What is the psychological state underlying “clutch performance” – excelling under pressure?

Images From The Book "In The Moment' - By Tom Jenkins
With 26 seconds left on the clock, Jonny Wilkinson scores the winning drop goal in the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final

By guest blogger Bradley Busch

Pressure does interesting things to an athlete. For some, it leads to an increase in tension, nerves and anxiety. Others are able to channel this increased pressure into running faster, jumping higher and throwing further. What strategies do these “big game players” use to raise their game under heightened pressure – known as a “clutch performance”?

In the Journal of Sports Sciences, researchers from Australia and England recently reported the results of their interviews with sixteen athletes from around the world just a few days after they had delivered an excellent sporting performance in a competition when under pressure. The findings represent a step forward in our understanding of expert and skilled performances, showing how clutch performance is similar to, but distinct from, the related concept of “flow”.

Christian Swann at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and his colleagues interviewed 16 athletes (5 women and 11 men, with an average age of 27) who came from a range of team and individual sports that included a Rugby World Cup Winner from New Zealand, a professional tennis player competing at Wimbledon, and an Olympic badminton player. The researchers asked the athletes to describe their recent outstanding performance in as much detail as possible, including what they were thinking and feeling at the time.

Analysis of the interviews revealed that there were twelve characteristics that underpinned a clutch performance. Six were similar to the state of flow, which is when performance feels effortless and skill set perfectly matches performance demands. These flow-like characteristics included: being fully absorbed in the task to the point that they were unaware of the crowd; high levels of confidence; a sense of control over their performance and the situation; enhanced motivation to succeed; enjoying it just enough (but not too much); and being fully alert. Some of the athletes even reported that time felt like it slowed down, and having a hazy memory of the event. These findings suggest that flow and clutch performances do overlap and are not completely distinct from one another.

However, six characteristics of the clutch state were distinct from flow. Whereas flow describes a gradual build-up of confidence and a feeling of effortlessness, other dimensions of clutch performances included: deliberate focus on the task at hand; having intense effort over a period of time (often characterised by not holding anything back); heightened self-awareness of what they were thinking and feeling at the time; high arousal levels; automaticity of skills; and the absence of negative thoughts about perceived consequences if they failed.

Previously, expert performance has been viewed as largely automatic and dependent on an athlete not overthinking. The new results suggest that although this may be one avenue to heightened performance, it is not the only one. The interviewed athletes recalled raising their game through high levels of self-monitoring and making a conscious effort to raise performance.

Many of the strategies underpinning clutch performance, such as deliberate focus, high arousal levels, and confidence, are malleable; that is to say that they can be taught, learnt and developed. Knowledge of these findings could be very useful for athletes, coaches and practitioners working with them. Central to this will be exploring when is the best time for athletes to relax and “let it happen”, and, conversely, when to consciously try harder “to make it happen”.

This study relied on athletes self-reporting their thoughts, feelings and strategies employed under pressure during a competition several days after the event. Although steps were taken within this study to improve accuracy, such as follow-up interviews, there are still obvious limitations with this approach including self-reporting biases and the limitations of memory.

Most people need to perform under pressure at some stage in their life, be it in public speaking, academic exams, or working closely to a deadline. How much can these new findings be applied to these settings? The researchers urge a bit of caution, as this is still somewhat unknown. They stress that for now it is “important to avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach to expert performance. There may be some underlying principles that can be transferred, but knowing which ones will probably rely on knowledge of both the task at hand and the person who has to execute the skill. The mysteries of performance excellence under pressure in non-sporting domain promises to be an exciting area for psychologists to continue to research over the coming years.

Performing under pressure: Exploring the psychological state underlying clutch performance in sport

Image: Jonny Wilkinson of England kicks the winning drop-goal against Australia in the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final at the Telstra Stadium on November 22nd 2003 in Sydney, Australia (Photo by Tom Jenkins/Getty Images). An image from the book ‘In The Moment’ published June 2012

Bradley BuschPost written by Bradley Busch (@Inner_Drive) for the BPS Research Digest. Bradley is a registered psychologist and director of InnerDrive. He has worked with Premiership and International footballers and is the author of Release Your InnerDrive

7 thoughts on “What is the psychological state underlying “clutch performance” – excelling under pressure?”

  1. Clutch phenomena arises out of the need to prove, to win, to be good, better, best at something, whereas in the “flow” state one is a “winner” already, no one is a loser all are winners of contentment! No one’s out there to prove anything when in “flow”~

  2. Not this again! Jonny Wilkinson was under no pressure whatsoever. Advantage was being played so the dropgoal was a no lose option. The author’s credibility is in question, as he obviously does not have a clue about the subject matter.

    1. How you can possibly argue that Jonny Wilkinson was under no pressure in that situation beats me, but for the record, the editor chose the image, not the author of this piece.

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