Sport Science

SSA Blog: Clutch Performance

2019’s summer of cricket will live long in the memory of many England and maybe a few Australian and New Zealand fans. The World Cup, for the first time, was decided via a super over and incredible innings from Ben Stokes and Steve Smith saw the Ashes series swing one way then the other over the course of 5 test matches. 

It is often these high-pressure situations that draw fans into the game and take them to the edge of their seats. Thousands watched and shared the emotional roller coaster as Jofra Archer, a relative rookie, took the ball in England’s most important one day over ever. After a first-ball wide, he recovered his composure to finish with three very tight balls seeing out England’s win. 

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Switch to the Test arena, and Ben Stokes produced one of the greatest ever innings when the series was on the line to score 135 and complete the most improbable run chase. The next match, with an expectant nation behind the England team, Steve Smith took to the crease with his side 28-2 and promptly made 211 match-winning runs ensuring the Ashes would remain in Australia. 

But how do these players produce such clutch performances? How are they able to rise above the pressure and produce match-winning results when others would succumb to the occasion?

Sport Psychologists have identified six mental characteristics that underpin clutch performance. These were identified by Swann et al., 2016 as: 

  • intense and deliberate focus,

  • intense effort,

  • heightened awareness,

  • heightened arousal,

  • absence of negative thoughts, and

  • automaticity of skills.

Stokes’ 135 run match-winning innings at Headingly as an interesting example of deliberate focus. Often clutch performance takes place when only a limited number of options are available to the performer. In this case, as his partners lost their wickets, Stokes was forced to focus on his performance and execution. This reduced any additional technical or tactical considerations, which may have previously caused extra cognitive load. The absence of negative thoughts also came across in his post-match interview when he highlighted how he didn’t get nervous until the chase was reduced to single figures. By this point, it is likely he was in a flow state or ‘the zone’ with additional psychological characteristics further supporting his performance.   

Michael Atherton, during the post-match interview, asked Stokes if his performance was part of his character and then proceeded to separate it from the skill and challenge of the innings. 

The ability to reach preferential psychological states is a skill. It’s something elite athletes need to master to produce the physical skill, moments of brilliance and game-winning performances that we all revel in.

Interest and understanding of the mental side of sport is now at an all-time high. The increased ability to measure and influence cognitive skills, emotional responses and various mental processes offers sponsors and partners a new dawn in sponsorship activation. Paring the improved psychological understanding with technological developments such as augmented and virtual reality will allow increasingly engaging activations throughout sport. These developments could, like Stokes, Archer and Smith have done in cricket, take the sports marketing industry to new levels. 


Sport Science Agency uses its insight and expertise to tell performance stories and unlocks their value for brands, broadcasters and rights holders. If you want to know more about what we can do for you, drop us a note via, and we can arrange to go for a healthy vitamin-packed drink. 

SSA Blog: Neck on the line

It’s been another disappointing weekend for Ferrari in the Formula 1 Driver and Constructor Championships. After such a promising showing in pre-season testing in Barcelona, they returned to the Spanish track and failed to gain a podium place. Sebastian Vettel is now under considerable pressure. His failure to challenge Mercedes and the early promise shown by new teammate Charles Leclerc has meant an increased focus on the former world champion.     

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In such a technologically advanced sport it’s easy focus on the tech often overlooking the athleticism, physicality and training needed to produce race winning performances. Drivers are now required to train to levels associated with sports such as football, rugby or even boxing.

An area now commanding particular focus is neck strength. The forces the drivers experience in the car can top 6 G. This means a driver’s head would ‘feel’ as though it weighs round 40kg at these points.  As an open cockpit sport, neck strength, in order to maintain head position, has become a major performance factor. Last season Vettel struggled with neck injury during the congested European season and almost missed the British Grand Prix (a race he went on to win). Vettel wasn’t the only one to suffer, a number of drivers were not physically prepared for the increase in force production and towards the end of races had to rest their heads on the side of cars in order to maintain something approaching race pace.

Recognising the need for greater strength, driver’s training regimes have totally changed over the past two seasons. Previously, 100% of a drivers’ training was focused on endurance. Now around 40% of their training is devoted to strength in order to cope with the extreme forces experienced throughout a race weekend. This must be among the most dramatic training shifts of any sport. Most sports have evolved so athletes are now fitter and stronger, but very few have necessitated a signifiant shift in basic training principles between seasons.   

The research regarding physical preparation in elite motor racing is sparse compared with other major professionalised sports. However, with the changing physical and mental demands, drivers are now focusing on these aspects more than ever to maximise their performance in the car. A recent paper written by McKnight et al (2019) showed that F1 drivers registered higher scores across a number of physical benchmarks, including neck strength when compared to their counterparts in other racing championships.  

Now that benchmarks are beginning to be set as to the strength needed to compete at the very top of motor sport, drivers know the physical side of the sport is going to be increasingly evaluated. In a sport often separated by hundredths if not thousandths of a second, every rep in the gym is going to count.

As Vettel contemplates a way back into the Driver Championship and Ferrari consider how to make up ground in the Constructor award, spare a thought for the four-time world champion as his neck is truly on the line…        

SSA Blog: Marathon Music Session

In October 2019, Eluid Kipchoge will attempt to break one of the great barriers in men’s athletics, the two-hour marathon. Supported by INEOS, Kipchoge plans to better his time of 2:00:25 set during the Nike Breaking 2.0 project in May 2017.

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Recently, Sport Science Agency has been working with a high-quality speaker brand to assess the affect that music quality has on performance. The impact of music on performance has been a research topic for well over 40 years. It has been shown to have a beneficial effect in numerous exercise situations, including running. Interestingly, in going back to watch the Breaking 2.0 documentary the team considered the shoes the athletes wore as you would expect from Nike, air-resistance and drafting, nutrition, hydration and of course optimising the athletes’ training, but music didn’t feature as part of the race strategy.

Music is a very individualised tonic, it’s rhythm, beats per minute, cultural impact and its potential to trigger positive emotional responses could all play a role in supporting performance both mentally and physically.

The Nike Breaking 2.0 project led to a fantastic attempt just falling outside of the magic two hours by 25 seconds, or less than one second per mile. As this new project begins to take shape and the marginal gains are again explored, a quality playlist and sound system could be the missing piece capable helping Kipchoge find those vital final few seconds.