If I had been a betting man I would have put my money on Aaron Rodgers to deliver a great clutch performance on Sunday. Instead, when I went on NPR’s Weekend Edition, I hedged a bit. I talked about how Rodgers had led the Green Bay Packers through five, pressure-filled games, having to win all of them to get to the Super Bowl. The key in the big game was to stay focused not on that game but on each play, to never be distracted by the stakes of that game. Yet Ben Roethlisberger had the upper hand. He had been to the Super Bowl twice and won both times. I define clutch as the ability to do what you can do normally under pressure, and by that measure, the Super Bowl was as normal for Roethlisberger and the Steelers as any national championship could be. In the end, Rodgers and the Packers won because they were more focused and disciplined – they kept making the right plays. Steelers’ coach Mike Tomlin said as much after the game. Have a listen to the NPR interview.
The holiday season has given me two of the purest examples of clutch performance and its opposite, choking. They both come from college sports and illustrate the fourth trait of clutch performers: being present.
The first was the 89th consecutive victory of the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team. Clutch is an individual trait so team efforts are hard to gauge. Maya Moore, the team’s star forward, has been present for every one of the 89 wins – and she set a personal scoring record the same night as the Huskies beat Florida State to go into the record books. That’s impressive. But in many ways, the efforts of Coach Geno Auriemma were key.
Keeping the streak going was no doubt tough at various points, and tying the record at 88 was no mean feat. But what the team needed last night was something more: they had to be totally present. They couldn’t think of the 88 previous games they won because they didn’t matter. And they couldn’t think of the glory they are receiving now. They had to be totally present and play the game for the 89th consecutive win as if it was any other game. And they did.
Not being able to do this has rough consequences. Ask Kyle Brotzman, the Boise State kicker who missed a 26-yard field goal attempt to win a key game a few weeks back. He then came back in overtime and missed a 29-yarder that would have put his team into the Rose Bowl. Yesterday he got to read the opinions of an official for his team’s Western Athletic Conference: those missed kicks cost the team and athletic conference $8 million.
While I doubt Brotzman had that dollar amount in mind when he missed two routine kicks, he was surely not present and thinking about the team’s bowl prospects. He was clearly thinking of what those kicks meant (even though a touchdown by any of his teammates would have also sent Boise State to big-time bowl).
In this case Brotzman had all the qualifications to be clutch: he is a field goal away from the collegiate record for points by a kicker. Yet it wasn’t to be, showing just how important being present is for people who need to be clutch.
David Price looked completely prepared for the pressure of tonight’s do-or-die game of the American League Division Series. The Tampa Bay Rays pitcher has a starring role in Clutch, but what I describe in my book was a different situation: relief pitching in a tight game when he was still a rookie. Tonight, Price, who started this year’s All Star Game, was throwing against another ace in Texas Rangers pitcher Cliff Lee, a much-more experienced ballplayer. The two went head-to-head early on, with Price looking stronger – more strikeouts, greater ease on the mound. But then Price’s teammates started to make bad plays. The worst was a botched throw from home plate to third on a stolen base: the ball flew into the outfield and the runner came home. So did anyone choke? The game was completely pressure packed but when it came to pitching the two men were equally clutch. They maintained their focus and discipline. It was the fielders and batters who failed the Rays, or save the Rangers.