Friday, September 02, 2011

On Clutch and Choking

Is clutchness real?

I pose the question honestly, because I don’t entirely know. Like most people, I have a feeling that it is real. I have a subjective experience of clutchness. I know there are certain gamestates, not precisely defined but tending to occur at the end of close games and mostly in the playoffs, when a player makes a perfect use of a vanishing opportunity, and whether or not I will it, my first thought is, holy shit, that was so clutch. Maybe I don’t use that word, because maybe it tends to put certain anonymous parties immediately to my right in an argumentative frame of mind, but I am envisioning a concept that would be named, if I were to name it, clutchness.

This experience is not mine alone. Cluchitude is not a purely subjective, personal experience; it has an intersubjective dimension. Actions that strike me as clutch would generally strike other people as clutch. In that at least, as an adjective describing events, clutch has a lot of integrity. It bears at least the same ontological status as ‘scoring chance’ - we wouldn’t all agree all of the time, but most of us would agree most of the time. It’s a solid enough term for discourse.

So clutchhood is certainly a quality of events, but is it a quality of people? A player who is seen as the agent of a clutch event then becomes described as a clutch person, the same way he might be described as a fast person, or a smart person, or a sandpapery person. And just as people attach some kind of value to speed, intelligence, and grit, people will start to attach value to clutchhood, and then the question immediately follows of how much value it should carry, in hard dollars, and therein lies the difficulty. Clutchhood is an attribute of plays, but is it an attribute of players?

It is hard to argue for clutchosity as a durable talent, a component of character, because it is so infrequently expressed and so difficult to distinguish from other kinds of talent. Goal-scoring is a rare in hockey, close games in the postseason are also rare, and most players just don’t get enough opportunities in a career to conclusively prove clutchosity or no. Plenty of guys step up for a particular game or a series, or get an awesome buzzer-beater, an overtime winner or two. But almost no one does it consistently or decisively. Even the players with the most cemented clutch reputations will have more playoff losses in their careers than wins, and their career average points-per-game season and postseason tend to regress toward harmony. Those who do have excessively gaudy postseason averages tend to be either a) stars with gaudy regular season averages or b) guys who’ve played so few postseason games that their ‘stepping up’ could easily be named a convenient hot streak.

And, of course, isn’t the concept of ‘clutch’ a little bit of an insult to players anyway? I mean, a hockey player should be doing his best all the time. He’s a pro, it’s his job. If he’s got an extra gear in him, he should be busting that shit out constantly, because there are fairly few stretches in the season where a secure playoff spot isn’t on the line. A player who was only smart for ten games a season wouldn’t be called ‘smart’, so why do we consider a player who does clutch things even less often than that ‘clutch’? Isn’t it more likely that he’s simply been in the right place at the right time?

I don’t know. But most every serious player I’ve ever known has believed in clutchery with the fervor of a hundred Pentacostal revival tents, and most pros seem to believe in it pretty seriously too, and that has to mean something. People whose primary relationship with hockey is as fans- we who experience the game by watching others- have certain analytical privileges that come with distance and verbiage, but in matters of player character and temperament we should defer to- or at least have a serious, sincere respect for- the experiences and beliefs of players themselves.

So here is the conflict: do we trust in feeling and authority, or evidence and logic? If I were Michael Lewis, I would go all epic here and portray this as THE ENLIGHTENMENT writ small, with BRAVE RATIONALISTS liberating hockey thought from its PRISON OF SUPERSTITION and DOGMATISM and possibly WITCH-BURNING. Alas, for you dear reader, I am not Michael Lewis. I am but a lowly peon of hockey philosophy, and I have no dramatics to offer. But I do have a hypothesis, which suggests that clutchness is both a real human characteristic and one seldom realized, and also features some hard-core, peer-reviewed, electrode-hatted brain-scannery, which is rather more than most of my hockey hypotheses have to offer.

