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. 


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