In sports, high-powered incentives separate the clutch performers from the chokers.  At least that’s the usual narrative but can we really measure clutch performance?  There’s always a missing counterfactual.  We say that he chokes if he doesn’t come through when the stakes are raised.  But how do we know that he wouldnt have failed just as miserably under normal circumstances?  As long as performance has a random element, pure luck (good or bad) can appear as if it were caused by circumstances.

You could try a controlled experiment, and probably psychologists have.  But there is the usual leap of faith required to extrapolate from experimental subjects in artificial environments to professionals trained and selected for high-stakes performance.

Here is a simple quasi-experiment that could be done with readily available data.  In basketball when a team accumulates more than 5 fouls, each additional foul sends the opponent to the free-throw line.  This is called the “bonus.”  In college basketball the bonus has two levels.  After fouls 5-10 (correction: fouls 7-9) the penalty is what’s called a “one and one.”  One free-throw is awarded, and then a second free-throw is awarded only if the first one is good.  After 10 fouls the team enters the “double bonus” where the shooter is awarded two shots no matter what happens on the first.  (In the NBA there is no “single bonus,” after 5 fouls the penalty is two shots.)

The “front end” of the one-and-one is a higher stakes shot because the gain from making it is 1+p points where p is the probability of making the second.  By contrast the gain from making the first of two free throws is just 1 point.  On all other dimensions these are perfectly equivalent scenarios, and it is the most highly controlled scenario in basketball.

The clutch performance hypothesis would imply that success rates on the front end of a one and one are larger than success rates on the first free-throw out of two.  The choke-under-pressure hypothesis would imply the opposite.  It would be very interesting to see the data.

And if there was a difference, the next thing to do would be to analyze video to look for differences in how players approach these shots.  For example I would bet that there is a measurable difference in the time spent preparing for the shot.  If so, then in the case of choking the player is “overthinking” and in the clutch case this would provide support for an effort-performance tradeoff.

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