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Why Clutch Performance in Sports is Overrated

Jazzalo​ha

almost 2 years ago

Why Clutch is Overrated is an Atlantic post about the “myth” of clutch shooting. I have a lot to say about this article, as I disagree with the author—or at least I think he’s leaving out important details in his analysis. Here’s an excerpt that gives you an idea of the author’s position:

Clutchness is a myth. It’s not just a myth for the fact that the sample size of “clutch shots” is almost always too small to make a meaningful judgment, nor just for the fact that many players tend to perform very close to their overall average in “high-pressure” situations (i.e.: being clutch really just means not choking). It’s a myth because we fetishize an athlete’s performance at the end of a game even though we know—or should at least allow ourselves to recognize—that games aren’t won and lost exclusively in the closing seconds.

Let’s stick with basketball for our purposes. Consider this thought experiment. Imagine a guard who makes every shot he attempts, forever. What is his most valuable point? You’ll agree the answer is: none of them, and all of them. They are all equally valuable. There is a boring sameness to his performance.

Here’s another article about the myth of clutch performance—again, I have problems with the analysis, and I’ll try to address them here.

Drunken Father Figure of Old

almost 2 years ago

Hmmm – Why do you disagree, Jazz? Maybe I’m not understanding what “clutch” is – could you define that?

I’m not really into sports, but, as kind of a statistician, I tend to agree with the paragraphs you quoted.

Jazzalo​ha

almost 2 years ago

Maybe I’m not understanding what “clutch” is – could you define that?

Well, that’s probably a good idea, as I suspect this might be the problem. Off the top of my head, I would say “clutch performance” is performing well during crucial moments in the game, usually in big games and moments at the end of the game. This is when performance matters most, and when there is the most pressure.

I’m not really into sports, but, as kind of a statistician, I tend to agree with the paragraphs you quoted.

I don’t have much time now, but I think the statistics fail to capture certain facets of the game—often psychological components, usually involving pressure and maybe morale. I don’t have time now, but I’ll be back to respond to specific points made by both articles.

Drunken Father Figure of Old

almost 2 years ago

I think the statistics fail to capture certain facets of the game—often psychological components, usually involving pressure and maybe morale.

To which I would respond that statistics could capture those elements. :P But I have zero emotional investment in sports, so I am looking at it in a kind of detached way.

But, to go on with my point anyway, I think an emotional investment does cloud judgement and makes you put more emphasis on certain aspects of the game. I think you could look statistically at what players do the best during game-winning or otherwise obviously crucial moments, and compare that to players that do well all-around. I wonder if they’re the same players anyway – i.e. if there are players who do significantly worse in crucial moments and players who do significantly better. Then you could see what’s more important – players who do well all around but tend to choke when they know it’s a crucial moment, or players who aren’t always that great, but excel under pressure. I’m sure there’s an analysis like that that you could pull up, Jazz!

Also, I think the idea of a crucial moment is a little bit sketchy in the first place, since every point is as crucial as every other point. But by “crucial moments” I mean moments in a close game where one play has the potential to cause either a win or a loss. And the player has to know about this potential for it to count… otherwise it’s just a normal point in the player’s mind.

Jazzalo​ha

almost 2 years ago

@DFFOO

To which I would respond that statistics could capture those elements. :P

This is an interesting, hypothetical question that I’ve thought about a little. Maybe when we have much more advanced technology, this might be possible, but I don’t think it’s possible now. What conditions would need to be met to make this a possibility? Off the top of my head, you’d have to repeat a specific situation enough times to make the data substantive. Some incredible technology would have to be invented to meet these conditions (e.g., some holographic simulator that could accurate recreate all the players—including what they would do, their skills, etc.). Maybe this is too “sci-fi” for the thread. ;)

But, to go on with my point anyway, I think an emotional investment does cloud judgement and makes you put more emphasis on certain aspects of the game.

Sometimes we don’t recognize the way emotion and biases cloud our judgment, but sometimes we don’t appreciate the limitations of statistics, which can equally cloud our judgment. That’s what I think might be happening with those two articles.

I think you could look statistically at what players do the best during game-winning or otherwise obviously crucial moments, and compare that to players that do well all-around. I wonder if they’re the same players anyway – i.e. if there are players who do significantly worse in crucial moments and players who do significantly better. Then you could see what’s more important – players who do well all around but tend to choke when they know it’s a crucial moment, or players who aren’t always that great, but excel under pressure. I’m sure there’s an analysis like that that you could pull up, Jazz!

I think the second article has that type of data. But let me mention one problem. When using numbers and statistics to evaluate performance, inevitably, this requires a translation of qualitative variables into quantative ones—and if we’re not aware of what information is lost in the process or the distortion this may cause, we can misuse or misread the statistics. In this example, they have to find a quantitative way to define “big” or “clutch moments” in a game. They settle on moments in the end of the game when the score is tied or the opponents are up by one or two points. (That may not be entirely right, but it’s something close.) The problem with this is that this is a limited and narrow way of defining “big moments.” Just to give one example. Suppose my team is up by ten points, but we’re not struggling to score a basket. (Let’s say we haven’t scored over the last five possessions.) Now, let’s also say our opponents are slowly chipping away at the lead. Say they cut the score down to six points, and the momentum is shifting to them. A made basket at that time can be a big shot, even if this isn’t at the very end of a game. The value is more psychological—stopping the momentum and good feeling of our opponent, while preventing my team from getting discouraged, nervous and panicky. A few shots by my team can stem both the momentum of my opponents and the increasing anxiety of my team. This isn’t the only alternative to defining big shots, either.

The other problem I have is that the article choose great players to analyze—and compares their playoff performance with their season average. That makes sense. But I think we also have them to the average players—both the average players’ regular season performances and their post-season performances—specifically in big moments. The problem with this is the average players often don’t have opportunities for big shots—sometimes by design (which makes sense) or because they’re not good enough to get those type of shots. (In a way great players are great because they can get a decent shot off.) How do you measure and account for these factors? I think it’s pretty difficult, if not impossible. But I feel this may give a truer picture of clutch performance by great players.

