A version of this story first ran at Bleacher Report in May 2017.
Down three in the final seconds of Game 5 during the Western Conference semifinals, James Harden juked left and then went right, burning past Manu Ginobili and then pulling up for the open three—and he got stuffed. Ginobili’s hand came from behind him like the Angel of Death. Game over.
Clutch like the block LeBron James pulled off in Game 7 of last year’s NBA Finals. Cleveland was tied with Golden State 89-89 with under two minutes left. Andre Iguodala rose up for an open fast-break layup—and LeBron came soaring in behind him, like the Angel of Death on a dragon. Layup destroyed.
And clutch like what LeBron’s teammate Kyrie Irving did less than a minute later, hitting a three over Steph Curry to take the lead—and they never gave it back. Championship.
Then last week, during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston, LeBron was forced to the bench with four fouls and just 10 points midway through the second quarter. Cleveland quickly fell behind by 16—and then LeBron finished with a superb 34, though that somehow paled in comparison to Kyrie’s comeback. Uncle Drew dropped 21 points in the third quarter and 42 for the game, bringing the Cavs back to win.
We all know Clutch.
Michael Jordan in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, dropping 38 points, including a game-winning three-pointer, while sick with the flu (or food poisoning, or…whatever).
Tom Brady and the Patriots falling behind the Falcons 28-3 in this year’s Super Bowl, and then Brady finishing with an SB-record 466 yards passing and leading the Pats to the biggest Super Bowl comeback win football’s ever seen.
Conor McGregor saying he’d knock out Jose Aldo—and then knocking him out in 13 seconds.
We can recognize these moments for what they are when they happen, each of them transcendent, Hollywood.
What we can’t do, though, is grasp how and why they happen. The best we can do is resort to hyperbole, such as LeBron’s describing Kyrie’s 42-point performance as though he’d achieved some sort of mythic destiny, saying, “He was born for these moments.”
We try to make sense of Clutch and determine what elevates one athlete over another by stacking stats upon stats and weighing them against each other, and by arguing about intangible qualities like “clutch genes” and “killer instincts.” The debate over LeBron’s clutchness haunted him for the better part of a decade until that Iguodala block and the championship it helped him finally bring to his hometown. (And yet even now, people debate whether he or Kyrie is “more clutch.”)
What if we could literally see inside their heads, though? What, then, would it show us? What are the literal, physical things that make them Clutch?
To answer that question, we have to answer another one first: What is Clutch?
You’ve probably heard of the phenomenon before: There is the rare condition of “ice in the veins,” when one is born with literal ice cells along with their red blood cells and everything else in their blood.
Just kidding. That’s not true at all.
But there is a literal, physical answer. The short of it is something so beautiful—so downright poetic—that even the most meticulous, clinical men and women of the scientific cloth are compelled to invoke the supernatural. Psychologist Dr. Dan Chartier in Raleigh, North Carolina, says, “It is magic.”
We can understand the magic, but first we have to understand some other things.
A North Carolina state trooper came upon a man standing beside his wrecked car late one night. The man seemed a little out of it, but the trooper figured that was just because of the accident. Maybe he’d hit his head pretty hard or something. Since the man wasn’t being charged with anything, the trooper let him sit in the front seat while he gave him a ride. A true act of Good Samaritanism, really.
Well, the man only kept acting more strangely in the passenger seat—until, when they were going 60 mph down the highway, he told the trooper, “They are telling me I have to kill you.”
The man lunged across the car and wrapped his hands around the trooper’s throat.
Somehow, the trooper—in a truly clutch performance—managed to fend him off enough to unholster his gun and put some bullets into the man. And all that, while safely controlling the car.
As the trooper later told this story to Chartier, the psychologist, it was (a) terrifying, and (b) eerily familiar. Chartier has heard many such stories. Each one ends the same way: the man or woman saying they don’t really know what happened. They didn’t consciously decide to save their own life, to fend off the would-be killer, to fight and drive all at the same time like some kind of ninja.
They just went automatic.
Likewise, whether LeBron or Kyrie or whoever else, clutch athletes likely don’t think of themselves as “clutch” at all.
“‘Clutch’ is often defined by observers more so than by doers,” says Dr. Michael Gervais, a prominent sports psychologist based in Marina del Rey, California. In addition to his private practice, he works with the Seattle Seahawks, has worked with Kerri Walsh Jennings—helping her win virtually every Olympic beach volleyball set over the course of 12 years en route to three gold medals—and has worked with Red Bull athletes for years, including helping Felix Baumgartner jump from space.
“If the athlete is thinking it’s clutch,” Gervais goes on, “they’ve probably made it too big, and they’re thinking rather than doing.”
That’s the core of it all: The more one thinks about “being clutch,” the less likely it is to come to pass.