This hypothesis is not really a hypothesis about clutchitutde, but rather, a hypothesis about choking. Choking is the opposite of clutchitude, yes? Clutchitude is overperformance under pressure. Choking is underperformance under pressure. If there was a spectrum that represented ‘human behavior under pressure’, clutchitude would be the dot at one end, and choking would be the dot at the other.

Now, clutchhood is extremely controversial, but choking is not. Evidence of the reality of choking comes not just from the empirical observation of the San Jose Sharks in hostile postseason environment, but from many studies in psychological and neurological research going back many decades. These studies have not only identified choking occurring in numerous areas, but they’ve been able to produce it, and they’ve identified the mechanism that causes it. And what’s particularly interesting is that our conventional image of choking- the spectacular flame-out, the sudden snap under pressure- is not really what choking looks like at all. A paradox: we know what clutchhood looks like, though we can’t objectively define it; we can easily define choking, but aren’t very good at recognizing it when we see it.

In the technical literature, choking is called ‘paradoxical performance effects’, which is just awesome terminology, being both snooty-sounding and absolutely dead accurate. It describes the tendency of people to perform worse on a given task when incentives are increased. It has been induced in a variety of different tasks- test-taking, speech-writing, risk-assessing, golf-ball-hitting- by a variety of different incentives- money, prizes, awards, fame- and two things are clear: choking follows very specific patterns, and it is very, very, very common. In fact, some kinds of choking are so common and so easy to induce (see: stereotype threat) that researchers have to be very careful not to provoke them in other research, for fear of skewing the results.

Which (and this is a digression, so feel free to skip to the next paragraph if you’re getting tired) is an absolute mindfuck for the spirit of capitalism, which depends on the entirely logical notion that greater incentives will produce better results. It is an article of faith in a capitalist society that the best possible performance will be produced by the best possible incentives. Our economic system is philosophically dependent on the notion that clutch exists in everybody (or, if you’re Ayn Rand, in everybody worth caring about). Yet research on incentives overwhelmingly shows that they inspire worse, or at best neutral, performance.

There are three main factors that induce paradoxical performance effects: competition, observation, and incentive. Any one of those can be sufficient to make people underperform, but in combination they can become even more powerful. In other words, if you want to make somebody choke, put them in a contest against others in front of a large audience with a lot of money and/or a major prize on the line. So, if you want to make yourself choke so hard you can barely breathe, you can either a) go on a major television game show or b) become a professional athlete. It is, almost literally, the most choke-provoking job ever.

However, professional athletes are also unusually susceptible to choking for another reason, which has to do with not why choking happens but how it happens. It’s not as simple as anxiety or stress or fear. When people paradoxically underperform, they’re not doing so because wild emotions are interfering with their ability to focus. Rather, recent research suggests that they underperform because they’re focusing too hard.

When we are first learning something new, we learn with the conscious mind. We focus the full power of our gigantic prefrontal cortexes on a problem. We examine, analyze, memorize. We study. And generally, during this phase of learning, we suck. Skills we perform with our prefrontal cortex we perform relatively slowly and often poorly. However, as we practice something more and more, control of it shifts to other parts of the brain. It becomes more automatic, reflexive, natural. We begin to perform the task without thinking. A good example is language: when we learn a new language, and we’re thinking really hard about the rules of grammar and syntax, we speak slowly and awkwardly. It is only when we get to the point where we’re not thinking about how to speak while we speak that our speech becomes fluid.

Skilled athletes, when performing at their peak, are performing out of the back of their minds. They’re not thinking about what their doing, they’re just doing. And, in fact, when they start to consciously think about the skill, they become noticeably worse at it. One of these studies hooked up a bunch of golfers to an fMRI machine. One group was told a neutral, irrelevant word- ‘blue’, for example- while the other was told something relevant to golf mechanics- ‘wrist position’. The golfers who were told the relevant term took poorer swings, with more prefrontal- i.e. conscious- involvement. It wasn’t really pressure per se that led to poorer performance, it was simply a self-conscious attention to the mechanics of what they were doing.