Also, I think the idea of a crucial moment is a little bit sketchy in the first place, since every point is as crucial as every other point. But by “crucial moments” I mean moments in a close game where one play has the potential to cause either a win or a loss. And the player has to know about this potential for it to count… otherwise it’s just a normal point in the player’s mind.

To me, crucial moments are moments that have the most pressure accompanying them. When the stakes are higher (as in the playoffs), the pressure is greater. The mental aspect of the game often separates the great players from the decent ones, and by mental aspect, I’m talking mostly about handling pressure. When the stake are high, can you perform? You can be a good shooter when you’re just fooling around at home—there are many people like this—but suppose I say if you make this shot, you make 5 out of 10 shots, you’ll win a million dollars, or, alternatively, if you don’t make 5 out of 10, you lose your job, house and family. Shooting is much more difficult in the latter situation, as you can imagine, and it is a hallmark of greatness to perform well in those situations.

House 0f Leaves

-moderator-
almost 2 years ago

So far I don’t think clutchness can be necessarily pinned down by stats—much like other intangible qualities we use to distinguish great players. They’re great because they put up great stats, but they’re clutch, they’re leaders in the locker room, they can inspire other players. I haven’t read the articles you’ve posted, just the quotes, but I think they’re missing the point.

Jazzalo​ha

almost 2 years ago

You’re not a statistics guy, huh, House? ;) Me, neither. FWIW, the Atlantic post is very short, so you can read his argument rather quickly.

Uli Cain, Cinefidel¹³

almost 2 years ago

Jerry West was clutch, he wanted the ball and knew where to put it.

LeBron is not clutch, because when the game is on the line, he doesn’t want that pressure, ARod is the same way.

John Elway was clutch.

Clutch is something we know when we see it, and we also see what isn’t clutch, and clutch is bigger than stats, it’s a demeanor, it’s the way an athlete steps up to the challenge whether they succeed or fail.

Bobby Wise

almost 2 years ago

Big time players make big time plays in big time games. It’s as simple as that.

Drunken Father Figure of Old

almost 2 years ago

Ok, I see what you’re saying, Jazz. I guess it mostly comes down to the definition of “clutch.”

Still, don’t you think it’s valuable to just look at endgame points where the win or loss depends on this one play? It’s not a total and complete look at your definition of clutch, but I feel like it would be a valuable look at one aspect of it.

I think if we came up with a hard and fast definition of clutch it would be possible to separate clutch plays from non-clutch plays and do the analysis that way. But I guess what you’re saying is that any hard and fast definition of clutch is missing something.

But I wish you guys didn’t distrust statistics so much! Statistics never lie – people lie! I think there are things that it’s pretty much impossible to capture with statistics, but I also don’t think statistics ever truly “miss” something. Usually the problem is just people’s interpretation and presentation of statistics. If you did the study of game-winning-or-losing points and claimed it as a study of clutch performance, that’s not true, because it’s just a study of game-winning-or-losing points.

But most statistics in the mainstream media are misrepresented, if they’re not total bullshit to begin with. People are always trying to “prove” things with statistics, which is not even possible because all statistics can do is describe trends and suggest conclusions. No statistic is ever a hard fact. That’s why I love it so much. But people always try to manipulate statistics to “prove” their viewpoint, so people mistrust the statistics themselves, which is sad. I seriously think we need to start teaching statistics at a much earlier age – even in elementary school! When I was in school, there was no requirement at all to take a statistics class – it was just an elective!! :O If we had a statistically-literate populace that was comfortable with analyzing statistics and separating real statistics from bullshit then I think it would really transform a lot of things for the better – it would be easier for people to be more well-informed, and it would certainly transform the bullshit-saturated political landscape!! Okay, rant over. Sorry! :)

Jazzalo​ha

almost 2 years ago

@DFFOO

Still, don’t you think it’s valuable to just look at endgame points where the win or loss depends on this one play? It’s not a total and complete look at your definition of clutch, but I feel like it would be a valuable look at one aspect of it.

Oh, I do think endgame situations are important to look at from a statistical standpoint. I think a good coach would use this data to help make endgame decisions.

But I wish you guys didn’t distrust statistics so much!

I don’t know. I tend to think that people trust statistics and quantifiable data too much rather than too little—that’s where the misuse comes from. (Maybe not so much in sports, but in other, more important areas like public policy.) In the our society (the U.S.), I do believe we confer a special status towards numerical data. This is at the core of arguments around “hard” versus “soft” sciences; this is why there is so much emphasis on test scores for evaluating teachers and schools.

Part of the problem is a lack of understanding about statistics and measurement, but I also think we also misuse these data because of our cultural beliefs about numbers and science.

Jazzalo​ha

almost 2 years ago

dp

Drunken Father Figure of Old

almost 2 years ago

Hmmm, but I think that the over-emphasis itself comes from a lack of understanding. People will be presented with an argument that has bullshit “statistics” in it and think “well, okay, it has some numbers, so I believe it” without actually thinking about the numbers in their own mind. And that’s where the problem comes from. Most people aren’t comfortable reading statistics critically, so misused and misunderstood statistics get acted upon because people don’t understand them and think that they sound right.

And this leads to the problem of people using hokey and questionable statistics to make their arguments, because they know that many people won’t see through their crap! So they just throw some illegitimate numbers in there and call it good and people don’t question them because they don’t know how.

I do see what you’re saying though. Statistics, like everything else, are limited. But if everybody was statistically-literate enough to understand the limitations of statistics, then we wouldn’t be relying on hokey analyses and magic numbers, because people would know when to call bullshit.

