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How to reach clutch performance in sport

How to reach clutch performance in sport

5 min read
  • Sport psychology

Choking, which means delivering a sub-optimal performance under pressure, is an athlete’s nightmare. Performing to a far lower standard than you usually do at a time when it really counts can have really negative consequences.

The ultimate goal, however, is the opposite of choking: clutch performance. This is when your performance actually improves under pressuring circumstances. So, how do you reach that goal? We explored the research…

So, what do we know about clutch performance?

There is a lot of research that supports the occurrence of clutch plays and clutch performance. Researchers have looked at the effects of performance pressure on the putting movements of expert golfers. Although they were all experts, the golfers’ response to pressure varied significantly. Three of them increased their number of errors, which researchers labeled as choking. Three increased their putting performance by making less errors – a clutch performance. The rest of the golfers showed no significant difference under the effect of pressure.

However, there have been questions raised over whether clutch performance could actually be a myth. This is mainly due to the research lacking statistical evidence. There are also issues in how we measure, conceptualise and define clutch performance. But this does not necessarily make this a myth.

The clutch performer has been traditionally conceptualised and measured within literature as an athlete who statistically increases their performance during pre-identified situations used to represent pressure. Rethinking what characteristics constitute a clutch performer however, could change whether we consider clutch performers a myth or reality.

Characteristics of a clutch performer

A clutch performer:

  • Moves away from focusing solely on performance outcomes to display more willingness to take a shot, regardless of the outcome.
  • Displays mental toughness, which has been associated with more frequent and longer clutch states. Mental toughness refers to the behaviours and attitudes that lead to athletes getting better and performing to their full potential. 
  • Places more importance on the process than the outcome.

Rethinking clutch performance in this way may also be beneficial for coaches, as working on an athlete’s performance process is much more achievable and controllable than changing their overall performance outcomes.

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So, how can you achieve clutch performance?

Increase your confidence

Confidence plays a key role in the occurrence of clutch performance. Athletes can use the past, the present and the future to help them improve their confidence. Here are some ways to do this…

  • Use the past to remind yourself of previous success and of your preparation. Another way to do this is to aim for a successful warm-up and early-game form as this has been associated with increased confidence during clutch performances. Therefore, coaches should consider using warm-up drills that the athlete will likely be successful at, and focus on highlighting previous successes prior to performance.
  • Talk to yourself in a positive, helpful and energised way. The research suggests athletes should use phrases that are positive and approach-focused (e.g., “I want to win”) rather than negative and avoidance-focused.
  • Use visualisation to picture yourself being successful. Recreating images of successful performances in one’s mind has been reported as a source of confidence prior to clutch performances.
  • Know that setbacks today can help you develop skills needed for tomorrow. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, it’s a natural part of the learning process. Use it as motivation to succeed, rather than collecting reasons why you can’t do it.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff – it is easy under those high pressure moments to blow things out of proportion, but this can stop you from seeing things clearly. Focusing on the stuff that really matters can help improve your confidence.

Get to the right level of perceived control

Perceived control refers to the perception of one’s capacities to be able to cope and attain goals under stress. This may not actually refer to the amount of actual control someone has, but rather the perception they have of control.

You can increase your perceived control by focusing on the process rather than the outcome. This is described as “controlling the controllables”. Evidence has shown that concentrating on the task or process facilitates clutch performances.

As an athlete, you should think about the process and what you want to achieve when you are performing. Getting emotional and focusing on the outcome can throw you off and lead to a drop in performance.

Two ways stay focused on the process is to:

  • Ask yourself: “what do I need to do to play at my best?”
  • Focus on your strengths. Remind yourself of what you are good at and use this.

Change your outlook

Clutch performance and choking often occur under the same circumstances. Therefore, it has been suggested that this outcome is determined by the psychological response/appraisal of that pressure.

The research suggests that athletes should view pressure situations as a challenge rather than a threat, as this can help lead to a clutch performance.

In order to develop an accurate appraisal of your skills, you need a growth mindset, which is the belief that you have the capacity to improve, helping you seek out and value feedback.

Other ways to ensure you are appraising situations as a challenge are to:

  • Develop a high level of self-efficacy by using the tips outlined above for confidence;
  • Ensure you have a sense of perceived control.

Practise performing under pressure

Evidence suggests that practicing under pressure may facilitate clutch performances.

For example, research has found that simulating pressure situations in training offered an opportunity for athletes to practice their coping strategies and executing skills under pressure. This subsequently was considered to facilitate clutch performance.

When implementing pressure training, coaches should think about the environment as well as how the pressure is manipulated. They need to create an environment that is facilitative, which can be done by having a strong coach-athlete relationship and encouragement when making mistakes.

It’s also important for athletes to develop a growth mindset, whereby they know that making mistakes is an opportunity to learn.

Some ways to create a pressurised environment include:

  • Reward contingency, which involves giving rewards or punishments based on the level of performance.
  • Having an audience.
  • Creating competition with others.
  • Situations whereby the athlete only has one shot (e.g., knockout tournaments).

Final thoughts

The idea of athletes being able to increase their performance during the most pressurised moments in sport is an appealing concept to both athletes and coaches.

Therefore, it’s important to be aware of some of the ways to increase your chances of creating a clutch performance. Increasing confidence, having the right level of perceived control, appraising your skills with a challenge mindset and practicing under pressure will all help lead to a clutch performance.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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