Sports Science Quarterly – Q1 2024

Every quarter we take a deep dive into the latest research in sports science. In this edition we look at the latest research on the psychological states of top performance, utilizing skill acquisition support, sleep extension, the muscle morphology, and more.

As always, the full Sports Science Quarterly is available exclusively to HMMR Plus Members. You can browse the past topics on our archive page. The first topic below is free to everyone, but sign up now to read about all the latest research. To get an idea of what Sports Science Quarterly is all about, the April 2016 edition is available in its entirety for free.

This Quarter’s Topics

Psychological states of excellent performance

Quick Summary – Being able to perform to your potential is a crucial driver of elite athletic performance. This paper explores two key aspects of performing under pressure; the concept of flow, and that of clutch performance. Both states are unique and separate from each other, with the conditions for each varying. Knowing these differences, and how to potentially create flow or clutch experiences for athletes, is an important consideration for coaches looking to support their athletes’ performances.

A key part of elite sporting performance is being able to perform on the day it matters—be that at the Olympics, World Championships, National Championships, or whatever the main competition for an athlete is within a given year. An inherent aspect of being able to perform on the day it counts is knowing how to deliver that performance—you may have heard athletes refer to “being in the zone”, for example. Understanding the psychological states that underpin elite performance in sport allows us to then provide recommendations and create interventions to support the attainment and maintenance of those states, and thus support performance.

The study of optimal performance states in elite sport is typically focused on optimal experiences—positive states of consciousness that provide strong positive feelings. One such optimal experience is that of flow, which is defined as a harmonious and intrinsically rewarding state that is characterized by intense focus and absorption in a specific activity, and a sense of everything coming together (“clicking”), even in challenging situations. Another common area of study of performance states is the concept of peak performance—a state of accomplishment that comes as a consequence of sustained effort and concentration. Research focusing on peak performance has explored the psychological characteristics associated with this state, with a recent review highlighting that peak performance is associated with a psychological profile that is comprised of feelings of self-confidence and expectations of success, being energized and feeling relaxed, feeling in control, experiencing high levels of concentration and a focus on the task, and being determined and committed. There is an overlap between optimal experiences—and, in particular, flow—and optimal performance states. Confidence, a sense of control, concentration, automaticity, and enjoyment of the experience are key aspects of both.

In a study from 2016, Swann and colleagues reported two different psychological states that elite golfers experienced during a competition; letting it happen and making it happen. Letting it happen corresponded with the definition and description of flow, whilst making it happen did not. Making it happen was described as a more intense and effortful state of heightened concentration and awareness, with flow occurring at any stage, and confidence gradually building. In contrast, making it happen was associated with a more sudden appraisal of situational demands at important stages towards the end of a competition.

As such, the findings suggest that flow does not fully account for optimal sporting performance, and making it happen may support excellent performance in some contexts, but without flow or peak performance. As an example, making it happen is effortful and intense, as opposed to flow, which is associated with feelings of effortlessness and automaticity, with little to no conscious thought. There is some evidence that making it happen may align with the concept of clutch performance, which has been defined as “any performance increment or superior performance that occurs under pressure circumstances”. Typically, for a performance to be defined as clutch, the athlete must be aware of the pressure, have the capacity to experience stress, perceive the outcomes of the competition as important, and succeed largely through effort—almost the opposite of flow.

A study from 2017 aimed to increase our knowledge in this area by exploring the psychological states underpinning excellent performance in athletes across a range of sports and standards. To do this, the authors recruited athletes who had recently achieved an excellent performance, which included personal bests, winning tournaments, placing highly in competitive events, and recognition from others (e.g., player of the match awards). In total, 26 athletes (13 women) were interviewed for this study. The average age of the participants was 29, with the majority (19) of the athletes based in England. The participants ranged in performance level from amateur to elite world class.

Two key states were experienced by these athletes during their recent excellent performances. The first was referred to as “when you’re flowing” and “being on autopilot”. These descriptions are similar to those used to describe flow, highlighting that these reports suggest the athlete was in a flow state. The second state was described as “grinding” and “gritty”; specifically, not as easy or as comfortable as flow. This is similar to the descriptions of “making it happen”, which supports the idea that these athletes were experiencing clutch performance. Athletes were able to clearly distinguish between the two states, and there were no differences in how these states were experienced or occurred between athletes of differing levels of performance standard, or from different sports.

