality:
Clutch players are paid much more than other players, and are presumed to perform especially brilliantly during the last few minutes or seconds of a game, when stress and pressure are highest.
With the help of Duke University men’s basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski (“Coach K”), we got a group of professional coaches to identify clutch players in the NBA (the coaches agreed, to a large extent, about who is and who is not a clutch player). Next, we watched videos of the twenty most crucial games for each clutch player in an entire NBA season (by most crucial, we meant that the score difference at the end of the game did not exceed three points). For each of those games, we measured how many points the clutch players had shot in the last five minutes of the first half of each game, when pres- sure was relatively low. Then we compared that number to the number of points scored during the last five minutes of the game, when the outcome was hanging by a thread and stress was at its peak. We also noted the same measures for all the other “nonclutch” players who were playing in the same games.
We found that the non-clutch players scored more or less the same in the low-stress and high-stress moments, whereas there was actually a substantial improvement for clutch players during the last five minutes of the games. So far it looked good for the clutch players and, by analogy, the bankers, as it seemed that some highly qualified people could, in fact, per- form better under pressure.
But—and I’m sure you expected a “but”—there are two ways to gain more points in the last five minutes of the game. An NBA clutch player can either improve his percentage success (which would indicate a sharpening of performance) or shoot more often with the same percentage (which suggests no improvement in skill but rather a change in the number of attempts). So we looked separately at whether the clutch players actually shot better or just more often. As it turned out, the clutch players did not improve their skill; they just tried many more times. Their field goal percentage did not increase in the last five minutes (meaning that their shots were no more accurate); neither was it the case that non- clutch players got worse.
At this point you probably think that clutch players are guarded more heavily during the end of the game and this is why they don’t show the expected increase in performance. To see if this were indeed the case, we counted how many times they were fouled and also looked at their free throws. We found the same pattern: the heavily guarded clutch players were fouled more and got to shoot from the free-throw line more frequently, but their scoring percentage was unchanged. Certainly, clutch players are very good players, but our analysis showed that, contrary to common belief, their performance doesn’t improve in the last, most important part of the game.
Seems convincing, and here is another take on the issue with the same conclusion in a different sport.
But I don’t buy it, or at least not all of it.
I am willing to believe that my own personal emotional perception can influence what I think of hard data, but it’s also my own experience. I grew up playing baseball and there were times when I wanted to be at the plate in crunch time and times when I hoped that the guy in front of me would win the game and spare me the agony. The expected results often followed my attitude. Of course, those times tended to be when I was having a good or bad season, respectively. But the pressure definitely seemed to heighten my expectation of success or failure, and surely this had something to do with my performance. Perhaps the key variable is pressure, not performance.
But aside from sports, can “clutch” exist in generals?
Washington only won three battles in the Revolutionary War, but he won them at the right time. The Battle of Trenton seems something like hitting two foul shots to send the game into overtime. Yorktown was perhaps not as crucial, but still similar in the timing and result. Pressure brought out the best in Washington.
By contrast, the British general surely had less to play for in the Revolutionary War. They had the best army on paper, not just against the colonies but throughout Europe and perhaps the world. Yet they had no “clutch” performances, perhaps because pressure did not draw it out of them. Winning and losing meant much less to them compared to the colonists.
My point is that pressure reveals something about us. It does not always reveal something “good” or “bad” about us, but with the testing comes opportunity.