And, Jazz, you get a special pat on the back from me for realizing that data is a plural word! :D

Jazzalo​ha

almost 2 years ago

@DFFOO

Most people aren’t comfortable reading statistics critically,…

This would help, but I don’t know if the impact will be as big as you think. For one thing, doesn’t reading statistics critically require understanding of the tools and methods used to gather the statistics (e.g., surveys, polls, research parameters, etc.)? People often don’t have the time or the information to critically examine these details. When you come across statistics in a newspaper article, do you always critically examine them? I’m not trying to put you on the spot, as I don’t think anyone has the time, energy or necessary information to do this. I mean, it’s possible to do this on occasion, but not really practical, imo.

And, Jazz, you get a special pat on the back from me for realizing that data is a plural word! :D

I make a lot of grammatical errors, so I’ll take what I can get. :)

Drunken Father Figure of Old

almost 2 years ago

doesn’t reading statistics critically require understanding of the tools and methods used to gather the statistics?

Well, yes, but in a general sort of way. People don’t have the time to look up the results of specific surveys and everything, but what I’m saying it that if people are familiar with what can realistically be gathered from a survey, then they would be able to critically read those statistics. All I’m calling for is for people to know what statistics can and can’t do.

When you come across statistics in a newspaper article, do you always critically examine them?

Not to the point you’re suggesting. But I always think about how they probably got the data. If they don’t mention how the data was gathered, then that’s a red flag for me, and I take the statistics with a huge grain of salt.

Another thing that comes with statistical literacy is the ability to read charts. Because a lot of charts in the media are pretty misleading. There’s a pretty fun and entertaining book about how easy it is to be misleading in a chart without actually lying.

So, yes, statistical literacy does require an understanding of the tools and methods used to gather statistics, which is what I suggest we should start teaching at a young age, but it doesn’t require a lot of independent research or time to recognize when statistics are being misleading or downright false.

Sorry to kind of de-rail this thread!

NIGHTSH​IFT

almost 2 years ago

@Jazz thanks for the link.

I think it all depends on one’s definition of ‘clutch’. I tend to disagree with the writer who focused on numbers while ignoring other important factors regarding the closing stage of a sporting match- fatigue, exhaustion affecting concentration, introduction of fresh players from the bench, shot selection, changing strategies and tactical mismatches etc.. . For basketball, a point guard who consistently makes his shot in the first 3 quarters might change his output in the last 3 minutes of the 4th quarter for various reason, perhaps to pass the ball to a more reliable 3-point shooter, give the ball to the tall center who can draw foul and extra shot chances, and mostly to ‘milk’ the clock if his team is leading (also factors that apply vice versa if they are down).

DFFOO made a good point that statistical literacy is important, and numbers never lie. But in sports it is usually the action that tells a different story.
If one is not interested in sports, the psychological element of the closing stage of a match would be difficult to appreciate outside of statistical figures. In my military experience, everything we do is based on stats and codes, plans are based on numbers and charts. However the real probe depends on their application, where they often mislead or come up short.
Just my quick two cents- I’m currently on travel and will get back to this thread later.

El hombre huevo

almost 2 years ago

“LeBron is not clutch, because when the game is on the line, he doesn’t want that pressure…”

Except for the fact that over his career he’s made a higher percentage of game-winning shots than Kobe has in the same time span (Kobe hovers around the league average of 30%, Lebron is at about 34%).

That is why “clutch” is a meaningless distinction. It’s utterly subjective because the argument is constantly made that it can’t be measured.

If it can’t be measured accurately, it can’t be judged accurately. Mainly it just comes down to having a few memorable moments late in (important) games and then it doesn’t matter what the reality surrounding the issue is. Tom Brady, for example has never won an AFC Championsip, or Super Bowl when his team entered the last five minutes of the game down by even 1 point. The Championship game against the Ravens was the only time he’s ever entered a Championship game without the lead going into the fourth quarter and won the game. But he’s still given the label of the only guy in history as ‘clutch’ as “Joe Cool”.

You also brought up John Elway… People love talking about “The Drive”, but they tend to forget to mention how Elway’s sometimes downright bad play got the Broncos into situations in which they needed him to comeback at the end of the game (which is why Elway always remains in Staubach’s shadow, as far as I’m concerned). They also forget those three Superbowl performances before he won. And, being perfectly honest, it’s at least arguable that without Terrell Davis, Elway would be essentially the Lebron James of the NFL.

Lebron is 27. When Michael Jordan was 27 he’d never won more than 2 games in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The criticism of Jordan back then was that he was a stat-stuffer that couldn’t get his team over the hump… Hmmm…

Drunken Father Figure of Old

almost 2 years ago

Maybe I should try to get into sports, cause I’m already into stats, and this seems interesting.

But the problem seems to be that the idea of “clutch” is resistant to definition, and therefore resistant to analysis. I kind of agree with Wu’s assessment that it “comes down to having a few memorable moments late in (important) games.”

But, as I’ve said before, I have no emotional involvement in sports, so I guess I’m missing something. I prefer to think of myself as more impartial, but whatever! :P

Hellsho​cked

almost 2 years ago

The problem with trying to quantify clutch is twofold. The first is that the only metrics I’ve seen take into account baskets scored in the last five minutes of games where teams are within 5 points of eachother. That’s it. The circumstances under which those baskets were scored are not taken into account (a break-away layup that brings a team within 3 with 5 minutes to go counts the same as two ice-cold free throws to tie a game and send it to overtime with 1 second left on the shot clock). The second is that it focuses too much on whether players rise up to the occasion and somehow magically perform better with the game on the line (which doesn’t happen) and not enough on the fact that pressure gets to folks. Fear of failure can cause people to tense up, make mistakes and perform considerably less than to the best of their abilities. The feeling that the sole responsability for an outcome and, consequently, a season rests entirely upon your shoulders is something that many players simply cannot handle. Those who can shoulder that responsability and still perform to the best of their abilities (with the other team focused entirely on stopping them) ARE clutch.

