The Clutch Gene: Can you teach performance under pressure?
Spend enough time in sports, and you’ll discover that some players just have a knack for making the big play at just the right moment. Sometimes it’s the superstar, but other times it’s the less-heralded player who seemingly comes out of nowhere to carry the team to a title.
Many have tried to figure out what makes some players perform under pressure. The number crunchers who analyze every move of every player insist that the idea of clutch doesn’t even exist, simply because it cannot be measured. But despite that we cannot see it, clutch is a real thing. I surveyed 563 baseball and coaching-minded followers on Twitter and asked, “Can you teach clutch?” The results were interesting:
- Yes: 15%
- No: 50%
- It’s not that simple: 35%
It can be argued that clutch is the ability to get a job done under pressure. Pressure is a relative term, different to each athlete as to when and where they feel it. Pressure isn’t just with the game on the line in the ninth inning. For some, pressure may be laying down a bunt in the early innings. For others, it may be getting three outs in a blowout game in a pitcher’s first varsity appearance.
Regardless of those circumstances, pressure requires a calmness to be in the best position to overcome it. It’s the calm that enables the focus and competitiveness required to get that job done.
Life is about competing. Those who can will be successful, and those who can’t probably won’t.
On top of his Hall of Fame résumé, Ortiz was a .289 hitter with 17 homers, 61 RBI, and 51 runs scored in 85 postseason games. On the game’s biggest stage and pressure at its peak, Ortiz found a way to consistently perform at an MVP level. How did he do it?
In the spring of 2013, while managing the Gulf Coast League Red Sox, part of my responsibility was to make sure rehabbing players were given enough reps so we could assure them a healthy return to action. One of those players was Ortiz.
Coming off of an Achilles injury, Ortiz gave me the opportunity to observe him from a vantage point very few have the privilege of seeing — behind an L-Screen, flipping him soft toss, throwing him batting practice. The way he worked made it easy for me to understand how he turned himself into the all-around hitter that he became.
Without ever seeing Ortiz go through his daily routine, I expected a player who would swing as hard as he could, pulling just about everything. I expected him to put on a show in the batting cage. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Ortiz’s work in the cage and on the field held three distinct traits:
- He always worked with a purpose and a plan.
- He mentally put himself in game situations.
- Ortiz made his work competitive.
Ortiz’s day started in the cage with front toss, a drill where a protective screen is set up about 15 to 20 feet from home plate and the ball is tossed underhand on a line. This is his warm-up but not to get loose, rather to perfect his swing with the right feel. Out of roughly 60 swings, I’d bet that 40 of the hits either went the entire length of the cage or off the screen, and another 15 or so went to the back half of the net. No more than five were mishit as weak ground balls to the right or left side. The most impressive thing was not a single batted ball went off the top of the cage. With every swing, his focus was on two things: balance, and a short/direct path to the pitch where he stayed inside the baseball.
Imagine having a plan for everything that you do, having purpose behind every minute of every practice. It’s impossible not to get better. Ortiz’s career résumé is the byproduct of his focused and purposeful work.
Putting in the work
Ortiz’s batting practice routine consisted of far more situation-specific hitting than it did mindless swings. He would practice the hit and run, advancing runners and later driving them in. He would work on a distinct approach with two strikes and again in a hitter’s count. And, he would practice hitting the ball back up the middle or the other way.
Every situation that could arise during a game, Ortiz would practice. Just like with anything in life, the more you do something, the more comfortable and confident you become in doing it. That’s especially true in sports, and it’s that comfort and confidence that breeds the calmness needed to overcome pressure.
Ortiz managed to add a competitive element to complete his day. One day, we ended his time in the cage with a simple hard hit game. He would get one point for every pitch hit hard to the back half of the cage, and I would earn one out for every ball that wasn’t.
The next day we played a different game. “I need you to be Mariano,” Ortiz said. Dumbfounded, I reluctantly agreed to throw the ball in the 6-inch slot on and off the inside corner of the plate where Mariano Rivera became the greatest closer in the history of baseball. I was somehow able to do so without beaning Ortiz.
I noticed that he had a different look on his face, but I couldn’t pinpoint what it was until a few minutes later. In a batting cage in Ft. Myers, Florida, against a no-name minor league manager, with no one watching, Ortiz was mentally putting himself in the ninth inning of a game against the Yankees facing Mariano Rivera, competing in what was likely a game-on-the-line scenario.
Over the course of his 20-year career, Ortiz faced Rivera just 31 times. But how many hundreds or thousands of times did they face off in his mind? Without question, the comfort created by mentally hitting against Rivera during batting practice helped Ortiz become a .310 hitter against a sure-fire Hall of Fame pitcher who held opposing hitters to a minuscule .177 over his career.
Life is about competing. Those who can will be successful, and those who can’t probably won’t. Baseball is no different. There is a stream of talented players who enter the professional ranks every year, but one of the things that separates one from the next is their ability to compete to win. Countless players find themselves out of the game very quickly not because they weren’t good enough, but rather because pressure got the best of them.
Ortiz taught me the value of building a plan around everything we do. It showed me how we can practice ad nauseam those things we encounter in a game, even when we aren’t in a game. And by practicing those parts of the game regularly, we can build a comfort and a confidence that produces the calmness needed to become clutch and have success when the pressure is on.
So, can we teach clutch? It’s still not that simple, but we can assuredly put our players in pressure-filled situations that develop their fight or flight skills. We can force them to focus, with specific plans for their work. We can put them in game-like environments, with an endless list of circumstances they might experience when the lights are on. Everything needed to become the player we want with the game on the line, we can provide by the environment we create.
We can guide athletes down the road to clutch, but at the end of the day, it’s up to them to actually follow it.
Darren Fenster is the minor league outfield/baserunning coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. He’s the former manager of the Portland Sea Dogs (Maine) and former manager of the Greenville Drive (S.C.), both Minor League affiliates of the Boston Red Sox. Find him on Twitter at @CoachYourKids.