The Psychology of Clutch

David Ortiz Grand Slam

What is “clutch”?

At Icewater, we care a lot about how to help people be their best self in any situation they face. Essentially, we want to help people be clutch through a consistent yoga practice.

We do a lot of reading about what it takes to be clutch and we figured we’d share our take on an article we read recently.

The paper describes the ideal dataset needed to determine the likelihood that clutch hitting is a real phenomenon in Major League Baseball. A rarity for baseball, this dataset doesn’t exist, mostly because it requires a lot of personality trait data, which is hard to come by.

A Study of Clutchness in the MLB

They propose the following “PSYCHOLOGICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF CLUTCH PERFORMERS” (nice use of all caps by them) as requisite data for measuring clutchness in baseball:

    1. Trait Anxiety: We’ve all felt it, usually in public speaking: our heart rate increases, we start sweating, even sometimes experience trembling and nausea. These reactions can surface when our performance (in anything) is publicly observable.
    2. Self-consciousness: In a high-pressure moment, becoming uncharacteristically preoccupied with your appearance, mental state, and how others are viewing you. In baseball, a batter might be more focused on what their batting stance looks like than actually focusing on the pitch coming at them.
    3. Achievement motivation: How much do you want it? We vary in our desire and motivation to succeed, whether extrinsic (for external reward) or intrinsic (for internal reward). Some of us are more determined to succeed than others and more likely to  care more when the game is on the line.

Interpretation of Clutch Characteristics

Distilling these a little further, two of the factors (anxiety and self-consciousness) would ideally be reduced to zero in the ideal clutch athlete, while achievement motivation is the only item they list as a trait to be enhanced.

I understand the importance of motivation, though I’m not convinced it would be heightened to a material level in a pressure situation. To me, motivated individuals are going to take the same approach in any situation, as their behavior is associated with “intense, prolonged and repeated efforts to accomplish something difficult.”

Theoretically, if positive factors are insignificant for clutch performance, only detractors are left and anxiety and self-consciousness seem far more influential to me. I wouldn’t consider myself an anxious or self-conscious person, though I’ve certainly felt both of these things throughout my life and, in most situations, their power has significantly outweighed that of my motivation.

No matter how badly I wanted to make a great speech or how many times I practiced in front of the mirror, the anxiety and self-consciousness of the act simply weren’t going to let it happen.

So, perhaps, being clutch is an ability to maintain a state of normal, never letting any situation get the best of us.

This perspective would suggest that we have a maximum threshold for performance: we can only jump as high as we can jump. But, with the whole world watching, would we be able to jump to our maximum height?

The obstacles of anxiety and self-consciousness may stem from our fear of the unknown. Taken one step further, we may rationalize this fear because we don’t have enough historical data to establish a reliable expectation for the future. Without having enough successes in the past, how can we be sure that this we’ll be successful in this situation?


We can’t change the past, but we also don’t have to let it define the moments we’re living right now. By practicing challenging situations over and over again, alone or in small groups, the proportion of “success” datapoints in our past increases. We also increase our maximum threshold for performance — the more we jump, the higher we can jump.

More importantly, we need to experience anxiety and self-consciousness to learn how to grapple with them. If everything we practice is comfortable and familiar, we’re limiting our ability to adapt when our environment changes.

I’m by no means a great (or even good) public speaker, but I’ve noticed my anxiety and self-consciousness have lessened the more I’ve put myself up there. All that practice in front of the mirror was pretty much useless.

Yoga for Athletes - The Ultimate Guide

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About the Author:

Joe is the Founder of Icewater Yoga. Fascinated by the intersection of yoga and sport, his goal is to help athletes develop a consistent yoga practice. He lives in Claremont, CA with his wife, Jill.