In American sports terminology, "clutch" means performing well under extreme pressure. It often refers to high levels of production in a critical game, such as Game 7 of a best-of-seven series, the last hole of a Major Championship golf tournament, or the final minute(s) in a close match. Being "clutch" is often seen by sportswriters and fans as an innate skill which some players have while others do not. The term "clutch" is also using in modern first person shooter games, usually in tactical game modes where the survivor of a team kills the remaining enemy team by himself.
A "clutch" athlete is one who performs well in pivotal or high pressure situations. This includes many instances where a good performance means the difference between a win and a loss. Being on many championship teams (preferably with different franchises, or in different seasons with different teammates) seems to help a player's reputation for being clutch, but it is no guarantee in and of itself. Seizing upon one's opportunities in pressure situations is the common thread among all "clutch" players, though, as a player's poor past performance will be forgotten if he/she can make one big play under pressure. Of course, the opposite of being "clutch" is being a "choker," or one who is, by definition, never clutch, a player doomed to fail in any and all pressure-packed situations.
Some sports analysts have presented evidence that while individual plays and moments may resonate as "clutch" because of their importance, there is no such thing as "clutch ability" or an inherently clutch player. One example of such an argument is presented in the 2006 book Baseball Between the Numbers published by Baseball Prospectus, which compiles evidence that no baseball players are demonstrably consistently clutch over the course of a career, and that the numbers of allegedly clutch players in clutch situations are in fact no different from players reputed to be "chokers."
The Baseball Prospectus team is hardly alone in their skepticism: various baseball analysts, including Bill James, Pete Palmer, and Dick Cramer, have similarly found so-called "clutch hitting" ability to be a myth. This is not to say that clutch hits, like those listed below, do not exist, but rather that any innate ability to perform well in high-pressure situations is an illusion. In his 1984 Baseball Abstract, James framed the problem with clutch hitting thusly: "How is it that a player who possesses the reflexes and the batting stroke and the knowledge and the experience to be a .260 hitter in other circumstances magically becomes a .300 hitter when the game is on the line? How does that happen? What is the process? What are the effects? Until we can answer those questions, I see little point in talking about clutch ability." Most studies on the matter involved comparing performance in the "clutch" category of statistics (production with runners in scoring position, performance late in close games, etc.) between seasons; if clutch hitting were an actual skill, it would follow that the same players would do well in the clutch statistics year in and year out (the correlation coefficient between players' performances over multiple seasons would be high). Cramer's study was the first of its kind, and it found that clutch hitting numbers between seasons for the same player varied wildly; in fact, the variance was the kind one would expect if the numbers had been selected randomly. Since Cramer published his results, many others have tried to find some evidence that clutch hitting is a skill, but almost every study has confirmed Cramer's initial findings: that "clutch hitting," in terms of certain players being able to "rise to the occasion" under pressure, is an illusion.
The explanation offered by most skeptics is that players who have several memorable hits in big games, especially early in their careers, acquire the mantle of "clutch hitter," and fans then unconsciously watch for such hits in the future from those players in particular, falsely reinforcing their beliefs over time. Despite the evidence, many people in baseball steadfastly believe in the idea of the clutch hitter. Derek Jeter once told Sports Illustrated after SI reported to the Yankees shortstop that many analysts deny clutch hitting as a skill, "You can take those stat guys and throw them out the window."
In many cases, a simple review of statistics debunks the notion that certain players are "clutch" performers. Baseball's Reggie Jackson has long been known as "Mr. October" because of his alleged ability to elevate his game in the post-season. A look at his post-season statistics is instructive. In 281 post-season at-bats, Jackson batted .278 with 18 homers and 48 RBIs. Extrapolated, that would mean 36 homers and 96 RBIs in a full season, which is approximately what we would expect from Jackson in a typical season. The numbers suggest that Reggie Jackson was not a "clutch" performer but a very solid player who performed about the same in the regular season and the post-season.
Similarly, despite his reputation as a "money pitcher," Jack Morris had a post-season E.R.A. of 3.80, almost exactly the same as his career 3.90 E.R.A. in the regular season. And Derek Jeter, supposedly a "clutch" hitter, has batted .314 in the post-season, almost the same as his career .317 average in the regular season.