“That’s where most of us get hung up in clutch moments,” says Dr. Leslie Sherlin, a neuroscientist who co-founded SenseLabs, a company that shows athletes—including Walsh Jennings, the Seahawks and, among many others, basketball players—how their brains function. And, he adds: “We can’t shut it off because we are so focused on the outcome—we’re so focused on the process—that we can’t just execute because we’re busy processing that. People who succeed in clutch moments shut it off.”
This is likely why athletes, after moments of transcendence, can hardly seem to remember them, much less articulate them: A phenomenon occurs called “hypofrontality,” as in the opposite of “hyper,” wherein the part of the brain responsible for critical, analytical thinking—the frontal cortex—shuts down almost entirely.
When this happens, that makes possible the beautiful thing Chartier called magic.
Take Ginobili’s block of Harden as an example. It could’ve been called a foul—but then replays showed that Ginobili had palmed the ball with immaculate precision, and not only that, but he somehow also knew to jump before Harden even started to pull up.
How? He’s played basketball forever—he’s 39, the second oldest-player in the NBA. Harden was only nine years old when Ginobili was drafted in 1999. Ginobli also knew the Spurs were up three and the Rockets were out of time, so Harden was going to pull up quickly from behind the arc. He also knew Harden’s release point.
But he couldn’t have possibly thought all of that through in that instant.
Chartier says: “You’re not going, ‘Oh, I should do this because he is doing that.’ If you take that long to respond, you’re gonna miss the shot, you’re gonna have the ball taken away from you, you’re gonna have the pass intercepted, you’re gonna be tackled.”
Instead, Ginobili’s brain simply knew. And the rest was his body following his mind.
This magic occurs as a result of two things best framed as more questions: What is going on in the head of a clutch athlete? And what makes that happen?
The first is more easily answered than the second.
When an athlete—when anyone—performs their best, they are likely experiencing what is becoming known among Silicon Valley bros and their performance gurus as “the flow state.”
You probably know this by other names: in the zone, on fire, automatic, etc.
In this state, a few key things happen in the brain.
First, potent chemicals deploy.
Properly known as “neurotransmitters,” they are chemicals created within our brains. They affect how brain cells communicate with each other and are a basic root cause of our behavior. “In flow,” the brain gets a good soak by a certain blend which—to wildly oversimplify complex neuroscience—makes you feel superhuman. Norepinephrine makes your brain faster, your body stronger, your heart heartier. Dopamine makes you feel addicted to doing things well, giving you laser focus and momentum. Endorphins are basically brain-made heroin, blocking pain like morphine does—times 100. Anandamide, named for the Sanskrit word for “joy” and “bliss,” blocks out fear. And serotonin calms us and helps us understand what’s going on.
Beyond the brain chemicals, there’s also a change in how the brain functions: The neurons in our brains—which send signals to each other to tell our bodies what to do—deploy neurotransmitters, and their communication begins with what you can think of as electric sparks in their cell bodies.
This happens millions of times per second.
Technology exists that can measure this electricity, called electroencephalography (or EEG). This is oversimplifying a bit, but: There are parts of our brain responsible for thinking—generally found on the left side of the brain—parts responsible for feeling—buried in the middle—and parts responsible for doing—generally found on the right.
Using EEG, researchers have found that, in flow, the thinking parts shut down, and the feeling and doing parts fire up.
Part of why this makes us so good at whatever we’re doing is that inner critic we all have, the one that drives us a little crazy and is always finding something wrong with what we’re doing.
It’s an ancient survival tool housed in the frontal cortex, keeping us in check. But come time to play sports and play them well, it can really get in the way. (And not just in sports, but also—as any anxious or overthinking person knows all too well—in life at large.)
When hypofrontality kicks in, though, the frontal cortex shuts down, and our little inner critic shuts up.
Those great clutch moments look and feel so transcendent because they truly are. The great athlete, in this moment, transcends his or her own thoughts. They transcend that error-prone human way of thinking, and they just…do.
“It looks ‘clutch,'” Gervais says, “but really, we just used a perfectly designed moment that has intensity to access the best parts of our brain and our craft.”
Slipping into a flow state is not easy. The harder one tries to get there, the less likely it is to actually happen. And a good way to understand what triggers flow is to look at the opposite of flow, and what causes it: choking.
That is, fear—the cause of so many problems in sports and in life.
All the physical training in the world won’t help when fear hijacks you. And hijack you it can and will.
Sherlin, the neuroscientist, saw this in a series of experiments he conducted with Red Bull to quantify the effect of pressure on performance. He used three types of golfers: elite-level pros (one was Rickie Fowler), amateurs who barely ever played and club pros who’d like to get on tour but who need to win some tournaments first.
The task was simple: Make a putt.