Let’s take Lebron James’ infamous kickout to Donyell Marshall for a three to win the game a few years back. Was that the right play? In theory it was the best shot the team could generate. But under those circumstances (5 seconds left, the chance to win the game) would you rather have Donyell Marshall, a notorious choker, take an open three or Lebron James take a semi-contested layup? I’d take the layup in a heartbeat. It has a better chance of going in under those circumstances.

You don’t need to be a star in order to be clutch (Steve Kerr, Robert Horry and Derek Fisher come to mind) you just need to be fearless in the face of potential disaser. Unless you’re Kobe Bryant, players generally know who they can pass it to with the game on the line and who is likely to turn it over or airball the shot.

Uli Cain, Cinefidel¹³

almost 2 years ago

Wu, game winning shoots against scrubs in the regular season, while big, are a great deal different than those in important games.

We have all seen for years, LeBron chomping on his fingernails late in the game. While Thursday’s Game 6 was a huge performance, the final 8 minutes of Game 5 was even bigger and he took 4 total shots, passing the ball away to avoid the pressure. If Game 6 would have been close, LeBron would have shrunk away like he always does. And neither am I a Kobe fan, and I feel that Jordan ruined basketball.

In a 08/09 study (covering 03-mid-09), LeBron is 17-of-50 to Kobe’s 14-56, but Eddy Curry has a better percentage than both of them.

And as for football, everyone is well aware that Elway didn’t get the big wins until Davis showed up, but Elway showed up when he had to. Keeping with Bronco QBs, people have been slobbing all over New Jesus for his miracles, but give me Plummer over both of them.

Amazingly, the season leaders for GW drives is Jake Delhomme in 03 and Eli last year with 8. JAKE DELHOMME??!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Tebow had 6 last year, but so did SFs Alex Smith, where are his 12 apostles?

(Careerwise, Marino leads with 51, Peyton and Elway are tied with 46)

Granted clutch is just like beauty, stats be damned, but again, a big part of what clutch is is how someone carries themselves in the big moments. One famous story has Joe Montana pointing out John Candy in the crowd during the drive to beat the Bengals in the SBXXIII, he wasn’t biting his fingernails, and neither was Montana.

Jazzalo​ha

almost 2 years ago

@DFFOO (and others, especially the math-types)

The article mentions how the points at the end of the game are statistically the same (in terms of value) as the points scored earlier in the game. My feeling is that this isn’t quite right, and I think the problem is that the author isn’t factoring in the role of the clock. To me, the points at the end of the game are often more valuable because they’re more decisive—and time (or the lack of time) is a big reason for this. Here’s what I mean. Suppose, in the first quarter, a team scores twenty consecutive points, while their opponents score none. That’s important, but not as important if the same thing happened in the fourth quarter. If it’s not obvious, in the first situation, the team down by twenty has a lot of time to make up the deficit and gain a lead—that is less true if the situation occurred in the fourth quarter. I’m not sure if I’m thinking of this properly, but my sense is that the author is ignoring (or blind to) the role of the clock.

What would make the fourth quarter points equal in value to first quarter points is if there were no clock. For example, suppose the first team to score fifty points would be the winner. In this case, the points—not matter when they occurred would be equal. (But this changes a bit if both teams get to 49 at the same time, and the deuce rule [must win by two points] goes into effect. The earlier points are still important, but now these points that allow you to win by two seem a little more important.) Am I right in thinking this, or am I off-base?

@Night

For basketball, a point guard who consistently makes his shot in the first 3 quarters might change his output in the last 3 minutes of the 4th quarter for various reason, perhaps to pass the ball to a more reliable 3-point shooter, give the ball to the tall center who can draw foul and extra shot chances, and mostly to ‘milk’ the clock if his team is leading (also factors that apply vice versa if they are down).

If you’re saying that other reasons can explain positive or negative statistics besides “choking” or being “clutch” (e.g., playing well in key moments), I agree. Determining whether pressure is having an adverse effect on a player requires judgment, not just statistical analysis, imo.

If one is not interested in sports, the psychological element of the closing stage of a match would be difficult to appreciate outside of statistical figures.

My sense is that statistics are blind or “tone deaf” to psychological aspects of the game.

@Uli

And as for football, everyone is well aware that Elway didn’t get the big wins until Davis showed up, but Elway showed up when he had to.

Not in the three SBs prior to the teams with Davis—not that I remember, anyway. He not only had interceptions, but really bad, uncharacteristic ones, imo. He also had really badly thrown balls, again, uncharacteristic for Elway, imo. This is the reason I think the pressure was getting to him—not because he lost the games. (I believe Bradshaw arrived at a similar conclusion—which understandably riled up Elway.)

…but give me Plummer over both of them.

One of “them” being Elway? OK, you lost me there, Uli. Despite what I said about Elway, I think he’s a great QB. If he played better (or not as poorly) in those first three SBs, I wouldn’t care if he lost them, I would consider him either one or two all-time great QBs.

@Wu

Except for the fact that over his career he’s made a higher percentage of game-winning shots than Kobe has in the same time span (Kobe hovers around the league average of 30%, Lebron is at about 34%).

My two cents on Kobe and LeBron, fwiw. Kobe has the shooter’s mentality—the killer instinct; LeBron doesn’t. Kobe is Jordan as LeBron is to Pippen, imo. Now, granted LeBron is more talented and is physically more imposing than Pippen, but they’re similar in being all-around players without that killer instinct. This may sound like a knock on LeBron—and to some extent it is—but, imo, a player doesn’t have control over the mentality and outlook they have. It’s almost like a personality trait. (In terms of talent and physical attributes, I would say LeBron is among the best of all time, if not the best.)

