Clutch or choke: why do some athletes perform under pressure?

Psychology, not skills, behind top sporting performances, research from UOW PhD student shows

Clutch or choke: why do some athletes perform under pressure?

Sporting history is littered with moments when it all came down to the final seconds, when that goal, basket, try, is all that stands between the team and victory.

But why do some athletes rise to the occasion and others do not? What makes some athletes ‘clutch’ while others choke?

Matthew Schweickle, who is studying a PhD in the University of Wollongong’s School of Psychology, said it is more about the psychology of the athlete, rather than their skills.

Matthew’s thesis focuses on ‘clutch performance’; that is, when an athlete experiences improved performance under pressure.

Think Michael Jordan’s 1998 play-off winning shot against the Utah Jazz in ESPN’s documentary The Last Dance. Or that wobbly field goal from Johnathan Thurston in the final minutes of 2015 NRL Grand Final to lead the North Queensland Cowboys to victory.

“Clutch performance is most commonly understood as increased or superior performance by athletes in high-pressure circumstances,” Matthew said.

“A lot of research has explored the concept of ‘choking’, which is when athletes are anxious and perform poorly under pressure, but I wanted to look at the flip side of that. Many elite athletes actually perceive that their performance gets better under pressure, so we are trying to understand what the concept of ‘clutch’ is and how we can facilitate it for athletes.”

In a paper in International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology last week (1 June 2020), Matthew said the field of research into clutch performance has conflicting definitions of what, exactly, it is, thus limiting how much we actually know about how it occurs in sport.

His work is aiming to refine the definition of clutch performance, and explore how it occurs, so that sport psychologists can help athletes improve their performance when it matters most.

UOW PhD student Matthew Schweickle. Photo: Paul Jones

Matthew has approached clutch performance from a psychological perspective and how that feeds into an athlete’s performance.

He said that the best evidence suggests it largely comes down to confidence and a feeling of control; an athlete who feels confident and in control of the situation will rise to the occasion whereas an athlete who is dealing with a confidence crisis, or feels out of control, might be more likely to choke.

“When some athletes are faced with a high-pressure situation, they thrive on it and view it as a challenge, whilst others may view it as a threat and just want to move past it,” Matthew said. “High levels of confidence and control counteract those feelings of anxiety.”

Now in the fourth year of his PhD, he has been working with athletes across a range of sports and a range of skill levels, including elite athletes, to get a broad understanding of why some athletes choke, whilst others are clutch, in similar, high-pressure situations.

“We are trying to work out why some athletes perform their best when they feel the most pressure. Understanding this will help us learn how to give all athletes the tools to perform better under pressure.”

About the research

“Clutch performance in sport and exercise: a systematic review” by Matthew J Schweickle, Christian Swann, Patricia C Jackman, and Stewart A Vella is published in International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology.

The research was funded by the University of Wollongong, Southern Cross University and the University of Lincoln.

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