In this sample of athletes, flow tended to occur in three specific situations:

  • Uncertainty – in terms of either their progress or the outcome of the event.
  • Novelty – e.g., playing for a new team for the first time, or competing over a different distance to normal.
  • Experimenting – when athletes were trying out different things during the performance.

There were also five stages reported when athletes achieved a flow state:

  • Initial positive event – flow tended to follow an initial positive event, such as making a big tackle early in a match;
  • Positive feedback – these positive events then provided the athletes with positive feedback around the physical and mental states they were in;
  • Increasing confidence – in turn, this increased the confidence in the player that they could achieve performance excellence;
  • Challenge appraisal – this increased confidence, in turn, caused the players/athletes to appraise the situation, and set new challenges which continued the experience of flow. For example, a middle distance runner decided to increase their pace for the last two laps of a race based on their success early on;
  • Open goals – having appraised the situation, the athletes reported setting goals that did provide for a specific outcome – e.g., they were more likely to have a goal of “lets see what happens if I can hold this pace for a lap” as opposed to “I want to be first at the end of this lap”.

Some athletes also reported experiencing clutch states—which were deemed to be distinct from flow, and occurring within different contexts. When recalling clutch performances, the athletes spoke about the need to achieve an outcome regardless of the experience—“doing what needs to be done”. Clutch states were reported to primarily occur during an important stage of performance, when an outcome was imminent. These included being in contention to win an event or achieve a set performance (e.g., a qualifying time). As a result, clutch performances often occur at the end of a given performance. The athletes described three key stages in the process of clutch performance:

  • Challenge appraisals – Clutch performances begin with athletes making an assessment of the position they are in, which includes an awareness of situation demands. In track and field, for example, it could be a long jumper being aware that this is the last round of the competition, and they’re currently in 4th place. Along with this comes a sense of “now is the time” – i.e., performance has to happen now.
  • Fixed goals – following this assessment, the athletes set and pursue a goal specific to their situation demands. Returning to the long jumper, this could be “jumping 5cm further and moving into silver medal position”. These goals tend to fixed, in as much as they are objective, measurable, and outcome focused. This is in direct contrast to flow, in which open goals are often used.
  • Decision to increase intensity and effort – having set the goals, the athletes then reported a conscious decision to increase their intensity and effort, as a means of meeting the demands of the situation.

Having completed a “clutch” performance, the athletes recalled it as not being enjoyable, but delivering a sense of achievement, pride, and satisfaction. They reported the experience as exhausting—it required them to “give everything”, and, as a result, it used up all their energy. This is different to flow, which has been reported as effortless, and even enjoyable. Compared to flow, clutch performance also requires a state of complete and deliberate focus, intense effort, and heightened awareness, with the execution of specific skills reported as being automatic. The heightened awareness of the task demands means that clutch performance is also comprised of the absence of negative thoughts. There are similarities between flow and clutch performances, namely absorption, confidence, perceived control, motivation, altered perceptions, and the aforementioned absence of negative thoughts.

During clutch performance, the athletes identified a number of skills that they utilised. These included maintaining perspective and then setting short-term goals—for example, realizing that physical discomfort is temporary, and making an effort to catch the person ahead. Some athletes maintained the clutch state by being weary of complacency—“this isn’t won yet”—and utilised self-monitoring and positive self-talk to maintain their confidence.

An important finding was that athletes reported transitioning between flow and clutch states during the same performance, and, whilst clutch was typically reported to occur at the end of a performance, many athletes also reported experiencing it earlier, such as at the end of a half in football.

As a result of these interviews, the researchers developed an integrated model of flow and clutch states in sport, which you can access here. In essence, the model outlines the different contexts in which flow and clutch occur, the respective processes associated with each, and then the experiences which underpin each state. Flow tends to occur in performance contexts that are novel and uncertain, and hence allow for exploration and experimentation. Clutch performances tend to occur in important moments, where the outcome is on the line and the athlete is in contention for a successful outcome. In terms of facilitating both outcomes, the authors recommend a focus on enhancing confidence in exploratory contexts, and setting open goals as a means of supporting athlete to experience flow. To develop clutch state performance, coaches should set fixed goals, and support athletes in developing strategies to increase their perception of control during events of increased importance.

Overall, this study goes a great way in increasing our knowledge about flow and clutch states in sport, highlighting the differences (and similarities) between the two. This is important, as athletes may be able to perform better in one state than the others; recognizing this, and the processes that underpin each, is therefore important. Ultimately, performance on the day of major competition is what makes a champion, and so a better understanding of the processes that underpin this allows us to support our athletes in achieving their goals.

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