If you look in Webster’s Dictionary (if people still use dictionaries nowadays) and search for the word “clutch”, you will see the following: def. Damian Lillard.
With under 10 seconds remaining in regulation in Game 5 of a 1st round playoff matchup against the Thunder, Damian Lillard dribbles the ball around half court, Paul George defending. As the clock winds down, with under 2 seconds remaining and Lillard still around half-court, knocks down an unbelievable stepback jumper to send the Trailblazers into the 2nd round of the playoffs and the fans into a frenzy.
In professional sports, particularly the NBA, it’s hard to think of any other player right now who embodies the meaning of clutch more than that man. When Lillard is on the floor in the 4th quarter and there’s under a minute left in regulation, the game clock is no longer the only factor dictating the flow of the game. Oftentimes, it seems the opposing team might as well walk off the floor and head to the locker room because when Lillard is in the clutch, it’s “Dame Time”.
Whether it’s a buzzer-beater in the regular season or Game 7 of the Playoffs, Lillard seems unfazed by the magnitude of the moment. The statistics back this up: In the 2020-2021 NBA season, Lillard led the league in clutch points with 162; “clutch” is defined by the NBA as the final five minutes of the game with a point differential of five or fewer. Not only that, he scored with remarkable efficiency: shooting over 50% from the floor and 39% from three during these periods. If Lillard wasn’t plagued by injuries this season, he would’ve likely led the league in clutch points once again.
Now, seeing that there are plenty of talented players in professional sports, how is someone like Damian Lillard able to consistently hit clutch shots, while others tense up, freeze, or decide to let someone else take the responsibility for winning (or losing) the game?
Is Dame human? Yes (although that can be surprising at times). What separates Dame from other NBA players is the mentality that allows him to stay present and face high-pressure moments on the court with a clear perspective.
In the article on Michael Jordan and his use of mindfulness, we discuss the fact that while all athletes have exceptional talent, they do not all have the same capabilities related to their mental performance. Similar to MJ, mindfulness is incorporated into Lillard’s approach as he often appears to be focused solely on the moment. However, Dame also takes a more worldly approach to the court. In an interview with Sporting News back in 2017, Lillard was asked if the expectations for the Blazers that season, coming off a Western Conference Semis run the year prior, added any pressure on him and his teammates. His response:
“Lillard: Pressure, nah. Fam, this is just playing ball. Pressure is the homeless man, who doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from. Pressure is the single mom, who is trying to scuffle and pay her rent. We get paid a lot of money to play a game. Don’t get me wrong — there are challenges. But to call it pressure is almost an insult to regular people.” (Sporting News, 2017).
When athletes make it to the professional level, there’s no doubt they’ve worked tremendously hard to reach that point. In addition, professional athletes have had to overcome different types of adversity and perform under varying levels of pressure, pressures which only increase once they arrive on the largest stages. However, to Dame, he looks at the pressure he faces in basketball with a tremendously humble perspective. People are facing hardships every day along a wide continuum. Most people would love to have the “pressure” Dame faces. Often we compare ourselves to others who have more than we do or appear to have what we desire, Dame demonstrates the importance of complete perspective, being grateful and appreciative for what we have and the situations we are placed in.
The reason this perspective can be so difficult for us as human beings is because we are wired this way. From an evolutionary perspective our brains are trained to pick out the negatives, to look for safety, and to look to attain more. This is called the Negativity Bias. When our ancestors were living in the middle of the jungle or under less safe circumstances, if they missed the jungle cat, poisonous snake or deadly berry in their surroundings it would limit their ability to survive. If they missed something positive or comfortable it would often have little impact. Our nervous system is still to this day functioning under similar conditions. This is why keeping perspective and becoming aware of the reactions of our nervous system are vital to high level performance.
Furthermore, as an athlete, when you put the situation you are facing into greater perspective, it will help you to relax. Because after all, sports at the end of the day are a game, regardless of if you’re getting paid millions to play or nothing at all. Now, that doesn’t mean your particular situation isn’t important: it is. But the outcome of one game does not define your abilities or your worth. When you are less fixated on the outcome, you will play more relaxed and with greater fluidity, which is a much more likely recipe for optimal performance. It’s like the stereotypical dating advice of not chasing someone and instead letting them come to you (like that ever works, but I think you get the point). In sports, when athletes give it their all and aren’t clinging to the outcome, they put themselves in a stronger position to achieve success.
You may be thinking that it sounds nice to be able to handle high-pressure moments like Damian Lillard with supreme composure and confidence, but how will I be able to handle the moment when it comes? To answer this, I think it’s important to mention that when a make-or-break opportunity in a game presents itself, you will feel some level of arousal. And this is totally normal. Feeling arousal or activation in sport is a positive, it means that the moment is important to you and that it has meaning in your life. In other words, it means you care. As a result, you’ll experience arousal of various intensities throughout the game, often reaching its peak when the clock is winding down and the game is on the line. You may think that experiencing this arousal is negative, but that is based on your interpretation of the situation. What matters is what you do with this energy and how you regulate yourself to be in the best frame of mind as possible. It is possible to feel comfortable being uncomfortable. Nervousness and excitement are operated by the same part of our nervous system, which means your nerves can also be interpreted as excitement.
From Verywell Mind:
If you are confident in your ability, you are more likely to have a positive reaction to being "pumped up" and will thrive on the challenge of competition. Elite athletes are often so focused on their behavior that they interpret arousal as excitement rather than anxiety. (Cuncic, 2020)
When it’s all said and done, how you talk to yourself while performing is incredibly important. Telling yourself that what your body is experiencing is harmful for your performance vs. framing these feelings as excitement and eagerness to perform, create much different approaches on the field or court. Also, reminding ourselves that the pressure you feel from yourself or others to perform can be reduced when you step back (pun intended) and view the context with greater perspective is extremely valuable. Overall, the tactics discussed are relatively simple in theory but could be the difference between passing the ball in crucial moments and winning the game.