Clutch Performance and the Do-or-Die Game

Last Sunday was Super Bowl Sunday in America. My hometown team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, played against the Green Bay Packers. People here fret over the team and the games in astonishing detail. The Green bay Packer’s head coach is even from Pittsburgh, and a self-confessed Steelers fan. What impressed me this week’s was the fantastic amount of pressure athletes from both teams had to manage for peak performance in what was sure to be a ‘clutch’ situation.

Exams are our ‘clutch’ performance situation; since exams are fast approaching I started thinking about what it means to be a clutch player.  After ten years in Pittsburgh using the Steelers as a comparison seems inevitable; there is a pattern in their style of play that provides some good lessons for students of English literature. I thought a lot about how sports analysts and coaches view clutch performances, and what lessons it might have for us in exams.

Analysts have conflicting views about what a clutch performance is and if the phenomenon even exists.  I will switch to baseball, the great American pastime, for just a moment because it is a statistic driven sport where analysis of performance is more quantitative. In Baseball Prospectus clutch performance is defined as performing well under extreme pressure, and especially achieving high levels of production in a critical game where good performance can be the difference between a win or a loss. That sounds like exams to me. What can we learn from clutch performance analysis?

The publication, Baseball Between the Numbers, shows that, statistically, players perceived as ‘clutch’ performers post the same statistics in critical post season games as they do in regular season play over their entire careers. Dick Cramer’s ‘correlation coeficient’ measures play over seasons and shows that clutch hitting numbers between seasons for the same player is exactly the same as when the numbers are analysed randomly.  Cramer and other analysts agree that clutch performance is a myth and an illusion.

Fans might disagree about clutch performance being an illusion, but going into exams I find this to be a helpful perspective.  In his book, ‘Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Others Don’t,’ New York Times business columnist Paul Sullivan defines clutch performance as performing under extreme pressure to the same standards you normally achieve. He discussed the Super Bowl quarterbacks on NPR last Saturday. His book outlines traits associated with performance under stress: focus, discipline, being present, and the push and pull of fear and desire. I will leave you to think about that and return to the Pittsburg Steelers.

Pittsburgh Steelers game play has a pattern; the last two minutes of every game is filled with the drama of over coming earlier errors or missed opportunity. I admire the Steelers organization but find this style of play incredibly annoying. The Green Bay Packers won five straight do-or-die games and then masterfully executed the Super Bowl championship game. Rooting for my home team in the Super Bowl feels compulsory but I do not want my exam performance to depend on a hail mary pass. The Super Bowl was a great example of clutch performances. We can learn a lot from it and raise our game at exam time.

2 thoughts on “Clutch Performance and the Do-or-Die Game

  1. Dear Catherine, how do you manage to write like this!
    Absolutely spot on, and an extremely comforting concept. I don’t want to outdo myself in exams, just to maintain what I can do when not under that pressure. This way of thinking is an excellent platform for my revision approach – thank you!
    All the best,


  2. Dear Monika, if you lived in Pittsburgh you too would be writing about American football at some point…
    The Super Bowl was a good time to reflect on what another colleague calls our ‘masochistic streak’; in the last exams we actually chose to answer certain questions because they were more difficult and challenging instead of the questions we could answer more confidently!
    I don’t follow sports- blogging was my way of processing the week long frenzy Pittsburgh indulged in before the big game.
    It’s great to know the Super Bowl brought greater value to study efforts.



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