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Flow + Clutch = Peak Performance
Finding the right formula for maximizing your capabilities
Last night the Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler went off for 56 points in a big win over the #1 seeded Milwaukee Bucks and go up 3-1 in the first round of the NBA playoffs. If you watched the game, you know how awesome it was to see Butler absolutely take over. If not, check out these highlights or scroll NBA Twitter—neither will leave you disappointed.
It was so obviously a dominant performance, you can’t help but wonder, why doesn’t this happen every night? Why are these performances so rare? What can performers do the re-create this experience more often?
Dr. Robert Harmison provides an excellent point of view:
“First, elite athletes are multidimensional and complex beings, implying that a number of psychological, physical, technical, and tactical factors interact with one another to determine an athlete’s performance. Second, elite athletes do not compete in a vacuum; that is, a host of environmental and contextual variables will also either facilitate or inhibit athletes’ attempts to achieve at their best.”
In other words, there are a lot of variables that need to be properly aligned in order to achieve peak performance, but there are theories in place for how this occurs.
Research in sport psychology suggests that peak performance comes from a blend of both flow and clutch states. Flow is a description of feeling more than anything, and is what many people refer to as being “in the zone.” It can be thought of as the minimum set of requirements for peak performance. This includes states such as a balance between challenge and ability, total immersion in the task, total concentration, and a seemingly distorted sense of time. Flow is also associated with “open” goals like “going faster” or “just going for it.” Clutch performance, on the other hand, describes what is occurring as it actually pertains to performance. It describes what performers are actually doing to achieve such high levels of performance, such as putting in greater levels of effort and focus and understanding the situational demands and their level of importance. Additionally, “closed” goals that have a clear and specific outcome in mind, such as “get to the finish line” or “sink this putt” help lead to clutch performance.
This model, put together by Swann and colleagues (2017), shows some of the similarities and differences between flow versus clutch. The highlighted sections are areas that I feel are more actionable in terms of re-creating a peak performance experience. In the following section, I’ll group the highlighted elements based on the mental strategy that I think would most appropriately support these aspects of flow and clutch, and ultimately contribute to peak performance.
Absence of critical/negative thoughts
Complete and deliberate focus
Mindfulness—or a state of non-judge mental awareness of the present moment—is a practice that can address all of these factors. Although mindfulness doesn’t help with reducing/getting rid of critical or negative thoughts, it does encourage individuals to observe them without becoming too emotionally invested. It trains you to see them for what they are: simply strings of words that our minds create. The ability to notice these thoughts, sensations, emotions, and feelings as they rise and fall not only enhances our internal/external awareness, but also reminds us to come back to the present moment—whether that be your focus on the breath or an object in the environment. In doing so, you practice strengthening your attention to the present moment, making it easier to become absorbed in the task at hand, rather than being caught up in experiences of the past, or thoughts of the future.
Decision to increase effort and intensity
The ability to manage your body’s level of energy is an essential skill for peak performance. Getting to your optimal level of arousal starts before the performance even begins. Performance routines and imagery are two empirically backed strategies that Krane, Williams, and Graupensperger (2021) identify for effective arousal control. Of note, however, is that clutch performance requires a decision to increase effort and intensity. It’s an active process, not a passive one. Thus, it’s essential to define what that looks like for you. What actions are associated with greater effort and intensity? What’s possible from a physical standpoint? From a mental standpoint? What are you deciding to commit to in terms of your actual performance behaviors to get the job done?
Automaticity of skills
Deliberate practice has a few important characteristics: it is intentional, it is hyper focused on specific aspects of performance that need to be improved, it occurs outside of one’s comfort zone, and it is sequential in nature (meaning that it progresses based on what has already been mastered and what is still deemed to be outside of one’s comfort zone). This type of practice, as opposed to mindlessly going through the motions, can not only promote greater automaticity of skills, but also build confidence. The experience of successfully accomplishing the task you’ve set out for is what psychology refers to as “mastery experiences” and they are of the strongest sources of confidence available.
As Harmon’s quote illustrates, this is not a “one size fits all” approach. The circumstances and context of each performance certainly impact one’s ability to achieve peak performance. But if you are trying to give yourself the best opportunity to perform at your highest level as frequently as possible, why not tailor your training to address the actionable aspects of flow and clutch performance? Mindfulness, stress management/activation, and deliberate practice can help you maximize this capacity.
No threads, no hacks—just science and it’s applications. 🧠 📈
Krane, K., Williams, J.M., & Graupensperger, S.A. (2020). Psychological characteristics of peak performance. In J.M. Williams & V. Krane (Eds.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (8th ed., pp. 163-164). McGraw-Hill. ISBN: 978-1259922398
Harmison, R. J. (2006). Peak performance in sport: Identifying ideal performance states and developing athletes' psychological skills. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 37(3), 233–243. https://doi.org/10.1037/0735-7028.37.3.233