Despite falling short in this year's Masters, Tiger Woods put on a heroic performance in the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month, winning the event on a surgically repaired knee. At this point in sports culture, when you think clutch, you have to think of Tiger first, and everybody else second.
But what exactly makes someone "clutch?" What makes someone able to to perform under intense stress? Why do some make the cut, and others, well, don't?
I spoke with my friend Chris Carr, who's a Sports Psychologist at Saint Vincent's Hospital in Indianapolis, IN, to figure that out. Here's some of his notes:
He defines clutch as "someone else's description of an optimal performance when it counted. A key to being a clutch performer is the self-belief that you are able to execute your performance anywhere and anytime, regardless of the external distractions."
So, clutch would not be Reggie Miller complaining about Spike Lee bothering him on the court. Clutch would be Miller's ability to block that out and perform, regardless of all the trash talk. Check out Miller's legendary performance in Game 5 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals here.
Carr also explained that elite athletes often psyche themselves up. "They use their mental preparation strategies such as self-talk and imagery to prepare for great moments."
He concludes that sticking to a mental training plan will help you be more clutch in your own situations.
So, basically, visualization is key. I spoke with Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas way back when, before he was as injury-plagued as he's been, and he mentioned that he actually practices taking the last shot, so he can get used to that kind of pressure.
"When we play pick-up games, I won't shoot the ball until it's the last shot. I will sit there and we'll play the game, and when it's time for the game-winner, I'm the only one who's going to take it all the way until we lose, or we win. So if it takes me four shots, that's the only time I'm going to shoot it. I'm going to shoot the last one. I've been doing that for the last three years."
Take Carlos Beltran, NY Mets centerfielder. In 2006, Beltran came up in the bottom of the ninth in the seventh game of the NLCS and, obviously, the pennant on the line. Mets fans still have trouble wrapping their head around the fact that Beltran struck out looking on a curve ball. Why wouldn't he take a cut? Was he just not in the moment?
It's very possible.