How Super Bowl Players Could Perform In The 'Clutch' In his new book, Clutch, New York Times business columnist Paul Sullivan studies some of the world's best clutch performers like Billy Jean King, Tiger Woods and JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon. Host Liane Hansen talks with Sullivan about what might happen in Sunday's Super Bowl.

How Super Bowl Players Could Perform In The 'Clutch'

How Super Bowl Players Could Perform In The 'Clutch'

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In his new book, Clutch, New York Times business columnist Paul Sullivan studies some of the world's best clutch performers like Billy Jean King, Tiger Woods and JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon. Host Liane Hansen talks with Sullivan about what might happen in Sunday's Super Bowl.


One thrilling moment in any sports contest is the clutch play, a last-ditch effort to save the day. In football, consider the Hail Mary pass, in which a player attempts to move the ball down the field by throwing it hard and praying for a touchdown. The opposite of the clutch play is the choke, a failure to be up to the task.

Paul Sullivan writes about both possibilities in his book, "Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Others Don't." He joins us from our New York bureau. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. PAUL SULLIVAN (Author): Thank you very much for having me on.

HANSEN: So, elaborate. What are the traits in someone who you can fairly say won't choke under pressure?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Yeah, and that's where this book is fun and interesting to people beyond football fans. Because I found that regardless of what you do - whether you're a football player, a golfer, or a litigator, or a businessperson or a parent - the five key traits are the same throughout, regardless of who you are. And those traits are: Focus, discipline, adaptability, being present, and what I'd call the push and pull of fear and desire. And it's very important. Those traits I found are in a particular order and they sort of -they run sequentially for people who are great under pressure.

HANSEN: Do you have to have them all at the same time? I mean athletes are disciplined by nature. They've shown that they can harness fear and desire -sometimes - but might not be focused or able to adapt. Do you have to have all five?

Mr. SULLIVAN: You don't have to have all five. But I would say that they do go in that order. So if you're not first focused on whatever your goal is - and there's a big difference between being focused on something and concentrating on the details. You focus on this one goal, you block everything else out. Discipline helps you maintain that focus, helps you keep going.

Adaptability is very important and often overlooked, because, look, if you're a football player, if you're a parent, you may have this plan, it may be working well but if something from the outside world, some force changes, you have to be able to adapt. I mean, the military is great at this, the Secret Service is great at this.

Being present is the fourth step but it's something that I think a lot of people struggle with, particularly those who get stage fright, who get up there and are giving some sort of presentation. Instead of thinking, OK, this is my pressure moment, this is when I'm going to, you know, really shine, they either remember a time in the past when they choked or, you know, just as perniciously they remember a time in the past where they really excelled and that distracts them from that one pressure moment.

HANSEN: Let's talk about today's game. What could test Ben Roethlisberger's performance as the Steelers quarterback?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Somebody like Roethlisberger and a lot of the Steelers have a tremendous advantage of having - this is their third trip to the Super Bowl in six years; it's familiar to them. But that can be a detriment. You can get a bit too overconfident. You can think, you know what? I've done it before, I can do it again. You know, maybe you can. You need to be confident, but that cockiness is what can really bring you down. And that's something that somebody like Roethlisberger is really going to have to guard against.

HANSEN: Now, how is the pressure different for Aaron Rodgers of the Packers?

Mr. SULLIVAN: This is his first time. He's taken over the Packers from an amazing quarterback in Brett Favre. There's this whole history of the Packers of winning. And if he wins, it's great, but people are kind of discounting him because they think, well, you know, it's Roethlisberger. He's got two Super Bowl rings already.

But I think what people forget is that somebody like Rodgers, I mean, he got there by winning five straight do-or-die games. I mean, he's on a run that reminds me of what Eli Manning did back in 2008 against the New England Patriots and Tom Brady. Nobody really thought he would get there and he did. And by all accounts, from people who knew him when he played in college, he's got the perfect disposition to handle the pressure.

He's been described as being confident but not cocky, and that's really something you need to possess when the pressure really ratchets up.

HANSEN: What will you be watching for during the game today?

Mr. SULLIVAN: I'll definitely be watching Rodgers. I mean, I'm much more interested in him to see if he can pull it off. I believe he can, and I believe from the research that I've done, this is really the perfect moment for him. He's showing every single attribute of somebody who should be clutch. I define the term in the book as the ability to do what you can do under normal circumstances under pressure.

One other brief point: even if the Packers lose, it doesn't mean that Rodgers and the rest of the team choke. I think we often get confused - you can do a good job at something, you can do a bad job at something, but one team always has to lose. And it doesn't mean that that team or that quarterback choked under pressure. They may have just had a bad day.

HANSEN: Paul Sullivan is a business columnist for the New York Times. His book is called "Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure And Others Don't." He joined us from our bureau in New York. Thanks very much.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Liane, thank you for having me on.

(Soundbite of song, "All Kinds of Time")

FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE: (Singing) The clock's running down, the team's losing ground to the opposing defense...

HANSEN: "All Kinds of Time," a song by the band Fountains of Wayne, pretty well captures that pivotal moment on the field when all eyes are on the quarterback.

(Soundbite of song, "All Kinds of Time")

FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE: (Singing) ...he takes a step back, he's under attack, but he knows that no one can touch him now. He seems so at ease, a strange inner peace is all that he's feeling somehow. He's got all kinds of time, he's got all kinds of time, all kinds of time...

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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