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Book Review: Clutch: Why Some People Excel under Pressure and Others Don't

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I was pretty excited to get my hands on Clutch: Why Some People Excel under Pressure and Others Don't by Paul Sullivan. Sure, I care about the business implications -- as an entrepreneur, it's key to be clutch. But I'll be honest; my son wants to be a pro baseball pitcher. This means each week I sit and stress as he pitches to kids 3 years older than him. Yet he continues to amaze me with his ability at age 10 to strike out batters nearly a foot taller and who look like they'll be shaving any day now.  

On occasions when things don't go so well and the coach heads out to the mound for a chat, I'm in the stands internalizing how I would be kicking the dirt with my head hung out of failure and embarrassment. But my son just shrugs his shoulders, gives a big toothy grin and asks to stay in to "fix it." Then he buckles down and gets the job done. So is he clutch?  Or is he just 10?

While I looked at this book from a sports perspective, I'm a strong believer that everything I learned playing competitive sports has helped me in business. For the non-sports fans, there are plenty of non-sporting examples in Clutch, and it should appeal to all.

Part I looks at 5 "clutch" traits: Focus, discipline, adapting, being present and "fear and desire."  Here are two sections I found instructive:

After a slow start (I wasn't keen on the lawyer scenarios Sullivan uses at the beginning), the book finds its groove when it focuses on the high-pressure job of being a trader. "In this high-stress activity, how you manage the process is critical to managing the stress ... As the stress gets greater, the ability to think rationally declines." And that is where discipline kicks in -- if you are disciplined, it takes the emotion out of the situation. As we learn later in the book, discipline comes with practice and a focus on fundamentals.

A common denominator among successful traders was that they didn't like to fail, which he differentiated from losing. "All traders lose at some point, but it doesn't mean they failed. It means they lost on a particular day." Successful traders have the discipline to adjust their strategy so that they won't lose money the next day.

The example of a Marine convoy ambush was the most compelling example of "Clutch" in the book. The squad's team leader made strategic decisions under the most extreme pressure in order to save his commanding officer and his team. The key was that he stuck to the goal (getting his team to safety) but was not wedded to the original plan. 

I actually found that Part II, which looked at reasons people choke, helped explain what it meant to be "clutch" even better than the opening chapters. Sullivan points to three reasons people choke: An inability to take personal responsibility, over-thinking and overconfidence. 

Of the three, the latter two seemed obvious, but the first one was interesting. Sullivan uses the examples of two leaders in the banking industry to show how one leader's inability to take personal responsibility put him in a deeper hole and prevented him from being "clutch."

When it comes to over-thinking and overconfidence, Sullivan used two baseball players: David Price (clutch) and A-Rod (not so much in the post-season). The big difference between the two was that A-Rod often thought about what his accomplishments would mean in the history books, and Price was just thinking about the next pitch. Of course I read this section to my son. There was also credit to coaches who ran practices as if they were game situations. Not sure I'm totally keen on this for the little leagues but understand its value at a professional level.

Sullivan didn't disappoint me by concluding with an entire section dedicated to "how to be clutch in sports."  The secret: Trust in what got you there. If there is one single takeaway from the book it's "get the fundamentals right, and the rest will come."  Without good technique, the rest falls apart under pressure. The same could be said for an entrepreneur and her business plan.

Daily Dose Bottom Line:  While it was really hard to sum this book up and cover all the great examples, I felt that I finally understood what it means to be clutch in sports or business. I highly recommend it to any entrepreneur, because owning a business involves constant decision-making under pressure and you have to be "clutch" to survive and thrive.

Addendum for Sports Parents

I know it's a pipe dream to play any professional sport, and I bite my tongue to keep from saying so to my son. My goal is to make sure he enjoys the effort he puts into pursuing his dream. And if he can learn to be clutch in sports, I hope he will take that knowledge into the business world with him.

Based on the book, my son seems to be on the right track. He's focused on the fundamentals and has the discipline that keeps the emotions at bay when it gets tough. In fact, when things start spinning out of control on the mound, we have a signal. He looks over at me and I give him what we call the "Madagascar Penguin wave." He tells me that when he sees me wave, what he hears in his head is what those cartoon penguins say whenever their ship is going down, "Smile and wave, boys. Smile and wave," and that's the motivation he needs to focus back on the mechanics.

I also couldn't read this book without constantly thinking about Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success. According to Gladwell, outliers (i.e. exceptional people in sports, business and other endeavors) put in 10,000 hours of practice before they succeed. In Outliers, Gladwell highlights a study that showed most top Canadian hockey players are born between January and March of each year. This was likely due to their school cutoff date being Jan. 1, which meant that at age 5, 6 and 7, those boys born during the first quarter were the oldest, strongest and potentially most mature. As a result, they were most likely to be picked for the travel teams with superior coaching and more practice time. In essence, they got to their 10,000 hours faster.

The other week I was putting together the birth certificates for my son's travel basketball team. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that with our school's cutoff date being in September, 80 percent of the team was born in the fourth quarter of the year. 

Since we're on the topic of business books and youth sports, there is one final book that had some sports relevance in our house: Jack Welch's Straight from the Gut. Welch opens his autobiography with a story about his abysmal display of unsportsmanlike conduct after a loss in a high school hockey game. He writes how his mother stormed into the locker room, mortifying him in front of his teammates. She grabbed him by the uniform and shouted, "You punk! ... if you don't know how to lose, you'll never know how to win.  If you don't know this, you shouldn't be playing."

The first time my son acted unsportsmanlike after a loss, I sat him down and read him those two pages, and we talked about how his behavior diminished both himself and the other team's victory. I made clear that if he ever behaved that way again, I would not hesitate to pull a Mrs. Welch. That was more than two years ago. Fortunately, I haven't had to pull a Mrs. Welch -- not even close.

So is my kid "clutch?"  The jury is still out. But at the baseball awards the other week, his coach introduced him as the most "poised" 10-year-old pitcher he's ever seen. After the ceremony, my son ran over and asked "What's poised?"

I told him, "calm, focused and well-balanced."

"So, like David Price in your book?"

"Yeah, it's probably part of it."

"Cool.  Now let's go, let's go!"

"Where?" I asked.

"Gotta practice Mom ... you know ,10,000 hours?  C'mon Mom, let's go. "