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The concept of clutch: Learning to thrive under pressure

June 16, 2012


Kevin “Iceberg-slim” Durant; statiscally the most clutch player in the NBA

What do Aliko Dangote, Kevin Durant, and Patrice Motsepe have in common besides wads of cash and crazy success? In his book, Clutch: Why Some People Excel under Pressure and Others Don’t, New York Times columnist Paul Sullivan argues that under extreme pressure, these dudes didn’t crack. In fact, they excelled. Drawing on years of experience of research and recent examples in the financial crisis, Sullivan takes a look at the traits that make people across various fields succeed highly under high-stress conditions, which he refers to as “clutch”, while others choke.

Think of it from a basketball game scenario. The score is tied up. A championship is on the line. Only a second is left on the clock. And your team is down by one. You favorite player steps up to the foul line dribbles the ball a couple of times, takes a breath and then – swish – sink the foul ball wins the championship. That’s clutch.

Or on the other hand, say your co-worker has been preparing a pitch presentation for a potentially huge client for months. On the day of the presentation, he gets sick and can’t do it. You then have step in and give the presentation instead. You only have a few hours to immerse yourself in the material. But come presentation time, you knock the socks off the client and close the deal. That’s clutch too.

Sullivan makes a point that clutch is not luck but rather an ability to do what you can do under normal conditions but even more so under extreme pressure. He goes further to define clutch as a combination of focus, adaptability, being present and a balance of fear and desire.

For me clutch is the opposite of choking, and choking is that inability to thrive on the big stage when it matters most. In this regard, think the Proteas, which is the South African senior men’s cricket team, who are synonymous to the chokers tag on the world stage, as the most talented cricketing team to have never won the world cup.

What prevents most people being clutch? A lot of this is not having the skills to start off with, and that speaks to preparation Sullivan argues.  But beyond that many of us also don’t focus. Focus on the thing you are doing and have the discipline to chart out the path to its accomplishment.

You can be a long-term senior manager at your company but if you don’t know how to negotiate well under pressure, you’re going to choke.

Many people think that being clutch in high-pressure situations is some sort of innate talent that some people have and others don’t, or that when someone pulled off something unlikely, it simply came down to luck. The reality is that with a little work and discipline, any of us can become more clutch.

The tactics you use to prevent choking under pressure vary upon the mission you’re trying to accomplish and particular mental faculties the task requires. Having said that and having looked at the various literature on the subject of clutch I can say the following can be done to become a clutch player or employee.

Distract yourself. If you’re lining up for a golf putt, distract yourself from the mechanics of your putt by counting backwards or singing..

Develop a mantra. Sports psychologists often counsel their athletes to develop a mantra they can repeat when the pressure is on. Mantras are just another way to keep you from over-thinking what you’re doing in a high-pressure situation. While preparing to give a speech for example you could use a mantra like “Relaxed and smooth,” as you step up to the podium.

Focus on the target, not your mechanics. Another tactic you can use to avoid paralysis by analysis is to focus on your target, instead of your mechanics. For example, when you’re going to give a speech, you don’t want to think about your approach, so you should rather focus on the subject.

Practice under pressure. Practice under the same conditions that you’ll face when you have to perform for real. While you can’t replicate the stress level of real-world situations in a practice setting, even training under mild stress can improve a person’s ability to thrive in clutch situations.

Stay humble. Remember. We’ve all seen examples where over-confidence in sports and business that have resulted in choking when the pressure was on. Over-confidence can kill your performance because it keeps you from striving to improve. If you want to be clutch, you need to strengthen your skills and prepare every day for those high-pressure moments. Stay hungry and humble.

Aliko Dangote; Worth $11.2 billion USD africa’s richest man says work ethic is the great equalizer

The evidence, scientific as well as anecdotal, seems overwhelmingly in favor of deliberate practice as the source of great clutch performance. Just one problem: How do you practice business? You may ask.

Many elements of business, in fact, are directly practicable. Presenting, negotiating, delivering evaluations, and deciphering financial statements – you can practice them all.

Still, they aren’t the essence of great managerial performance. That requires making judgments and decisions with imperfect information in an uncertain environment, interacting with people, seeking information – can you practice those things too? You can, though not in the way you would practice the violin.

Instead, it’s all about how you do what you’re already doing – you create the practice in your work, which requires a few critical changes. The first is going at any task with a new goal: Instead of merely trying to get it done, you aim to get better at it.

People who are great under pressure put a lot of work into it. Take the reigning NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant who is often lauded for the hours he puts into his shooting game. Clutch people are focused; they are disciplined and adaptable. But being great under pressure is something that you can lose. So the legends of their fields as in the Warren Buffets and Aliko Dangotes of this world still put in eighteen hour days to stay above the fray.


From → Hubris

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