“Lionel Messi Isn’t Really THAT Good; He’s Just Really Lucky – Right?”

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Debunking the Myths Behind Clutch Performance With Truth

What would you do to stop a killer?

I’m not talking about “a killer” in the sense of a serial murderer or of taking someone’s life, nor am I trying to diminish the drastic and such horrifying repercussions of such humanistically savage acts; rather, I’m making a correlation to those athletes – those athletes that play at another-level – those elite footballers – those special players that possess the uncanny ability to ‘figuratively’ “KILL” an opposing team at any given time…even when they seem to be having one of their worst performances in their career. I call these types of rare, unique and special players, “KILLERS.”  I have also heard them referred to them as “game changers.” Regardless, most in the athletic world (including football) would refer to these types of players with the commonly used term; “Clutch Performers.”

Killers,” or “Clutch Performers” are the number one cause of unpreventable premature losses in the game of football and an ever-growing threat to managers, coaches and players livelihoods alike, yet this – what seems to be a ‘supernatural’ power of ‘clutch performers’ – still remains a mystery to Sports Psychologists, the ‘killers’ that wield these superhuman abilities seemingly at will and at a moment’s notice, will continue to kill careers like they never have before.

So, What is the Mystery Behind “Clutch Performance?”

I started “blogging” as a means of keeping friends and family, etc…whom I had left behind in the United States apprised of what I was experiencing, learning, yada-yada-yada while I was coaching and living in Australia.  Somehow and quite unexpectedly, that little blogging experiment grew some pretty athletic legs of its own and has blossomed into a whole other being itself.  I never planned and definitely never expected to average more than 1,000 hits per blog entry, nor did I ever expect to be writing for some of the top football blog, media and press outlets available. Never-the-less, this is what it has developed into and I’m not complaining.  I have been taught so much from so many that I am itching to give back.  Unfortunately, as a coach, I am only able to give back to a select few at any given time (i.e., those on my team), so I now see this blog as an avenue to be able to reach out and give back to the football community specifically and the football world in whole; an environment that has been so open and giving to me for so many years.

Recently, I was contacted by a Sports Writer and a long-time friend whom had found out I was back in the States before I had the opportunity to connect with him and let him know. Anyway – he was working on an article about Los Angeles Lakers’ (National Basketball Association [NBA]) player Kobe Bryant. Bryant and the Lakers hadn’t been having a very good season by either Kobe’s personal standards or that of the “Lakers ‘standards,’” themselves. Regardless of how his season was playing out, Kobe Bryant was now done for the remainder of this season with a torn Achilles Tendon he suffered in one of the waning games of the Laker’s regular-season and he would not be available for any post-season play if theLakers were able to clinch one of the final post-season spots that they were in contention for.

My friend was taking an angle with this story on Kobe Bryant that would also allow him to incorporate two of his favorite footballers, as well: Lionel Messi and Fernando Torres (he was a die-hard football fan at heart, but worked for a paper in an area where American football reigned supreme). He was going to approach the future Hall-of-Famer not for what he had done this season or for what his injury may either mean to his career, legacy, future or his team’s immediate play-off hopes, but rather for what he has done in the past and for what he has become legendary for: his ability to pull off amazing feats of athleticism just when his team needed it — when the pressure was highest. Wrote my friend, in part of the draft of his piece which he quickly e-mailed to me:

In Game #4 of the 1st Round in the 2006 NBA Playoffs against the heavily favored Phoenix Suns, the Black Mamba (Kobe Bryant’s nickname) hit two dramatic buzzer beaters to all but seal an upset.

It was April 30, 2006 and Kobe Bryant and the Lakers stole a victory from the jaws of defeat in this overtime thriller. The Suns led the Lakers by 5 points with only 12 seconds remaining in regulation when Smush Parker hit a 3 pointer to pull the Lakers within two and still leave 8 seconds remaining on the clock. Phoenix called a timeout and advanced the ball to mid-court. For Phoenix, it was simple: all they needed to do was inbound the ball successfully and they would win the game and tie the series at two games apiece. Boris Diaw threw the ball to Steve Nash who had it knocked away by Parker who then chased it down himself and tipped it to Devean George. George collected it, gained possession, took a few dribbles to advance the ball up the court and then left it for Kobe who was on his right. Kobe drove the ball inside and hit an acrobatic and contorted lay-up to dramatically tie the game and force overtime.

