Mental Toughness and Clutch Performance

This article is also posted on the Coaches Toolbox, a collection of  resources for coaches of all sports.

These thoughts on clutch performance are from Spencer Wood Icebox Athlete Sports Performance Resources. Click that link to see his Mental Toughness Edge website. There are some articles on mental training and other resources as well.

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 mental 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

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