Clutch: Excel Under Pressure

Image of Clutch: Excel Under Pressure
Release Date: 
January 30, 2012
Reviewed by: 

Although there are many other fields in which it matters, sports is probably the most obvious and most widely recognized area of human endeavor in which clutch performance is observed, studied, and appreciated. The athlete who can hit the winning shot, make the winning choice, deliver the winning performance is greatly admired, universally envied, and often financially rewarded in great measure.

So there are few people who will take Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Others Don’t, by Paul Sullivan, as their first introduction to the topic. The author himself claims that, “Long before I sat across from Tiger Woods, or even contemplated writing this book, clutch performers fascinated me.” He claims, in fact, to be a clutch performer, at least in the halls of academe.

So how and why he was able to miss the mark so widely, so thoroughly, may itself be a study in clutch.

Part of the problem here, as in so many misguided ventures, is a failure to conceptualize correctly at the outset. Sullivan defines “clutch” as “the ability to do what you can do normally under immense pressure.”

Think about that for a moment. Under immense pressure, your favorite slugger strikes out, your favorite basketball player clanks one off the rim, your favorite wide receiver drops a pass, your favorite striker heads the ball into the crossbar or wide of the goal. That’s what they do normally in a great many situations, and none of that is particularly clutch. Sullivan has settled for an inaccurate definition of clutch performance, and it throws off much of the book that follows.

To be fair, Sullivan gets it right when he states that part of performing well in clutch situations is remaining calm, staying in control, thinking clearly, exhibiting resilience and flexibility, and making good decisions. But hitting .300 in clutch situations is not clutch performance. Neither is watching your opponent mess up and de facto allow you an easy trip to the winner’s circle. So any definition that says it is, as Sullivan’s does, must be wanting.

In fact, it’s obvious to most of us who enjoy clutch performances that what really marks clutch performers is their ability to excel when the pressure goes up, to respond to difficult situations with better-than-normal performance, to get the job done when nobody else would likely be able to.

That’s one of the things that make stories of human excellence—whether in sports, business, the courtroom, or war—so attractive and exciting: When there’s no room for errors, clutch performers don’t make errors. When they have one and only one chance to get it right, they get it right. When the stakes are high and a single misstep will result in disaster, they step precisely and correctly. Clutch performers generally do better when the pressure is on. Not the same as normal. Better.

Ask your friends. To millions of us who have watched clutch performances over the years, except Sullivan, clutch involves extraordinary performance under extraordinary pressure.

Sullivan is aware of such great performances, and describes many of them in this book. But he argues that some of these great performances result from luck, and that’s not good enough for him. “However great these plays were,” he writes, of performances that he tells us fall short of being clutch, “they relied on a good deal of luck. They were remarkable, but they were not clutch.”

I’m not sure that’s fair. Luck itself may come from the gods, but there’s no doubt that the harder some people work, they luckier they get. At a crucial juncture, instead of educating us as to why he believes that certain extraordinary performances don’t rate as clutch, Sullivan simply restates his original (wrong) definition. Mr. Sullivan, that’s not clutch.

Although he’s wrong, Sullivan disguises it well. As you would expect from a seasoned reporter, Sullivan assembles impressive sources and data, laying them out carefully for our ease of understanding. According to his sources, for example, clutch performance involves focus, discipline, adapting, staying present, and proper channeling of both fear and desire. He devotes an entire chapter to each of these. Yet because he misses the obvious consideration that clutch performance is not merely ordinary, but extraordinary, Sullivan’s analysis of what makes for clutch performance is ultimately lame. Although the book is littered with examples of performers who delivered much more than normal results in pressure-filled, no-second-chance situations, Sullivan apparently fails to see the essence of his own material. It’s as if a guidebook to the Grand Canyon talks about the river, but says nothing of the rocky chasms it carved.

In service of a faulty analysis, his examples—and the book is replete with them—are skewed. For example, Sullivan lays out for us at great length how David Boies, representing the federal government in a landmark case against Microsoft, delivered a clutch performance in his handling of the case and in particular his questioning of Bill Gates. But what Sullivan actually describes, quite explicitly, is a simple case of a prosecuting attorney making a good choice of legal strategy, and a defense attorney (or to be fair, a legal defense team) who botched it. He goes to similar lengths, getting things similarly wrong, with the high-finance case of AIG against SICO, with Steven Cohen’s success as head of SAC Capital Advisors, with Marine Sergeant Willie Copeland’s bravery under fire, with Secret Service Agent Christopher Falkenberg’s skill at protecting candidate-for-President Bill Clinton, and with others.

Sullivan proudly plies us with stories that demonstrate not so much clutch as winning performances. He runs down all the good things that winners do to earn their victories: they prepare, they work hard, they focus, and so forth. But he seems blind to the simple fact that none of these are enough to make for a clutch performance. Sullivan doesn’t include the information, but there’s every reason to believe the losing sides in his examples prepared just as thoroughly, worked just as hard, and focused just as intently as the winner. Whether or not any of them delivered a clutch performance goes unreported here.

Of course, the book isn’t entirely off the mark. Sullivan writes eloquently, for example, about the need to ignore the magnitude of the situation, the stakes, or the glory that will come from winning. That’s all true. But if it leads only to another ordinary performance, that result can easily be overshadowed by the extraordinary performance of another person who is truly great in the clutch.

Early on, Sullivan tries to set the mood for his analysis by offering four descriptions of specific sports moments, asking us if we can spot which of them are clutch. At this point, to this reviewer, his narrative has already gone off the rails. For example, one of the four descriptions—one that doesn’t measure up, according to Sullivan—concerns the unforgettable 1988 World Series play in which Kirk Gibson came up to bat with two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning, his Dodgers team losing, 4 runs to 3. Barely able to walk as a result of injuries to both legs, Gibson was also weakened by a stomach virus. He stood in against Hall of Fame fastball pitcher Dennis Eckersley, who was at that time the most dominant closer in baseball, and who confidently reared back and fired his hardest stuff at the plate. Gibson worked the count to full and fouled off a couple of additional fastballs, then hit the next pitch into the stands for a game-winning home run, after which he was barely able to hobble around the bases. That, Mr. Sullivan, is a textbook example of a classic clutch performance.

If you can’t see that, you need more research.