Mental Toughness and Clutch Performance

These thoughts on clutch performance are from Spencer Wood Icebox Sports Performance Resources.

Click the link below to see his Mental Toughness Edge website. There are some articles on mental training and other resources as well.

Mental Toughness Edge

According to a study based on professional athletes in the NBA, NFL, and NHL, the following eight traits were found to constitute the ultimate athlete:


  1. Ability to work hard and sustain intensity.
  2. Competitiveness.
  3. Athletic ability.
  4. Sacrifice for the team.
  5. Coping with criticism, failure, and success.
  6. Clutch performance, poise, and focus.
  7. Ability to execute game strategy.Passion
  8. for the sport and commitment to excellence.

Five of the above traits are mainly mental attributes.

There isn’t a coach in America who would say that mental skills and toughness isn’t critical to clutch performance. But how many coaches devote fifty percent of their time developing mental skills?

Misconception that metal skill and toughness only need to be worked on if there’s something wrong.

We must give our athletes an actual skill set to work on. A crisp definition of what is expected.

Mental Toughness = The Four C’s:

  1. Composure.
  2. Concentration.
  3. Confidence.
  4. Commitment.

What happens to the brain under stress?

Perceived threat leads to a fight or flight reaction.

  1. It’s important for our athletes to realize that this process is common.
  2. Not too many athletes are going to acknowledge they’re nervous.
  3. Take time to talk with your athletes about what happens to your mind and body in clutch situations.

Four things occur in clutch situations:

  1. Heart rate changes.
  2. Breathing pattern changes.
  3. Digestive system breaks down – blood from digestive system is rerouted to the prime movers of the body in preparation for fight or flight.
  4. Muscular tension – effects fine motor skills (e.g. shooting).

How does this effect performance?

  1. 8% differential between practice free-throw percentage and game free-throw percentage in NCAA.
  2. 13.6% difference in free-throw percentage between regular season and playoff NBA games.

Fight or flight is not all bad.

  1. There is a direct relationship between emotional arousal and performance.

Emotion Arousal (EA):

  1. Coming out of the locker room before a game, or coming out of a key timeout in a clutch situation, an athlete’s emotional arousal level increases.
  2. As emotional arousal increases, performance potential increases. However at a certain level, emotional arousal reaches a level where performance potential is maxed (as identified by the dotted line in figure 1).
  3. Once this level of optimum emotional arousal is passed, performance potential tanks.

basketball practice

  1. Different players may perform best at different levels of emotional arousal.
  2. Some young coaches pride themselves on their ability to jack up their team without knowing that two of their studs may play better at a level two or three of emotional arousal.
  3. Ray Allen for example seems to perform best at a very low emotional arousal level. You could have a player with an emotional arousal level of three who looks like they don’t even care.
  4. There is nothing on Earth that you should let take you out of your optimal arousal zone.

Determining a player’s optimal EA level:

  1. It is critical to ask the athlete what EA level they think they perform best at.
  2. Ask your athletes to think back to the three or four best games of their career, and there will be some continuity to the level of arousal they were at during those performances.
  3. Also challenge your players in practice. Manipulate their arousal levels and see at what level they perform the best.
  4. Don’t confuse arousal level and intensity. Intensity must always remain high for optimal performance.

Maintaining optimal emotional arousal

  1. There is a big difference between finding a players emotional arousal level and maintaining that level.
  2. Once an athlete has identified their level, teammates and coaches can help the player reach that level before a game
  3. It is up to the athlete to not let anything take them out of their optimal emotional arousal zone.

Mistake Management:

  1. You can tell a lot about a players emotional arousal level by how they react to mistakes.
  2. Train your athletes on how to react to mistakes.
  3. Great athletes aren’t great because they are perfect. They are great because they have the perfect reaction to their mistakes.
  4. Screaming after a miss is the ego saying I usually make that. However it reveals a level of frustration to our opponents.
  5. The external reaction of screaming is nothing compared to what is going on under the surface.

Take out the trash:

  1. With every single mistake made on the court, take out the trash.
  2. Remove the mistake from the mind of the athlete.
  3. There has to be a cognitive process to remove the mistake from the mind. Otherwise it remains with players, erodes confidence and kills clutch consistency.

