My favorite sports columnist, Bill Simmons (aka The Sports Guy), wrote an article for ESPN Magazine where he explores the issue "How clutch is Kevin Garnett?" Simmons describes some of Kevin Garnett's "woes in the clutch" this year. He then asks the question: What makes for clutch? Is it part of your DNA, or something that's honed through experience and repetition?
He identifies three variables that could impact one's ability to "be clutch":
- natural talent = "ice water in your veins"
- repetitious practice = practicing the shot you'll take at the end of the game over and over and over (and over...)
- experience in clutch situations = learning how to adapt to the situation
Clutch performers: born or raised?
It's always both, of course. From a scientific standpoint, I suppose it may be interesting to know how much is 'nature' versus how much is 'nurture'. (Jon and Ross, I'm teeing this up for you!) But from a "getting on with being excellent" standpoint, only 'nurture' is worth focusing on. We don't know what our natural limits are and we may never know. The best we can ever hope to do is work toward reaching them. Champions make the assumption that they have sufficient talent, and then get on with the business of nurturing it. (Okay, end of mini-rant.)
Simmons does a great job of comparing Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan. Both players came out of the draft together in 1997. Duncan spent four years playing NCAA basketball. Garnett came out of high school. Duncan went to a team that immediately contended for titles and was put in high pressure situations repeatedly as a young player. Garnett went to the lowly T'Wolves and got very few experiences in similar high pressure situations. Duncan was surrounded by role models (specifically David Robinson). Garnett had…um…yeah.
So we know experience favored Duncan. Both athletes no doubt have the repetitious practice covered. And talent? Well, there are two sides to the talent question. First, are they cool under pressure? Second, do they want the pressure? Well, we know Duncan falls into both, and the jury is still out on Garnett (though Simmons is leaning toward no). My gut tells me that this, too, is largely affected by experience, though. Just because you’re not hard-wired to have “ice water in your veins” doesn’t mean you can’t learn to thrive in that situation. So I’m not sold on any argument that “clutchness” and “talent” are the same thing.
What is “clutch” running?
Being “clutch” in basketball is one thing, because it’s a skill sport. The definition of “clutch” in skill sports is essentially the ability to perform your skill at a higher level in pressure situations. Like, for example, in the one play that will decide the game after 48 minutes of exhausting play. You have to overcome fatigue, emotion, adrenaline, an opposing team, and possibly your own teammates, all to execute one skilled maneuver to perfection, whether it’s making one shot or getting one defensive stop.
In distance running, being “clutch” isn’t about skill. It is about winning (or performing extremely well in) big-time races. Ultimately, it’s about exercising discipline during races and the willingness to take risks when necessary. There are similarities to basketball in that you have to overcome increased pressure and excess emotion. But in the end, distance running simply requires that you be faster than everyone else at the end.
Therefore, the very idea of being "clutch" is secondary to simply being “able”. The fastest runners tend to win the most races. It is true that they don't always win (see Ron Clarke, Steve Holman), but if one runner is significantly faster than another, he rarely loses. As Steve Holman put it in an old interview at mensracing.com, “If you're a 3:30 guy, winning tactical races [US Championships] here isn't an issue. It was my particular albatross for much of my career, but a 3:30 guy will drill a 3:36 guy every day of the week.”
So if you’re a 3:30 guy and you beat a 3:36 guy, I don’t think that makes you “clutch.” It simply makes you better. The only way to determine whether one runner is “clutch” is to look at their history against equally able runners, and see if they consistently win their races. Do they raise their game to another level?
Clutch distance running: A case study
When looked at in this way, I believe 90% of what we call “clutch” distance running is really explained by ability and experience. Even though some runners have performed exceptionally well in championship races with limited experience, the very opportunity to perform well was already earned through their ability. Last year’s World Championships 1500m squad of Bernard Lagat, Alan Webb and Leonel Manzano is a good example.
Leonel Manzano is an interesting case. He won the NCAA 1500m as a freshman, won it again as a junior (indoors) and qualified for the World Championships while still a student. He has as good an NCAA resume as any runner in the past decade. At the World Championships, Leonel failed to qualify for the final of the 1500m after the longest season of his career.
Alan Webb was the high school phenom. He then went pro and had up-and-down performances until his breakthrough season last year, in which he ran 1:43.84 for 800m, 3:30.54 for 1500m and broke Steve Scott’s American Record in the mile with a 3:46.91. He won races throughout Europe against world class competition, won the US national championship that summer, and was a favorite heading into the World Championships, where he barely made it into the final before finishing 8th.
Bernard Lagat was the world class runner who had already won two Olympic medals (bronze in 2000, silver in 2004). He has the third fastest time in the history of the sport, extensive experience running in championship meets both in the NCAAs and at the professional level. He finished third behind Webb and Manzano at the US National Championships to qualify for the World Championships, where he won gold in both the 1500m and 5000m.
How can we explain this? I don't presume to know the answer, but I feel safe asserting the following:
- We don't know if any one of them has more or less "ice water in his veins"
- They all work equally hard
- Lagat has much much MUCH more experience in championship meets
- Lagat and Webb were simply faster than Manzano at the time of the race
When you look at this race, could you not say that their relative ability got Lagat and Webb into the final, and their relative experience correlated with their performance there? And if so, was Lagat’s performance “clutch” or just “great”? And was Webb’s performance a “choke” (or whatever the opposite of “clutch” is), or just indicative of his relative inexperience? Same question applies to Manzano.
This explanation is more satisfying to me for a couple reasons. First, it focuses on things we can measure effectively. Second, it fits with what we intuitively understand about the sport: faster = better. Third, it puts poor performances in the category of learning experiences, not failures.
“Clutch” performances do happen. We all saw Noah Ngeny beat Hicham El Guerrouj in 2000, and it would be hard to argue that it wasn’t a “clutch” performance. But it’s important not to confuse “great” or “transcendent” or “ridonkulous” performances with “clutch” performances. And it’s equally important not to confuse losing with “choking”.
The most important variable in winning a race is being better than your competitors. In basketball, that’s not the case, but in running it’s 90% of the outcome. The next 5% or so is largely determined by the experience you’ve gained in your career. This affects how you handle the emotionally charged atmosphere and unexpected circumstances of your races. After that, “clutch” running is some combination of talent and preparation, with the understanding that your ability to prepare is increased as you gain more experience.
Ask yourself: do you want the pressure? If you want to be in the biggest meets, against the best competition, with the most pressure, then that's the first step to becoming a "clutch" performer. If the answer is yes, then your next task is to work on being cool under pressure.
For that, there are things you can do. First, you can stop worrying about the times when you get smoked by someone better than you. Until you catch up to them in terms of ability, that’s gonna happen. Second, you can seek out opportunities to gain experience. The more you race, the more you will get comfortable in different race situations. Third, you can prepare, prepare, prepare!
Visualize the outcome you want to achieve. Think through contingency plans in case things don’t go as you plan. Remind yourself to exercise patience or discipline or aggressiveness depending on your goals. “Clutch” runners overcome their competitors not because they are better, but because they are better prepared, mentally and physically. They get that way by working hard to be as “able” as anyone in the race, learning from every opportunity, and paying careful attention to the details.