That is why “clutch” is a meaningless distinction. It’s utterly subjective because the argument is constantly made that it can’t be measured.

Evaluating the “clutchness” requires human judgment, which makes it subjective. (I think statistics should play some role, too.) But that doesn’t mean it’s a meaningless concept.

Mainly it just comes down to having a few memorable moments late in (important) games and then it doesn’t matter what the reality surrounding the issue is.

The first article mentions term that describes this, “availability bias.” I think there is some truth to this, at least in terms of affecting our impression of a player’s greatness. If Reggie Miller gets into the HoF, his incredible performance against the Knicks will be an important factor, imo. Ditto Kurt Schilling and his “bloody sock” performance. Still, I don’t think the “availability bias” explains away “clutch” performance, and I disagree with some key points made by the first author.

They also forget those three Superbowl performances before he won. And, being perfectly honest, it’s at least arguable that without Terrell Davis, Elway would be essentially the Lebron James of the NFL.

I agree with these two points. I do think Elway played really well in the playoffs, but not in the Superbowl games. (I thought he was just OK in the games that he one—more managed the game and made a few plays, rather than having a tremendous game. But I could be wrong about that.)

The criticism of Jordan back then was that he was a stat-stuffer that couldn’t get his team over the hump… Hmmm…

But no one criticized Jordan for not being clutch or not having the killer instinct. I think most people would agree the lack of help from his teammates (and I would argue that lack of the triangle offense) was the biggest reason the Bulls couldn’t win the big one. Jordan’s “selfishness” wasn’t the main reason he didn’t win earlier, imo. (I actually think he “hogged” the ball when the won in the 90s, more than in the 80s, but that’s another story.)

@Hell

The second is that it focuses too much on whether players rise up to the occasion and somehow magically perform better with the game on the line (which doesn’t happen) and not enough on the fact that pressure gets to folks.of failure can cause people to tense up, make mistakes and perform considerably less than to the best of their abilities. The feeling that the sole responsability for an outcome and, consequently, a season rests entirely upon your shoulders is something that many players simply cannot handle. Those who can shoulder that responsibility and still perform to the best of their abilities (with the other team focused entirely on stopping them) ARE clutch.

I totally agree with this. What separates clutch players from “chokers” is not that they elevate their game, but they can maintain their performance, while others cannot. If the pressure (and fatigue) starts affecting the surrounding players, this can create the impression of elevated play, but increased performance may not actually be happening.

Let me go back to the earlier example about the guy who can easily make five out of ten free throws, while fooling around. Now, we said that the guy has to make five out of ten shots to win a million dollars and not lose, his job, family and house. Suppose we have ten guys in this situation. Maybe two out of the ten can regularly make five out of ten shots under these circumstance, while the other eight fail most of the time. In a way, this creates the illusion that the two successful players elevated their play, when in fact they just maintained their performance. But this is no small feat. Indeed, maintaining one’s performance level, despite adverse circumstances—e.g., an injury, tremendous pressure, fatigue, etc.—is the definition of a clutch player, to my mind, and it’s something special.

Now, part of the problem with evaluating “clutchness” is that we can’t easily measure the adverse effects of the other players. We don’t have a situation where we can see the eight other players that fail. For example, one effect of pressure is fear of shooting the ball—or even being aggressive. Fear can freeze players and make them panic—when they normally would be able to create or get their own shot. Statistically, this can be difficult to capture. If players are normally aggressive offensively, and they’re not in pressure situation, that’s an indication that the pressure is getting to them (i.e., they’re not clutch), but that’s not always the case. We can’t easily see the effects of fear and pressure.

El hombre huevo

almost 2 years ago

“We have all seen for years, LeBron chomping on his fingernails late in the game. While Thursday’s Game 6 was a huge performance, the final 8 minutes of Game 5 was even bigger and he took 4 total shots, passing the ball away to avoid the pressure.”

^That is exactly my point.

Somehow one shot in the final minute outweighs 45-15-5 on 73% shooting, while the only other conceivable offensive threats on the team combine for 9-25 (36%) shooting. He singlehandedly outscored, rebounded and assisted Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen’s combined totals. In a game in which, if they lose, they go home.

So, tell me again how eight minutes in a game five without fear of elimination is more important than a game six facing elimination in which you’re the only player on your team that shows up offensively (he made more field goals than the rest of his team combined, and without James they shot 36%). And your presence is so roundly felt that even if you’re all alone you’re still great enough to stomp a great team down by 20 points…

I’d also like to point out that throughout Lebron’s career he’s averaged 27.5-7-7, but in the playoffs (of which he’s already played 109 career games) he’s upped that total to 28.5-8.5-7. Statistically the only point in his career in which he’s not performed better the deeper he gets into the playoffs was in the final three games of last year’s finals, which, admittedly, is inexcusable but it points out how inherently subjective this term “clutch” is. Supposedly, performing better the bigger the stage is is the exact definition of ‘clutch’, but when it relates to certain players the definition is altered to mean “taking one shot at the end of the game that creates a meaningless photograph people can carry around forever.”

For my money, Reggie Miller is the perfect explication of that latter definition. How many championships did he win?


“And as for football, everyone is well aware that Elway didn’t get the big wins until Davis showed up, but Elway showed up when he had to.”

Uhhh…
Before Davis, Elway had a 46% completion percentage, 2 touchdowns to 5 interceptions and a 53.6 passer rating in his three superbowl visits in ‘86, ’87 and ’89. That’s showing up when you have to?

My entire point was to explicate that Elway performed well in the AFC when the AFC was an incredibly weak conference (‘The Drive’ was against Cleveland, with Bernie Kosar as the opposing QB and their coach is known far and wide for his supposed choking, Shottenheimer), but got destroyed by the NFC when he went to the superbowl (the Broncos were outscored in those three trips by a combined score of 136-50). When he faced elite teams not only did the Broncos as a team come up small, but Elway shrunk, too.


