What does it mean to be clutch?

Five seconds left. Down by one. You’re getting the ball. And everyone knows it. As the ref hands the ball to your teammate, you make your cut. You catch the ball cleanly. Four. The crowd starts to yell as you begin your assault. “Three!”. You make one more move to gain some space from your defender. “Two!” You jump and fire the ball towards the rim. “One!” There’s an eerie silence as the ball floats toward the rim. The buzzer sounds as the ball takes one hop on the rim before it falls through the hoop. The crowd explodes in applause. As you trot into the house, you are on top of the world.
As young athletes, this is what we aspire to be. The quintessential clutch shooter. The go-to-guy. When your team is down late, the ball is in your hands. Unfortunately, as we know, not everyone can be this player, so, there is always a battle for the position. If you manage to capture this spot, you must face the criticism when you lose in exchange for the praise when you win. But, in order to fully understand the situation, we must ask ourselves, what does it mean to be clutch?
Fans Perspective
As a fan, you are one of the most polarizing figures in the world of sports. When a clutch player makes their shot, you rave about how amazing it was. However, when they miss, you criticize and curse them until you swear they know what you’re saying. At times we will ponder: have they lost their edge? Will they ever be the same? We don’t look deeper than what just happened. So, in the fan’s eyes, the most clutch player is whoever gets the most attention for their makes and is able to minimize the attention for their misses.
Psychological Perspective
When looking at the subject from a psychological prospective, you hear the words “mental toughness” thrown around, and, as VCU’s guard Darius Theus said in an interview with Cliff Kirkpatrick, “mental toughness wins games”. But what is mental toughness? In a personal interview with Dr. Nicole LaVoi, mental toughness was defined as “performing at the top range of previous performance standards on command, regardless of the situation”. This definition opens up a whole new world to the clutch player. Who is the least affected? That is the question we must ask. Now, I’m not saying the player inbounding the ball is the most clutch player on the court, but we need to look at more than just the shooter to get the full picture. Was the shooter assisted? Was it one on one? Were they wide open or was the shot contested? We must look at each situation and the associated stats to understand the true meaning of the word clutch from a psychological perspective.
Where does that leave us?
With these two definitions in hand, we need to find the point where they meet. An equilibrium. You see, there are positives and negatives to both perspectives. From the fans perspective, you get to see each game in its entirety but, on the downside, you tend only remember the end result. From the psychologists point of view, you get hard data which can be decisive in proving a methodology. The problem that arises from this is, as Jeff Wise says, “excellence pitted against excellence might yield something that looks a lot, in the crunching of numbers, like mediocrity.” So the question we have to ask is where do they meet? I would argue that a clutch player is the athlete who remains consistent in tight situations over a long period of time. Most NBA players shoot under fifty percent. So, the notion that we should only look at clutch one game at a time is absurd. Being clutch is an ability. This means that we need to look at an entire body of work and not just the recent trends. So, in the end, the most clutch player is whoever remains the most statistically sound over the course of their career.


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