Posted by Neil Paine on June 9, 2010
In this Huffington Post piece, MIT Management Professor Dan Ariely looked at two high-pressure jobs -- Wall Street Bankers and NBA basketball players -- to see if some people actually respond positively to stress:
"With the help of Duke University men's basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski ("Coach K"), we got a group of professional coaches to identify clutch players in the NBA (the coaches agreed, to a large extent, about who is and who is not a clutch player). Next, we watched videos of the twenty most crucial games for each clutch player in an entire NBA season (by most crucial, we meant that the score difference at the end of the game did not exceed three points). For each of those games, we measured how many points the clutch players had shot in the last five minutes of the first half of each game, when pressure was relatively low. Then we compared that number to the number of points scored during the last five minutes of the game, when the outcome was hanging by a thread and stress was at its peak. We also noted the same measures for all the other "nonclutch" players who were playing in the same games."
Their initial finding?
"We found that the non-clutch players scored more or less the same in the low-stress and high-stress moments, whereas there was actually a substantial improvement for clutch players during the last five minutes of the games. So far it looked good for the clutch players and, by analogy, the bankers, as it seemed that some highly qualified people could, in fact, perform better under pressure."
However, upon further inspection, they found that the "clutch players" in the study didn't shoot better in the last 5 minutes... they just shot more. To use the Wall Street analogy, they knew they had to do something to justify their mystique and high salaries, so they make it look like work was getting done, even if they weren't necessarily being truly productive.
Now, creating shots in and of itself is a skill, and that's certainly what the study's clutch players did in the final 5 minutes. However, those players already proved they could create at a high level in ordinary situations, so it's difficult to imagine that creating even more shots in minutes 44-48 is so much tougher than in minutes 1-43, that only the special clutch players can do it in those closing sequences. And remember, they're not even making many of the extra shots, they're just taking them.
I clearly believe in a usage-efficiency trade-off, and in the value of creating shots, but theoretically the clutch players were supposed to be able to increase their efficiency in crunch time as well (or at least hold it constant), not just increase their usage.