“Kobe is Jordan as LeBron is to Pippen, imo.”

That’s a fallacious comparison, I feel, for a number of reasons.

First one must consider that the Bulls didn’t just have Jordan for end of game situations. They had Paxson, they had Kerr, they had Kukoc, they had Harper and Pippen. All of whom could and did take game winning shots throughout their careers. Jordan was so deadly at the end of games because he was the number one option, but was by no means the only one.

The Lakers, too were in no short supply of end of game talent (Robert Horry, anyone?… and I still remember the Fisher shot in which he caught the ball, turned around, jumped, faded away and released in less than a half-second what a superman against the Spurs). Kobe had so much success early in his career on these late game scenarios because the Lakers had so many places they could go to at the end of the game. And no surprise as the other options burned up so has Kobe’s late game success.

Lebron has had Wade for the past two years, but of the two this playoff season who would we say has come up smaller, Wade or Lebron? So if Wade isn’t hitting his shots at the end of the game it’s essentially Cleveland all over again. Lebron, more like Allen Iverson or the aforementioned Miller, has never had a bevy of deadly jump shooters around him to relieve even a tiny amount of that pressure.

And Lebron, by construction, is almost nothing like Jordan or Kobe (and, just as a by the way, Kobe’s the only “shooter” in history that loses more when he shoots more). Lebron is much, much, much more like a Magic Johnson or even a Robertson.

Jazzalo​ha

almost 2 years ago

@Wu

Supposedly, performing better the bigger the stage is is the exact definition of ‘clutch’, but when it relates to certain players the definition is altered to mean “taking one shot at the end of the game that creates a meaningless photograph people can carry around forever.”

Imo, “clutchness” is relative to things like the talent of the individual, the abilities of the opposition. Big moments are also relative. The playoffs are a bigger stage than regular season games. The championship series is a bigger “moment” than the first round in the playoffs. The fourth quarter is generally a bigger “moment” than the first quarter (if the game is close in the fourth quarter).

So, suppose a player scores 40 points, grabs 20 rebounds and dishes 10 assists in a playoff game, but in the fourth quarter performs very badly (e.g., poor decisions, badly missed shots, etc.)—things that are uncharacteristic of the player. And suppose his fourth quarter performance contributed significantly to the team’s loss. Is the player clutch or not? Personally, I would say that the player isn’t clutch. Yeah, he put up big numbers in an important game, but when it really mattered, he did not. (You seem to use a similar argument to make a case against Elway. He might play great in the regular season (including playing great in pressure situations) or even the playoffs, but his performance in the SBs have been shaky or even bad—especially relative to his typical performance. I agree with this argument, btw. Still, I think Elway was great because I think he carried that team like very few other players did or could. And he did perform well in many pressure situations—just not in the biggest game of all.)

First one must consider that the Bulls didn’t just have Jordan for end of game situations.

The comparison isn’t based on winning championship games, if that’s what you mean. Kobe is like Jordan because they’re great scorers—not just because of talent, but their mindset and drive. Pippen and LeBron are two of the most versatile players to ever play the game, but they’re also not great scorers—and they’re not great scorers primarily because they lack the scorer’s mentality and drive, imo. To me, that’s the biggest difference between Pippen and Jordan. If you put Jordan into Pippen’s body and vice-versa, the player in Pippen’s body would be the great player, imo.

And Lebron, by construction, is almost nothing like Jordan or Kobe (and, just as a by the way, Kobe’s the only “shooter” in history that loses more when he shoots more). Lebron is much, much, much more like a Magic Johnson or even a Robertson.

I was comparing to LeBron to Pippen—with the qualifier that LeBron is bigger and stronger and maybe more skilled (maybe; I do think LeBron is a better scorer than Pippen, though). To me, LeBron is in the mold of players like Pippen, Lamar Odom and Derrick McKey—i.e., tall players with all-around skills—but he’s the best version of all of them.

greg x

almost 2 years ago

There are several problem with the idea of “clutch” performers, or at least judging them. While I don’t think anyone would be foolish enough to suggest that there isn’t a psychological component to sports performance, being able to label such an activities with terms like “clutch” or “choke” is more about seeking a narrative or “meaning”, and often a quasi-moralistic one, to an activity which isn’t suited for it. As such it is usually based on a variety of perceptual issues which can’t weight they are given to hold. It becomes as much a matter of faith as anything which can be proven or measured.

I would suggest that spectator bias is more the cause of the labels than the performances themselves, and that any real evidence of clutch performers is either based on too small a sample size to be verifiable or is able to be measured statistically to a degree large enough where it would be able to be shown as being more or less likely to be a possibility, though perhaps never definitively provable given the many different components which make up a game.

The notion of clutch is tied closely to all those other alleged psychological “facts” so beloved of sports radio “analysts” like their alleged ability to determine which team “wants it” more or “has something to prove” or any number of other claims regularly made but unable to support predictive measure. The failure of predictability in itself should be one indication that these claims are based as much on viewer fantasy as anything else, but even setting that aside, there are a number of problems which jump readily to mind regarding the many of the claims about the “clutch”.

One is that speaking of the clutch often fundamentally misunderstands how games are won and lost. Last years Tim Tebow brouhaha should point to that. The claim that Tebow has some “special” ability in the clutch that allowed him to win games instead of attributing those wins to luck or the larger abilities of the team comes from wanting to craft a narrative to explain how the Broncos deserved to win the games they did. It suggests that the score of the games in the final quarter was somehow a given and that it was only the miraculous god given talents of Tebow which allowed the Broncos to pull of wins where a less blessed quarterback would likely have fallen. Headlines about another clutch win for Tebow could just as easily have been written to say that Tebow’s inability to perform or “focus” in the first three quarters of the games are what led to there needing to be a comeback in the first place. Instead of Tebow being a miraculous hero one could see him as constantly putting his team in jeopardy of losing due to poor performance since if the Broncos had managed to build a lead early on, those comebacks wouldn’t have been as necessary. Teams win by scoring more points than the other team, it doesn’t matter where those points come in the game as long as there are more of them at the end. Thinking the closeness in the final moments of the game were somehow preordained is simply mistaking the process due to thinking in terms of narrative progression rather than how games are actually won. As Wu pointed out, the Patriots win not as much by coming from behind as not being in the position to need to.