In the first Overtime Period, Luke Walton hustled on the floor for a loose-ball and ended-up tying up a jump-ball against Steve Nash with only 6 seconds remaining on the clock and the Lakers down by one point. On the ensuing jump-ball, Walton out-jumped Nash at mid-court and tipped the ball to Kobe, who proceeded to lower his shoulder and drive it up the court with the Staples Center crowd going crazy. Bryant hit his spot on the right side of the free throw lane, elevated over two defenders and drained one of his signature shots in his illustrious career to give the #7 seed Lakers a one point win and a 3-1 series lead over the #2 seed, Phoenix Suns.

My friend had called me to ask how it might be possible, in psychological terms, to account for such phenomenal feats of skill. I pointed out to him that a person who is highly skilled in a particular domain can tap the automatic part of their brain to an astonishing degree even when under life-or-death type of pressure that would shut down the conscious mind.

Quitting Failure: the first step in becoming a “Killer.”

Failure cessation, literally never failing again, is the only true way to account for the historically clutch performances and extraordinary life-saving, death-defying acts of courage that mankind has witnessed.

I know that ‘never failing again’ is basically the same as ‘achieving perfection,’ which we all know is not a possibility. So, for the sake of this discussion, let’s just swap this perception of perfection out and replace it with the phrase “clutch performance.”
Messi wins Ballon D’Or 2013

No one pretends that being a ‘clutch performer’ is easy. Tito Vilanova, the Manager of FC Barcelona and club manager of Lionel Messi, has compared the Argentinian’s ability to step-up and decimate the opposition in clutch situations to the comic-book super-hero Superman; not necessarily a comparison of super-human strengths, but rather a correlation between both Superman and Messi’s inherent ability to arrive in a time of crisis and when they are needed the most and in-turn their ability to use their respective skill-sets to save the day.

The addictive ingredient in almost all of these situations where either Batman, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Lionel Messi, Payton Manning, Diego Maradona, Cristiano Ronaldo,Superman, Spiderman or (…you fill in the blanks…) has to pull Clutch Performances out of mid-air is “EXTREME PRESSURE;” a powerful stimulant that causes a different type of addiction in different individuals by inducing a psychological as well as a physical dependence. Yes, you heard me correctly: the greatest “Killers,” or rather “clutch performers” are ‘addicted’ to the situations, stimuli and environments that they must perform in in order to become “clutch.”  Like anyone with an addiction, the more they become addicted to something the easier it becomes to take part in that addictive behavior (think gambling, pornography, smoking, alcohol, etc…).

Extreme pressure situations increase a chemical in the brain normally associated with activities and relationships that are pleasant, healthy, and good. This association deceptively makes consistent, high-levels of pressure feel beneficial and mask the reality of how intense and pressure-packed the situation actually is. The more athletes are exposed and able to execute in these types of environments, the less they will feel the pressure the stimuli induces and eventually it will become as normal as any other aspect of their game.  This is how these special athletes can perform at such an elite psychological level in clutch situations; most of the time, they’re unaware they are even in such scenarios.

The Psychology of Killers

In stressful situations, certain individuals with expertise in a given field – think of an elite-level footballer – can make connections automatically, quickly and effortlessly in a way that might seem impossible. These individuals are able to see the opportunity, the chance, almost before it develops. They’re able to play the odds in a way that a less sophisticated person wouldn’t. There is a kind of athletic intelligence that can emerge most powerfully in these clutch moments.

As a Sport Psychologist myself, I fully understand the understand the necessity of keeping facts short and to the point, so I never expect research to include the detailed caveats that I usually express — above all, the fact that the issue of clutch performance in professional sports is a contentious issue, with some arguing that it doesn’t exist at all.

In his wonderfully entertaining book The Psychology of Baseball, Mike Stadler describes how sports statistician Dick Cramer argued that baseball players who had earned reputations as clutch hitters were actually only the beneficiaries of statistical anomalies.

Cramer used data from the 1969 and 1970 Major League Baseball (MLB) seasons to tackle the question of whether or not clutch hitting was a matter of luck or whether it was a trait that some players had developed and some did not. Cramer reasoned that if there is some ability that players have in varying degrees to perform in clutch situations, then clutch hitting ought to be stable from one year to the next like other abilities (the number of home runs a player hits in one year is a pretty good predictor of the number that player will hit the next year, for example). Of course, some luck would be involved, but there ought to be some correlation between clutch performances from one year to the next. Cramer’s research found that there was no direct correlation from year to year in relation to clutch hitting. In fact, he continued to state that a baseball player might be at the top of the list one year and at the bottom the next. A similar analysis run by another baseball statistician around the same time-frame yielded the same conclusion. Thus, according to Cramer, there did not appear to be any stable ‘clutch’ ability for hitting in tight situations.