The pressure came from the many cameras aimed at them and how highly scrutinized everything else was, from their heartbeat to their brain activity to the way they breathed.Fowler, of course, did fine.
Surprisingly, the amateur did fine, too. Sherlin says, “They go in with the approach of, I’ve got nothing to lose. Nobody expects me to make this.“
But the club professional couldn’t handle it. With the cameras and the elites watching them, and the fact that their every moment was being recorded and scrutinized, “they collapsed every single time,” Sherlin says. “They had the physical ability to do it, but they didn’t have the mental skill to resist. They had so much on the line.”
Sherlin repeated the experiment three times with three different groups and got the same result every time.
The difference was simple: The amateur and the elite golfers “both stopped overthinking it.” The club pros, though, “weren’t able to shut down the thought process around it.”
Choking looks nothing like clutch in the brain. There’s too much norepinephrine, hyperactive brain activity in regions associated with thinking—basically our brain goes into total panic mode, as though we are fighting for our lives.
But one thing is the same: the questions afterward.
What were you thinking? How the hell did you do that?
Those are more easily answered, however, if we’re honest.
The temptation when facing a clutch moment is to think about how great it would be to do well in that moment—or, more likely, how awful it would be to do badly.
Gervais calls such fearful thoughts “just noise.”
There is no real Step 1 when it comes to fending off such fear. There isone great truth that eliminates fear and creates the magic.
Back to the state trooper for a second. He told Chartier—and this is something Chartier hears all the time, too—”My training just took over.”
Same for Ginobili: He knew the danger of the play he made on Harden—letting him go by, first, and then trying to block him from behind. “It was a risky play,” he said after the game. “But it was also risky to let him shoot.”
The ideal clutch scenario comes when an athlete has already slipped into that flow state after having strung together several good moments. However, since that almost never happens with such serendipitous timing, athletes, like state troopers, can’t depend on flow in order to be clutch.
The good news is that come time for a clutch performance, we only need to be in that zone for a short period of time, maybe even just a second or two, and that flow can be channeled.
In the state trooper’s case, that flow was triggered by a threat to his life, and he didn’t panic. In his work with athletes, Chartier translates this by saying: “The cornerstone of clutch play is training. You can’t do these things if you haven’t spent a lot of time training basic skills.”
Training in the sport, but also training in the sport’s most stressful moments. Not only honing the craft, but also honing the mind needed to do it well.
And then, come game time, it’s all about trusting that training. “Like stepping off the ledge,” Chartier says. “Those guys who do those flight suits and step off ledges and go zooming down mountains, literally flying like the bird—that is absolute trust. That they have trained well enough, they know innately what to do to not go falling down straight to the base of that cliff.”
That’s the only way. “They can’t think about this and do it,” Chartier says. “They just have to do it.”
Which brings us to the big, beautiful, impossible secret to the magic.
When we stop thinking, something profound happens beyond simply not thinking, and it may well be the key to everything.
One of the primary parts of the brain that goes quiet during a clutch performance is the neocortex—the part of the brain that makes mammals, and humans in particular, so unique. Birds and reptiles don’t even have one; in humans, however, it is huge, and this is what enables humans to think so complexly. One of its primary jobs is imagining the future, a fantastic advantage for humans.
Among other things, the neocortex is the part of us that’s aware that we are “someone,” that we have a “self.”
In flow, the neocortex shuts down, and we forget about ourselves. “How that mechanism actually happens is something that I can’t describe,” Chartier says. “Because I don’t know that anybody has.”
In other words, it is not known whether slipping into flow causes it, or if it causes us to slip into flow.
But when we can do this, we transcend not only our own thoughts and fears, but also, however briefly, the very concept that we are some sort of special individual at all—that we are an individual “I.”
It is an irony gorgeous in its poetry.
When you are clutch, you are great because, the way Sherlin puts it, “You are forgetting yourself.”
It is normal and it is human and it is good for an athlete—for anyone!—to want to Be Clutch. To want to be great in this way, performing perfectly when they are needed most. LeBron going full LeBron, Isaiah Thomas dropping 53 points when his team was desperate, John Wall hitting a last-second three to force a Game 7—in this greatness, in those fleeting, beautiful moments, we have seen athletes achieve transcendence.
Something about simply bearing witness to such transcendence, too, often also makes us feel good ourselves. Our brains flood with most of the same neurochemicals the athletes get “in flow”—and make us feel, well, kind of high.
Maybe it’s because, whether consciously or not, we have witnessed something truly supernatural: They achieve this greatness by putting their very desire for it out of their mind.
As the neuroscientist tells us, this also means that they have forgotten about themselves.
This is the way beyond human limits. When we forget we are human—when we forget that “we” exist at all—is when we can be as great as we want to be.