Sunday, March 20, 2011

Clutch and Nerves

Note: "Clutch" is a term that has come to be viewed with derision in some modern baseball circles. It denotes a players performance in high pressure situations, i.e. a player's ability to get a "big hit" in situations "when it counts." The concept is controversial in modern baseball, as the term is often used based on one's perception rather than rooted in a reality that can be measured quantitatively. Factors such as the number of times a player is put into a high leverage situation and how his numbers compare to non-high leverage situations must be considered, as well as his actual performance.

In this article in Slate entitled "Nerve": Why is America so anxious?, a bit relevant to baseball pops up.
In a chapter called "The Clutch Paradox," you do a wonderful job of dispelling a popular sports myth -- that some athletes are inherently more clutch than others. My question is: Why do so many seem to choke so consistently? Why are certain major leaguers like Chuck Knoblauch and Rick Ankiel never able to regain their form after falling down a psychological rabbit hole?

These kinds of breakdowns are a lot more pernicious than people realize. [Former MLB player] Steve Sax, whom I interviewed for this book, told me that his trouble throwing the ball to first base was the hardest thing he ever went through aside from losing his parents. We have this image of athletes as egomaniacs who don't take the sport as seriously as the fans do, but this is something that rips them apart inside. When Chuck Knoblauch throws a ball into the stands, it gets replayed on SportsCenter over and over and over again. It takes a lot of mental jujitsu to come back from something like that. Another reason why many athletes have so much trouble regrouping is that there's still a real shrink barrier in sports. This is a culture that says you must be mentally tough to succeed, and I think a lot of players see therapy as an admission of defeat.
I haven't read the book, so I don't know if Taylor Clark uses sabermetrics or psychology to "dispel the clutch myth," but I want to say a bit about this.  One of the things that has bothered me about the "clutch" argument is the refusal to entertain the notion that it can exist. As stathead pros and novices alike know, there are people out there who will say so and so is clutch and players will earn reputations for being clutch but when you look at their numbers in high leverage situations, you find they just aren't "clutch" at all. The people who use the term "clutch" without examining the numbers aren't just casual fans who may have seen a guy hit a gamewinner twice to label that guy as "clutch," but include guys like Jeff Brantley and Marty Brennaman, who, like so many others, vehemently refuse to acknowledge that human knowledge progresses. The baseball boxscore was developed by sportswriter Henry Chadwick back before cars, airplanes, electricity, and the establishment of the Cincinnati Reds Baseball Club, the first professional baseball team. Statheads are right to criticize the use of the term "clutch" when it is based on nothing but tradition.

But like me, statheads aren't psychologists, neurologists, or biologists. (I haven't seen one, anyway.) And while they're crunching away at their numbers, rarely is a player's physiology given a thought. Some, when confronted by numbers that show that indeed, a player DOES perform better in high leverage situations, even go so far as to blame the player for not "focusing" or "working hard" or "caring enough" during non-high leverage situations. But the human brain is a fascinating and mysterious organ that even people who study it for a living don't know much about. Some players' brains are most likely shooting fear chemicals around when there are two on and two out in the bottom of the ninth, while others are probably swimming in adrenaline. We simply don't know enough about the brain yet to explain why some players do better in high leverage situations than others. Maybe in the future the term "clutch" will have some scientific backing.

[Remember the Nintendo game "Bases Loaded II?" When choosing your lineup, you can see a player's "biorhythm," which included psychological state. I'm sure the game wasn't based on anything scientific, but hey, maybe it was ahead of its time!]

So I wonder how Taylor Clark "dispels the myth of clutch."  I'm looking forward to reading "Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool," and not just for the "Clutch Paradox" chapter.  I am especially interested in the part about American social isolationism.  Other places, like here in Lebanon, have such a sense of community while Americans run around afraid of everything.  Human beings are social creatures and indeed would not have survived as a species without the evolutionary social traits that kept us alive. As the book suggests, social isolationism, among other things, is driving America crazy, as crazy as clutch makes devoted statheads.

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