So the hypothesis goes something like this: incentives bring on an impulse to try harder, trying harder brings on careful attention to process, and careful attention to process actually impedes the smooth performance of expert-level skills.

Which, think about it, is also a mindfuck for the Protestant Work Ethic, but we won’t get into that.

A professional hockey player, then, is in a difficult position. Not only is he surrounded constantly by the kind of incentives that tend to indirectly induce paradoxical performance effects, but he is also subjects to regimes of training that force him to think often and deeply about the mechanics of his performance. He has people- teammates, coaches, trainers- supervising all the details of his game, and so is intimately familiar with the physical processes that go into skating, shooting, passing, positioning, hitting and taking hits. He both has to know all these things in order to improve his playing AND be able to put them entirely out of his conscious mind while actually playing. If a golfer who is thinking consciously about his shot shoots worse than one who isn’t thinking about it, than it is reasonable to assume that the same holds true for hockey players.

Choking is not necessarily spectacular, and it is not necessarily rare. It is not just something that applies when a team blows a big lead in Game 7. Rather, it is something that happens all the time, to everyone. Every time a hockey dude mentions ‘squeezing the stick’ or ‘over-thinking’ or ‘trying to force it’, he’s talking about choking. It’s common. It’s normal.

Therefore, a players standard average performance is going to involve a certain percentage of choking- shifts or periods or games or whole slumps brought on by this kind of self-consciousness. Being pros, of course, they’re certainly less susceptible to choking than others, but choking is not something one ever wholly triumphs over, just as one never wholly triumphs over anger or fear. As we grow and learn, we may feel these things less often, we may gain better control over them, but we can never say certainly that they are behind us forever. New experiences come, unexpected, that frighten us. Similarly, since hockey ups the ante with every new level attained, a player may not choke for many years and then come up against a bit of bad luck that awakens the gag reflex again.

However, just as differences of underlying personality and executive function make some people less prone to anger or fear than others, there is probably a certain class of players who are less susceptible to choking. One can imagine that a native arrogance or stupidity might reduce choking, or more positively, the kind of Zen-like mental discipline that allows one to not think of elephants no matter who mentions them and how often. It’s not the same as focus or passion or heart- those kind of trying-ever-so-hard, caring-ever-so-much things are more likely to cause choking than control it- but it is talent nevertheless.

I think, perhaps, that when players talk about clutch, their recognizing this kind of mental control, the ability to suppress the psychic gag reflex. It isn’t really an elevating of the game so much as a level of psychological discipline necessary to play at peak performance at times of peak incentive. I suspect that, if you play a lot and play seriously, play for real stakes in front of real crowds with real glory for the taking, there are players who, by virtue of experience, bravado, or past success, remain unusually cool, calm, and capable during the toughest of tough minutes, and that capacity does have real value if you’re sharing the bench, even if it doesn’t show up on the scoreboard consistently. Players put a value on it because it enhances their experience, and yes, every now and then it wins a game, but the importance of it isn’t just about what it produces at the end of a game, but what it communicates at the beginning.

A wise hockey player I once knew- no, not wise, but certainly smart, and knowing more than a little about the game- told me that a player need only make one clutch play in his life to be a clutch player. I think that bears considering. Achievements are indeed different from character. Achievements, especially in hockey, are always to some degree dependent on luck. The highest pressure situations are also the rarest, and it is especially rare for any player to end up with the puck on his tape in the offensive zone during the dying seconds of a playoff game. You need to be good, and also lucky, to even get that opportunity. But his point was, to make the best of that opportunity, you also need to be able to quickly, thoughtlessly, and totally unselfconsciously take a good shot. Most of us would choke at that moment. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t, don’t you dare you lying liar, you would just flip the thing into the corner or make some lame pass or whiff the shot entirely or just stand there doing almost nothing because you need more than 2 seconds to process the situation. I would too. But some people can pick the corner with a nice, clean, virtually instantaneous one-timer, and those people, yes, are clutch. In this case, the achievement itself is enough to prove something important about character.

