Jana Novotna’s loss to Steffi Graf in the 1993 Wimbledon women’s final on the 100th anniversary of the ladies’ event has gone down in sports history as “The Choke.” Jana Novotna found herself all of five points from taking the crown from the reigning Wimbledon queen, Steffi Graf. The third and deciding set found Jana one point from being in the almost unassailable position of 5-1.
And then Jana double-faulted, sending both serves into the net. From that moment on, she was a different player, missing routine shots and easy putaways. Her body language had changed from confident belief to head-hanging defeat. Everyone could see her talking to herself, shaking her head, berating herself. Her movements seemed stiff, off-balance and slow. Some remarked that she looked like an absolute beginner as she missed easy shot after easy shot. She lost six games in a row, and Graf won the set 6-4, taking the title.
As the Duchess of Kent handed her the second place trophy at the awards ceremony, Jana Novotna burst into tears and cried on the shoulder of the Duchess, who tried to comfort her. The most telling comment was by Steffi Graf, who told journalists afterward that, “It’s a human brain and so difficult to train, you know, to prepare it.”
Her comment was prescient, because it is the premise for Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Others Don’t, by New York Times “Wealth Matters” columnist Paul Sullivan.
Big Idea: Clutch performance—defined as the ability to overcome pressure and perform as you normally would absent the pressure—does not stem from an innate ability. It’s a learned skill, and everyone can develop it.
Key Takeaways: There are five key traits that make people clutch performers: (1) Focus; (2) Discipline; (3) Adaptability; (4) Being present; and (5) Fear and desire... to win. There are three traits all chokers—those who can’t perform under pressure—have: (1) Inability to accept responsibility for what they have done when something goes wrong; (2) Overthinking; and (3) Overconfidence.
Liked Most: Mr. Sullivan writes very well, conducts thorough research and interviews, and does a good job of balancing sports stories with those from other domains, such as business, the military, and theater. Making appearances are Tiger Woods, Alex Rodriguez, lawyer David Boies, trader Steven Cohen, JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, BofA’s Ken Lewis, marine Sergeant Willie Copeland, and actor Larry Clarke. And, since one of my favorite stories to tell used to be about some wisdom Tiger Woods once imparted to me, so the conclusion, called “The Tiger Conundrum: Is He Still Clutch?” was intriguing.
Liked Least: First, Mr. Sullivan declares the recent Toyota recall and media-hyped frenzy over “sudden unexpected acceleration” as a choke due to the company’s overconfidence, resulting in general organization complacency. This is a simplistic view of matters, seeing that as of this writing no one, including Toyota, has factually determined the exact root cause of the problem. (Disclosure: I was a retained advisor to Toyota for eight years.) These few pages, though, do not detract from my liking the book. In fact, it made me like it more since it gave me something to debate and discuss.
Second, the promise of showing how to develop yourself into a clutch performer is never really fulfilled. There is a chapter on “How to be Clutch with Your Money” and one on “How to be Clutch in Sports,” but these are simply more examples with a few takeaways similar to what was already delivered in earler chapter. That said, learning to be a clutch performer from a book is like learning to swim from a book, so my expectation wasn't that high in the first place. I was after the material in the first two parts of the book.
Best For: If you’re looking to understand better why you never miss a four-foot put on the practice green, never double-fault when practicing tennis serves, never forget a line when giving a presentation—but always seem to when the heat is on—read this book.
What Others Say: “Everyone knows that it’s difficult to work under intense pressure, but what Paul Sullivan explains so well in this book is that there is a certain art to it that anyone can master. Clutch is an engaging and insightful read that will help you overcome even the toughest challenges.” —Lou Holtz
Rating: 9 (out of 10)
Matthew E. May is the author of The Shibumi Strategy: A Powerful Way to Create Meaningful Change, forthcoming from Jossey-Bass. He blogs at MatthewEMay.com, and you can follow him on Twitter here.