Just as people frame some specific point of the game as being somehow more significant than the rest of it where the majority of the points are scored, so too do people fixate on some aspect of the game after the fact to provide a narrative for why the team won or lost even though there is usually no good reason to point to any one moment when the game has been determined by the entirety of it. A game isn’t a narrative like a movie, it doesn’t have “meaning” in that sense even if people want to put one there to justify their attention to it. Taking Jazz’s examples, I would suggest there are some issues about how the framing of them that points to some of the issues involved here. In his example of the player scoring 40, grabbing 20, and dishing 10 but mostly before the fourth quarter, I think it can be said that there is either an underlying assumption about what a player should have done, that is to say that there should have been a more linear progression where the player would have, say, ended up scoring 50, grabbing 25, and dishing 13 or so since if they were able to do that in the earlier part of the game they should have been able to do it in the final quarter otherwise they are “choking” “when it counts”. This would mistake how scoring is distributed throughout games is suggesting some knowledge of what a player should be able to do in a specific circumstance based on some assumptions about ability or averages or something. It also places an undo amount of emphasis on a specific player’s contributions to a win in terms of raw numbers rather than team efficiency which is where it is better suited, and connected to that, it is also viewing the player in isolation rather than as a just one element among many as there are not only the teammates but the opposition shaping the performances of all involved and speaking of a single player is to suggest the shape of the game is controlled by his force of will which he does or does not impose depending on whether he’s a “choker” or a “clutch player”.

Similarly, I’d say that Jazz’s earlier example of what might constitute a clutch play is based as much on after the fact narrative assumptions rather than anything more tangible.

Suppose my team is up by ten points, but we’re not struggling to score a basket. (Let’s say we haven’t scored over the last five possessions.) Now, let’s also say our opponents are slowly chipping away at the lead. Say they cut the score down to six points, and the momentum is shifting to them. A made basket at that time can be a big shot, even if this isn’t at the very end of a game.

For this to be a “clutch” play, one has to first see it happen, by which I mean that the event has to occur before a weight can be given to it. A player not making a basket at that point is a non-event so it can’t be compared to the same player making a basket since nothing occurred. If the basket is made, the team will then have to halt the other teams charge for the basket to be able to gain value as a clutch event, that is, even if the player makes the most amazing and thunderous of dunks in the history of dunkdom, if that doesn’t halt the slide and the other team continues to score the “clutchness” of the event would go for naught as it is being predicated on the assumed psychological resonance which is measured by events which haven’t yet occurred, the halting of the slide and resumption of scoring. Given the nature of basketball, a score ending another teams run is an almost certainty if there is enough time on the clock for the ball to continue to change hands, (And assuming the two teams aren’t horribly mismatched, in which case “clutch” wouldn’t come up anyway.) So, someone is almost inevitably going to end the scoring imbalance no matter what value you ascribe to the event.

This reminds me of something I saw on the news the other morning; a tree was toppled in a windstorm and crashed into a condo, narrowly missing hitting an elderly couple. Someone commented that it was only “through the grace of god” that they had been saved. This is a common sort of claim among those surviving disasters, but at the same time, those that are killed by them are claimed to have been called by god to his side. It isn’t that god, in the latter instance lacks grace or mercy, it’s that he had reasons to bump off these people. The only way these two seemingly irreconcilable statements can make sense is if one assumes a wholly benevolent higher power who is always acting for the greater good. It assumes an end knowledge before the events. In the same way, talk of “clutch” players is assuming the end, that such a thing exists and can be understood, before the games and that “knowledge” is then used to interpret the events according to whatever narrative one happens to desire. Boston fans might cast a different narrative than Miami fans based on whatever presumptions they hold about what “should” happen in the game.

If one doesn’t make the assumption that there “clutch” performance" is particularly important, then the events of the game are just as clearly understood based on ability and luck as the nebulous mind reading talents and narrative desires of sofa sitting fans. What differentiates a missed shot in the first quarter of an early season game from one in the last quarter of a division final? Missing shots or blowing coverage is a constant in the game, if we leave that on simply the players abilities rather than claiming some mysterious inner knowledge of the workings of their minds, how does that change anything if one simply judges by the end result rather than seeking some deeper meaning to the players or the game?

greg x

almost 2 years ago

I can’t help but see this in connection with the way people look at art and want a more or less clearly defined “meaning” in art as well, but on something of an opposing end of the spectrum. To speak of art as producing an ineffable effect is to suggest that it contains a multiplicity of meanings which create a sort of tension leading to our enjoyment of the work. Art is saturated with meaning, but that meaning is without clear limit. Opposing that, the “meaning” of sport can be thought of as being all too clear, one team performed better or worse than another on a given day, but people seek to add all sorts of mystification to it to give it some larger sense of resonance which is hard for it to support since it lacks any hallmarks of purposeful meaning yet people value it so highly since it creates a strong emotional effect and it means so much to them for doing so, but it is meaning without direction so people have a strong urge to lay a more compelling narrative on top of that to explain the value it holds for society and themselves. Again. this isn’t to suggest that there isn’t a psychological component to sport or that players may or may not sometimes feel and respond to it, but that claiming knowledge and constancy of this effect and separating it out from “normal” performance despite absence of reasonable supporting proof is a very different thing, more along the lines of fortune telling than analysis.