This analysis was, and still is, controversial. Opponents of this view assert that the trends are undeniably apparent except to those who choose not to see. Even if Cramer’s analysis is correct, it might only be that clutch performance isn’t apparent because everyone on a major league team is of such high caliber that they’re ALL engaging in clutch performance and thus so; canceling one another out.

I’m convinced that the latter argument is correct. There’s no question that when pressure is intense, skilled performers are able to tap abilities that are otherwise kept in reserve.

Addiction is the Key

Successful performance in clutch situations must address both sides of the player’s addiction: their physical dependence and their psychological dependence. Some athletes are able to address both issues with a mere subconscious decision to simply “win.” Others require a combination of supportive counseling, stimuli processing and a skill-set that counteracts anything the opposition or the game can throw at them. Research suggests that successful clutch performance most often occurs in scenarios that encompass such situations which include elimination, advancement or pride.

Lionel Messi might best exemplify this with his performance at Camp Nou on March 10, 2007.

Messi’s Hat-Trick in the Clasico is the point where many declassified him as an immensely talented star of the future and began to truly mark his arrival.

Real Madrid had beaten Messi and his Barcelona FC side 2-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu the previous October. Just as in that game, Real Madrid took a very early lead in this return fixture.

Ruud van Nistelrooy opened the scoring in the fourth minute. Messi would respond with his first goal against his club’s biggest rival just six minutes later. However, Van Nistelrooywould give Los Merengues the lead almost immediately, but once again; Messi would draw his club level in the 27th minute.

Barcelona FC dropped down to 10 men when Oleguer was sent off just before the break and when Sergio Ramos scored for the visitors with less than 20 minutes remaining, it looked like Real Madrid were going to pull the double over them.

However, Messi’s clinical strike from inside the box with only three minutes remaining secured not only a 3-3 draw and a crucial point, but also his first treble for his club.

Can You Choose the Choice to be Clutch?

No matter how sensational a performance such as the one shown by Messi in the 2007 Clasico, one such performance a clutch performer does not make. It takes multiple repetitions of the same displays of poise, confidence, composure and execution of elite levels of skill under extreme duress while achieving the same results that only begins to constitute the alchemy for what makes up a clutch performer.

Just as Kobe Bryant has stepped-up and pulled rabbits out of hats in crucial, pressure-packed situations time and time again, the same can be said for Lionel Messi.  This is one of the attributes that makes them so “clutch.”

When an opponent pulls off one of these performances on me and just ‘kills’ my team, I often joke about  how these clutch performances must only available by prescription and we have the wrong team physician.

Studies sponsored by various universities and individual researchers have sought to unravel the mystery and confounding psychological make-up of the Killer Athlete.  Many of these studies show how athletes can improve their chances of success in clutch situations by 50-70 percent, at least in the short term; usually by increasing their exposure to those types of situations and allow them to become more and more second nature. However, real world experience shows that replacement or substitution alone for these spontaneous and unplanned scenarios only helps a few people in the long run. A large review published in 2003 in the now-defunct journal Psychological Control showed that after six months only 7 percent of those who used a replacement routine actually were able to recall any of the stimuli that would instigate the routine if indicated in real-life, whereas 93 percent couldn’t recall any of the stimuli at all.

Interestingly, this same study also compared the different strategies that athletes used to approach clutch situations.  It found that 22 percent of athletes who take a more direct approach at replacement routines retain some stimuli even after six months, suggesting the mere decision to perform under clutch circumstances is a powerful step in the right direction of becoming a killer athlete.

This does not mean attempting to train oneself for success in clutch situations is unhelpful.

Successful clutch performers, including those who develop it naturally and those who train themselves for it, typically have just one important component in common, namely a refusal to quit. If you were to ask a group of successful clutch athletes what method they used to become so clutch, over 90 percent of them will say they just “refuse to lose.”

This point is worth repeating. Nothing can replace the will of a person motivated to win. Coaches in all athletic genres know that successful player performance always starts with a player’s personal decision.

No session, psychological test or lecture is as effective as an athlete simply making a decision NOT to quit.

Once the decision is made, then players have many resources available to further develop their game.

Master-Commander

In his book, Master of the Commander, research psychologist Albert Glabein, conducted a study of expert and intermediate level chess players engaged in a blitz-style tournament in which they were allowed only an average of six seconds per move. Under this time pressure, the intermediate level players made twice as many bad moves as when they were allowed several minutes per move — whereas the expert players actually made slightly fewer bad moves.