Two step process:

  1. Take out the trash (erase the mistake from the mind like burning a photograph).
  2. Visualize the correct image.

When you see an image in your mind, whether it is real or imagined, you have a greater chance of reciprocating that image.
Three rules for using imagery before a game to improve a young person’s skill level:

  1. A goal has to be set.
  2. Visualize from an inside out view.
  3. Activate all five senses in the visualization (smell the popcorn vendors, hear the sound of sneakers squeaking on the floor, see the colors of the jerseys).

There is a huge difference between an outside-in view and inside-out view

  1. Outside-in view is like visualizing the action as if you were watching from the stands.
  2. Inside-out view is as if you are the one performing in the competition.

Self Vocalization:

  1. Positive self speak.
  2. We need to put the right words and images together.
  3. There are words that we can use that will help us perform at our best.

If we took a mediocre NCAA basketball player, and one of the greatest players in NCAA history and a mediocre player, and compared their self speak, would there be much of a difference? Yes the difference would be immediately apparent.

The inner voice of the mediocre athlete is like this:

  1. “Oh no this is a big one,” “don’t screw up now,” “don’t you choke,” and “I can’t miss this one, my contract is on the line here.”

The elite athlete’s self speak is like:

  1. “Oh yeah, I’m at my best when it counts the most,” “I’m one of the best players in the league,” and “I am so consistent in the clutch.”

If you could take down everything Michael Jordan said to himself during a game it would be owe inspiring.

There is a process to marry the right words and the right images to enhance clutch performance.

1. Set the goals.
2. Keep the statement positive and realistic:

    1. “I never miss in the clutch” – negative and unrealistic.
    2. “I always make free-throws in the clutch” – positive but unrealistic.
    3. “I am so consistent in the clutch” – positive and realistic.

Law of Dominant Thought:

  1. Mind doesn’t always distinguish between do and don’t do.
  2. Important to keep this in mind when we’re coming up with these key sentences for our internal script.
  3. “I never a miss a free-throw in the clutch” vs. “I always make my clutch free-throws. The first is negative, the second is positive.
  4. It may seem complicated to come up with the right words and the right sentences, but once an athlete devises a script, and practices it, it will be with him forever.

Channel Selection for Focus:

  1. There are seven different things that we can focus on.
  2. The first five are our senses (hearing, vision, touch, taste, smell).
  3. The 6th channel is our imagination – our ability to see images from the past and the future.
  4. The 7th channel is our inner voice.
  5. You can only effectively focus on one channel at one point in time.
  6. Our mind oscillates between these channels.
  7. If we just focus on one channel that sense is heightened.
  8. Most sports success is played in the visual channel.
  9. 90% of success played in the visual channel.

With a mediocre player, focus switches between channels more often in clutch situations than an elite level performer.

In timeouts get the players to switch to their audio channel.

Is it alright during a timeout to say: “If we make the free-throw we’re in this, if we miss the free-throw we’re in that?”

  1. Absolutely, you have to scenario plan, players need to have instruction. However understand the difference between giving these instructions during the timeout, and a player focusing on the worse case scenario while attempting clutch free-throws.

Have you ever seen a player use negativity to fuel a better performance?

  1. Negative motivation can have just as much positive effect on performance on gross motor skill output as positive motion.
  2. However for fine motor skill coordination there is a huge disparity between positive motivation and negative motivation.
  1. Choking has nothing to do with the outcome.
  2. If you lose one or more of the 4 C’s of performance you have choked.
  3. It’s not possible to determine if someone has choked without knowing what went on in their mind. It could be a physical breakdown.

Clutch attitude – Fear of failure / choking vs. focus on important cues:

  1. Focusing on outcome brings you that much closer to losing,
  2. Focusing on the variables responsible for success (The 4 C’s) will bring you that much closer to winning.
  3. Define what choking is and what it is not with your athletes.
  4. Focus should be on the present and not the future (ramifications of winning / losing).
  5. Build a team culture of “STEPPING UP.”

Educating your athlete on what choking is puts them in a different mindset when it comes to taking that final shot.

The question now is not whether I’m the G.O.A.T. or not if I miss this, the whole focus is on maintaining the 4 C’s which will in turn increase the probability of success.

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