Cover Image - The Clutch Gene: Coping With Pre-Game Anxiety

The Clutch Gene: Coping with Pre-Game Anxiety

By: Jonathan Spaan

Michael Jordan and the “Clutch Gene”

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been searching for new ways to spend my time while inside social distancing. Recently my brother, Max, and I have spent our Sunday nights watching ESPN’s most recent docuseries “The Last Dance”, which details Michael Jordan’s career with the Chicago Bulls. In the last episode of the series, Michael Jordan sinks the game winning shot against the Utah Jazz to win the 1998 NBA Finals. Like many other of the top athletes in sports, Michael Jordan is said to have the “clutch gene”, allowing him to perform at his peak in the highest moments. Although metaphorical, what is the “clutch gene”? And how does one develop it?

Battling Pre-Game Jitters

As a former Division 1 lacrosse athlete, and someone who spent his childhood playing sports, this is something I have struggled to answer for a long time. Throughout my athletic career I have encountered my fair share of “pre-game jitters”. However, this is not unique to me as an individual, nor is it unique to athletes alone. “Pregame jitters” can present in numerous facets of life, whether before a dance recital, while studying for a big test, or before an interview, stress and anxiety can significantly alter your performance.

Words of Affirmation

Over the years I have developed successful ways to cope with this stress and anxiety in order to minimize its effects on my performance. One of which is the use of positive words of affirmation. The night before every game I would set time aside to write a list detailing what I needed to do in order to be the most successful version of myself. Then, the day of the game, before suiting up in my uniform, I would find a quiet place to carefully read the list I had made the night prior. What I learned from repeating this exercise numerous times over is the value of positive words of affirmation. It is imperative to change negative self-talk through focusing on what you want to happen rather than what you’re afraid of happening. For example, on my list, instead of saying “don’t take any poor shots”, I would say “focus on shooting the ball to the goalie’s off-side”. Little adjustments in phrasing and terminology make all the difference as they trick your brain into rethinking and readjusting your outlook on the given task. This technique can be used in all aspects of life and is a healthy and effective way to build self-confidence.


Another successful method I have used to manage pre-game stress and anxiety is music. However, what I have learned from extensive discussions with teammates, is that the use of music as a coping mechanism depends on preference and varies between individuals. Therefore, it is critical to experiment with different genres to find what’s best for you. Upbeat music such as pop may make you more feel more positive and energetic; whereas, a genre with a slower tempo may sooth and relax you. Personally, I have found that country music suites me best. Nonetheless, this conclusion didn’t come without trial and error. For a large part of my athletic career I would listen to upbeat, high paced music before games to “pump me up”. But what I learned was that this only accelerated my pre-game stress. The music was so high paced that I would find myself even more worked up, putting even more pressure on myself. Country music on the other hand loosens me up as it reminds me of the summertime, a more natural, stress-free environment. What I found was when I was relaxed, loose, and enjoyed the moment, instead of putting too much stress on the outcome, was when I performed at my peak.

Can Anxiety Be Positive?

Through positive words of affirmation and music I have been able to minimize pre-game stress and anxiety to maximize my individual performance. However, it is also important to not always interpret “pre-game jitters” as a negative entity. The presence of pre-performance stress, whether before a game or taking a test, indicates that you care about the outcome, and that whatever task you are about to attempt holds an inner importance to you. This is something I learned throughout the course of my career. I’ll never forget an encounter I experienced before the championship game of my senior year of high school. Moments before the start of the game my coach approached me and asked if I was nervous. Unsure if I should disclose my anxiousness to him, I responded with a hesitant “yes”. His response: “good, that means you care; I’d be worried if you weren’t nervous”. That acceptance of my current mental state unexpectedly put my pre-game anxiety to rest. In that moment, I suddenly realized that it was perfectly acceptable to be nervous; and further, that stress can actually be turned into a positive.

Turning Stress Into A Positive

So, what is the clutch gene? Are some people really born more clutch than others? I beg to differ. I believe the clutch gene is the ability to control one’s inner stress and turn it into positive. This is done through self-reflection and experimentation with various coping mechanisms. Through this evolution one can properly develop the clutch gene. When an opportunity presents itself, will you be ready to capture it?

My name is Jonathan Spaan. I went to Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York where I was a Biology major and member of the Division 1 Lacrosse Team. I just completed my master’s degree in Medical Sciences from Boston University School of Medicine and am currently working at Boston Children’s Hospital conducting research in the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center.