Glabein went on to explore how expert decision-makers functioned under even more intense stress. He interviewed the fire-fighting commanders who had spent years battling potentially deadly blazes and found that, when facing problems such as: how to get a team into a burning building; they did not consciously deliberate between the pros and cons of various possible options. Instead, they instantly matched the situation to the one that was the most similar to what they had mentally in store within the confines of their mind from their accumulated experience, and thus chose a solution accordingly.

This kind of strategy has been dubbed “satisficing,” because it results not in the absolute best conceivable answer, but one whose speed makes up for its shortcomings.

In his interviews with the experienced fire-fighting commanders, Glabein found that the Commander almost never ‘seems’ to decide anything. Even when faced with a complex situation, they could see it as familiar and already know how to react. If that plan turned out to not be very effective, they would then just simply summon a new strategy in response to the evolving situation. The whole process takes place so automatically that one commander Glabein talked to was convinced that he had ESP.

With this in mind, I correlate the whole curriculum of it to master-level chess. You see, Master-Level Chess players (if they will allow me to refer to them as such; ‘players’) rely on a deep intuitive understanding of not just the game itself, but what they are doing; have done; will do; plan to do; want to do and ultimately the route they take to win – all organized collectively based upon a rich store of past experience. This is the same that is required to expertly fight fires, as well as playing sports at a professional level. Thus, this is the truth behind Clutch Performance.

Which therapy is most effective?
To prove that Clutch Performances do exist and aren’t just happenstance occurrences left to chance, all we have to do is look at it from the opposite side of the equation. It’s a known fact that one of the key issues in the field of Security Incident Management revolves around delaying a decision. You see, in this field in particular; any delay in the making of a decision (most often due to a lack of information) is nearly always worse than any of the other possible decisions to choose from that caused the delay in the first-place.

This most definitely is true when looking at clutch footballers such as Messi, Ronaldo, Maradona, Pele, etc…. There are many situations we can find where a fast decision by these players that can be implemented immediately is better than a ‘right’ decision that takes longer to come up with. As a coach, there are many times when I can recall saying to myself, “…play her in…” or “…lay it off…” only to have the player I was speaking to under my breath keep the ball and create something special that I didn’t see possible beforehand.

I’ve also found that the teams I’ve coached whom have achieved the least overall success have also been the same teams that also failed to include enough individual players with enough experience to be able to make ‘some’ snap decisions at one time or another. If we look at the recent first-leg of the UEFA Champions League Semi-Finals between both Barcelona FC and Bayern Munich, as well as Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid, we can see that in the time it took both losing sides to come up with ANY ideas a more experienced, overall team could have implemented a half dozen or so potentially workable solutions to the blowouts. Yes, we are talking about Barcelona FC and Real Madrid, two of the best football clubs currently in the world until proven otherwise and I am not even beginning to talk about their downfall or whatever…just using their recent “uncharacteristic” losses to younger and ‘possibly’ more experienced sides as examples of how the instinctual, quickness of decisions is such a tremendously deadly characteristic of the Killer athlete.

Satisficing
We all know that decision making in football must be quick and automatic. After being involved in this game at almost every level for three decades it’s always been said: “…it wasn’t pretty, but you scored more goals than you allowed, good job!” Over analyzing the game and “freezing” leads to problems in that environment. Satisficing is the optimal strategy.

I’ve made a few (…uuuuuuhhhhhmmmm…make that ‘many’) bad decisions along the way as both a player and a coach, but just like what has been described here, the more I played and the longer I coached the more I quickly and automatically reached into my mental bag of tricks and pulled through OK.

Just as important, as a coach I had to learn how to teach those special players with those special skills who show that special potential to be special in clutch situations, when to take their time to make a decision and when to just “go with it.” Getting stuck in a situation without making a decision at all is what I call “free parking,” and I have had to pull hairs at times to get players to realize that failing to act quickly can more often than not make things worse.

To a professional football coach whom has seen much over the past three decades in this wonderful game, it is heartbreaking to see the decision of promising players to “quit” as opposed to “win,” which begs the question; how many of these players choosing to not choose to ‘win’ could potentially be the next great “clutch performer,” if they were guided the right direction?…and then on the next level, how many coaches who are in a position to guide these potential Killer athletes actually understand the inner-workings of what makes up “clutch performance?

Learning your trade in a football developing nation such as the United States calls for a certain amount of toughness. It is difficult to watch tough athletes lose their strength over the years due to incompetent coaching and Player Development. However, I have learned the problem is entirely preventable with a firm decision to WIN. So when it comes to Clutch Performance, don’t just try.

Decide.

Dinesh V @dineshintwit

Co-founder of Soccersouls. Living a start-up life 24/7 Follow @dineshintwit

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