The Great Ones
Some athletes with alleged great focus and mental strength are notable for their clutch performances, even though their "regular season" (or the equivalent thereof) performance is equally good; for example, Tiger Woods in golf, Michael Jordan, Jerry West, Hakeem Olajuwon, John Havlicek, Larry Bird, Reggie Miller, Chauncey Billups, Kobe Bryant, and Dirk Nowitzki in basketball, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, Andre Ethier, John Smoltz and Reggie Jackson in baseball, Pete Sampras (and, more recently, Rafael Nadal) in tennis; Werner Schlager in table-tennis; Romario, Zidane, Xavi Hernandez, Samuel Eto'o, Lionel Messi and Steven Gerrard in soccer, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher in Formula 1, Jonny Wilkinson in Rugby Union, and have all been labeled "clutch" during their careers for performing at a high level in high pressure situations, despite the fact that they (basically) always played that way. Former NBA great Jerry West had such a high reputation as a clutch player that he was given the nickname, "Mr. Clutch." In ice hockey, few players have had as much success in the regular season as goaltender Patrick Roy, but it was in the playoffs that Roy was at his best, winning 3 Conn Smythe Trophies (a feat no other player has accomplished), as well as leading his teams to 4 Stanley Cups and being the record holder for wins in post-seasons. Roy is considered by most as the best goaltender in ice hockey history because of his outstanding tenure in the postseason. Martin Brodeur is quickly gaining recognition as a great clutch player due to his consistency in both the regular season and post season. His performance in shootouts also speaks volumes for his abilities under pressure. NFL players like Joe Montana and Tom Brady, neither blessed with the athleticism and arm strength of "prototype" quarterbacks like Dan Marino, came up big when their respective teams, the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots, needed them in the Super Bowl or in any other big game. Neither Brady nor Montana have put up the stats Marino (who lost his only Super Bowl appearance to Montana) did in his career, but they have 7 Super Bowl wins between them (Montana 4, Brady 3). "Possession" Wide Receivers such as Ricky Proehl, Keyshawn Johnson, Hines Ward, and Troy Brown are known to be "clutch." Kickers are commonly exalted for their clutch play as well: former Patriot (and as of this writing, current Indianapolis Colts kicker), Adam Vinatieri has been called the "greatest clutch kicker ever" on the basis of (essentially) five kicks: game-winning field goals in Super Bowl XXXVI and Super Bowl XXXVIII, a 47 yard game winning field goal in frigid weather against Tennessee in the 2004 playoffs, and two others in the 2002 Divisional Playoffs against the Oakland Raiders (in a major snowstorm, no less): one which tied the game, and another in overtime to seal a victory. However, those were not his only clutch kicks: Vinatieri kicked 20 game-winners for New England in his career.
The average ones who "raise their games" dramatically in the clutch
Still others have based their entire careers around the perception of being "clutch." "Big Shot Rob" Robert Horry (who has now won 7 NBA Championships) has practically admitted to coasting during the NBA's regular season, but always ends up doing something amazing in the playoffs. First, he helped the Houston Rockets win two NBA crowns in the mid-1990's. Then, while with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2002, Horry helped bury the Sacramento Kings by nailing an improbable buzzer-beater to win Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. In 2005, Horry drilled 5 3-pointers in the 4th Quarter and overtime (including one with 5.8 seconds left in the extra period) of Game 5 of the NBA Finals, giving the San Antonio Spurs a crucial win over the Detroit Pistons. In 2007, Horry was a role player on yet another NBA championship team, as the Spurs captured the title in a 4-game sweep over Cleveland.
At the same time, skeptics note that, over his career, Robert Horry has hit 36.3% of his 3-point shot attempts in the post-season. Horry's career 3-point shot percentage is almost exactly the same. Hence, while Horry has hit some very memorable shots in important games, he has not "elevated" his performance in the post-season. Rather, he has performed in the post-season just as he always has in the regular season.
Steve Kerr is another NBA player who, while not a superstar by any stretch of the imagination, always seemed to be in the middle of big playoff moments. In 1997, it was Kerr who took the pass from Michael Jordan and made the game-winning shot in Game Six of the NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz, giving the Bulls back-to-back championships. In the last minute of Game 2 of the 1998 Finals, Kerr missed a 3 point shot but grabbed his own rebound and dished to Michael Jordan, who scored a layup that helped the Bulls even the series at 1-1. Chicago would go on to win another championship that year, thanks in part to Kerr's efforts. In 1999, Kerr helped the San Antonio Spurs win the franchise's first-ever title, and in the 2003 playoffs Kerr made four critical three-pointers in the final minutes of Game Six of the Spurs' Western Conference Finals series against the Dallas Mavericks, keying their victory. That same season, Kerr and San Antonio would go on to win the NBA championship over New Jersey.
Los Angeles Lakers Derek Fisher is also known for his clutchness, one of his greatest clutch moments is in game 4 of the 2009 NBA finals where he hit a 3-pointer to tie the game in 4th quarter and a 3-pointer that won the game in overtime
Claude Lemieux seems to be ice hockey's version of Horry and Kerr, winning four Stanley Cups with three different teams in the 1990s and early 2000s (including one Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP). Dwayne Roloson is another example of an average player who steps up his game during the playoffs with his performances in the 2006 Playoffs with the Edmonton Oilers and the 2003 Minnesota Wild. Glenn Anderson could be considered amongst the most clutch players in NHL history with 5 overtime goals and 17 game winning goals in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Golfer Andy North (at best a mediocre PGA Tour player) won only three career tournaments, but two of them were U.S. Opens. In 2003, golfers Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel made Major Championships the site of their first PGA Tour win.
Stephen Donald (aka Stephen 'the duck' Donald) - RWC 2011 Player of the Tournament (After only taking the field for 53 Minutes) - Guinness Book of Records "Most Clutch" Sports performance.
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