Clutch, as an adjective applied to a player, is an honorific, like a medal hung on the name. It’s the recognition of a skill perfectly realized at its highest level when every choking button was pushed. If someone rescues a baby from a burning building, we would never say, well, you’re not really brave unless you regularly rescue babies from burning buildings, and until we see a higher-than-average rate of baby-rescue per year, we’re going to assume you just got lucky. No, we give that person credit- maybe not money, but moral credit- for being extraordinarily brave, even if they only do it once, for we recognize that the sheer capacity to do it at all is something special. We should accord a similar, although obviously lesser, respect to clutchness, because although it doesn’t save lives, it does save games and sometimes hopes, and it is rare to have and difficult to cultivate. Whether it’s something to pay for, I still don’t know. But I do know that it’s something to admire.

(A note on sources: I lost my collection of links for this article in a browser crash and, being as how I’m in the very middlest middle of moving right now, I’m going to need a couple days to recollect them. I figure I’ll just start putting together a full bibliography on choking/clutchery theory and research, for the use of future writers trying to fully untangle this problem. As always, suggestions from the commentariat are much appreciated.)


Kalle Jonasson said...

Good read, thank you!

Alice said...

So glad to see you posting again, and thank-you for all the front-brain work that goes into it! You nailed Toronto, btw. Its defaulting to the ascendancy of cities in this country, when anglo business pulled out of Mtl in the seventies, is unredeemed by any natural charm. Having been to Boston area and Calgary this summer it was no joy to be deposited finally at YYZ (I live near Stratford).

Also belated kudos for 'The Flesh Offering', it was epic and I've forced it on my family and friends.

Just reread Dave Bidini's 'Tropic of Hockey' this summer, in advance of sending it to my brother-in-law in Manilla. I'd assumed you were aware of it, as he covered some of the same things (Asian tournaments in malls) as you have. If you haven't seen it, you will want to.

And finally, glad to add to your bibliography on "choking" - I can't believe it's 11 years since I read it, but god bless Mr. Google:

E said...

kalle- you're welcome, glad you enjoyed it.

alice- near stratford? i am typing this from new hamburg as we speak! sometimes it really does feel like canada doesn't have all that many places to be.

i've course i've read tropic of hockey, as it's one of the tragically few books in english that covers the game beyond europe. good thing it covers a lot of ground. i'm still waiting for a quality history of finnish hockey.

tell your brother-i-l i want a report on the manilla rink.

Alice said...

On a hockey note, the old NH arena was a great place to watch a hockey game, you felt like you were right on top of the ice. My kids didn't like going there as much, but they were usually getting beaten, which may have colored their impression of the place.

Try to get in there next time you're out that way, if it's still up (I think it is).

Scott Reynolds said...

What a wonderful read! I think the difficult thing, at least for fans, but maybe for players and coaches too, is accurately measuring clutchness as distinct form general goodness in a way that makes it possible to count on it appearing in the future. At least, it seems to me that's what you'd probably want in order to start paying for it. Maybe teams should set up those all-star game shooting targets every practice and have the loser do something embarrassing half the time, while the other half is done "just for fun".

E said...

scott- you know, i didn't come across anything about whether threat of punishment is equivalent to rewards, in terms of inducing choking. that's another question to look into.

there's probably a lot we could learn about hockey if it was possible to actually do controlled skills tests on players under varying circumstances, but there's really no incentive for franchises to do so. their goal is not really the advancement of hockey knowledge, it's the selling of hockey experiences, and the one doesn't generally further the other. still, i wonder if some coaches do little 'experiments' like that in the course of trying to figure out how to get the best out of their players...

Captain Alberta said...

Clutchness exists, Dave Campbell is proof

E said...

why, who is this mysterious captain alberta, and however did he come by such arcane knowledge?!?