Hellsho​cked

almost 2 years ago

What differentiates a missed shot in the first quarter of an early season game from one in the last quarter of a division final? Missing shots or blowing coverage is a constant in the game, if we leave that on simply the players abilities rather than claiming some mysterious inner knowledge of the workings of their minds, how does that change anything if one simply judges by the end result rather than seeking some deeper meaning to the players or the game?

Yes and no. The terms clutch and choker get bandied about too frequently and people’s idea of clutch seems to be someone who hits very difficult shots while on prime time television or someone who mythically gets better as the game gets more difficult. At the same time, anyone who has played for a competitive team knows that certain players panic when they have the ball during crunch time and make mistakes they would not make if they were not under pressure (if the team was way ahead or way behind, if it is a meaningless game, if it’s in the first quarter) and certain players do not.

The difference between a shot in the second quarter and a shot with 4 seconds to go in the game is the following: if you miss in the second quarter, you still have the bulk of the game to make up for it. If you miss a shot to tie a game with 4 seconds left on the clock, that’s all she wrote unless someone can secure an offensive rebound. Furthermore, because you took that shot, the blame for losing the game will, fairly or unfairly, fall entirely on your shoulders. This tends to affect most people because people care about what other people think about them. In the case of athletes that perception can literally be the difference between millions of dollars in big-time endorsements and not.

It’s hard to quantify clutch because shots can happen from anywhere on the court and all shots are not created equal (not to mention the fact players’ performance on defense and as non shot-makers on offense can also be negatively affected by pressure). Comparing free throws made or missed under clutch circumstances to a person’s overall average might make for an interesting metric since they always occur from the same spot and are unguarded. Even this would still be somewhat problematic because certain players simply try not to get fouled with the game on the line precisely to avoid this kind of situation.

I’m not going to call Lebron James a choker but when a guy hits 77% of his free throws, is perhaps the best finisher in the game and can get to the rim or get fouled 60% of the time when he puts his head down, it makes you think when he starts shooting mid and long range fadeaways toward the end of games. It’s a shot he can hit, but is it really the best shot he can muster? Or does he not like being sent to the line to potentially decide a game? It seems to me that a guy like Kobe (who I am also not a fan of ) really could not care less if he misses a buzzer beater. This lack of fear (or conscience or common sense) means that, to him, a free throw is a free throw regardless of circumstance. Lebron, like most other players, seems like he would beat himself up (not to mention the crucifiction he would suffer at the hands of the media) which might very well affect his game under those circumstances.

At the risk of adding to the narrative (believe it or not I’m not much of a fan but I do firmly believe in habitual choking), Phil Jackson swears Shaq usedto hit 70% of his free throws during practice. We all know what happened during games.

EDIT: An article at 82games.com determined that (for the 02-03 season at least) the NBA on average shoots 2.3% worse during crunch time (3 point differential or less, under 2 minutes to go). I’d like to see a study like this that involved a bigger sample of clutch free throws and spanned several seasons.

greg x

almost 2 years ago

Sure, but that is also describing the outside environment surrounding the player and then attributing a sort of force to the actions which may or may not have any effect on the outcome of their efforts. What I’m suggesting is that a missed shot in the first quarter isn’t laden with the sort of meaning that one in the last quarter might be even if the miss would be due to identical circumstances on each occasion. The latter shot is given a different narrative property based on the notion that it somehow should have been made in a way the former wouldn’t be due to those circumstances. Given that any player isn’t going to hit all of their shots no matter what, the idea that the latter is of a different order than the former is hard to justify without significant evidence. It’s of course fine to speak in an offhand manner about such things and say someone choked in the clutch if one simply means they took a shot that didn’t go in at the end of the game, but such talk has, at best, an uncertain relationship to the actual events as it is based as much on the narrative as it is on the player.

Trying to speak in certain terms about clutch or choke players is to, in essence, create counterfactual imaginings of games where there is some semi-ordained outcome which we can hold against the actual one in order to measure the failings or successes of the players involved. It is a denial of all the random elements involved in the game as well as a narrowing of the scope of all that is going on to a single factor, a player’s imagined psychological state.

As I suggested, I don’t have any trouble accepting there are always psychological factors effecting players, that’s obvious enough and can be shown through analysis and statistics overall or sometimes in specific, but most of the talk about games goes beyond that to claiming things which simply cannot be validated in any way and are, as often as not, shown to be unreliable predictors of events which should make one question their worth as statements in the first place since if these things were true they should be able to be shown as such. Instead justifications are cobbled together after the fact to make it sound as if there is a single clear reason things happened as they did rather than a conflation of different desires and events coming together in ways which are difficult or impossible to separate given the uniquity of the event. Did James miss a shot because he choked or was it just the same sort of miss which happens all the time? Where does the skill of the defender and opposing game plan come in? What were the other options? Would they have been any better? How could we know? If James doesn’t take a shot and passes the ball off and the team loses should he have taken the shot? If he passes it off and they win should he have still taken the shot? We can’t know what didn’t happen, but much of the talk about clutch and choke situations seems to be based on the premise that we can. Speculation is fine, but so much sports talk is riddled with cliched nonsense that trying to step back a little from that and dealing with more factual matters is a step in the right direction as far as I’m concerned. Actually, it doesn’t really matter all that much to me since I basically gave up watching most sports years ago due in large part to the rampant stupidity so endemic to the culture surrounding the games. (I don’t mean discussions like this, but the commentators and all the associated media hoopla surrounding the events which seemed to actively discourage thinking in any manner. )

Matt Parks

almost 2 years ago

Yeah, to me “clutch” is more of a description of how emotionally satisfying for the audience a player’s performance is than an actual objectively measurable.

greg x

almost 2 years ago

That’s all you’re going to say? Dang it Matt, I was waiting for you to swoop in with your usual carpet bombing of statistics and references. I am sorely disappointed.

Matt Parks

almost 2 years ago

What can I say? . . . I’m not a clutch poster.