New York Times columnist, part-time Naples resident performs ‘Clutch’ play

Some people thrive under pressure; others are thwarted.

Then there are those who shine when confronting one sort of stress, but crumple when faced with a different kind. Several years ago, New York Times columnist and part-time Naples resident Paul Sullivan began to mull the reasons behind such failures and successes, and the result is his new book, “Clutch.”

The title refers to a term that’s frequently used in sports to describe and praise a player who can be counted on to perform, even under duress.

“We want to be the clutch performer,” Sullivan said. “We root for people who are clutch.”

But as Sullivan argues in “Clutch,” not everyone who is routinely called clutch actually deserves the distinction, and not every clutch moment occurs on the game field. His book examines some of the finest — and most regrettable — moments in recent history and seeks to explain why they occurred.

Prominent attorney David Boies is profiled, as is a Secret Service agent who successfully defended President Bill Clinton from a potentially dangerous member of the public. And golfer Tiger Woods, long known for his cool on the course, takes the book’s conclusion as Sullivan examines whether the scandal-plagued sports superstar can still be considered clutch.

The book, which was called “perceptive and original” by Publishers Weekly, also counsels readers on how to cultivate their own clutch abilities.

“I hope it shows that we have an ability to get better,” Sullivan said.

That’s proved to be the case for Sullivan’s golf game, which was one of the inspirations for writing the book. A longtime golfer, Sullivan frequently plays with friends and family; one of his favorite Neapolitan courses is the Naples Beach Hotel and Golf Club, although he also enjoys Wyndemere Country Club and Tiburon Golf Club courses.

In casual games, Sullivan’s scores were usually a source of pride. But when it came to playing in tournaments, he invariably choked.

The idea for the book began to percolate in 2007, when Sullivan, who writes the “Wealth Matters” column for the Times, found himself reporting on various high-profile financial failures. Many of the figures at the center of these debacles were clearly intelligent, yet they went to pieces under mounting professional pressure.

Sullivan quipped to a friend that those failures reminded him of when he played in a golf tournament. He began to think more critically about why competent people fall apart under stress — or why they don’t — and decided to research the concept of clutch as it applied not only to sports, but also to business, law, the military and the stage.

“At the end of the day, this book is for everybody,” he said.

In his research, Sullivan found that there are five factors that influence a person’s ability to be clutch: focus, discipline, adaptability and being present. The final quality is fear and desire. Of the five, a person’s ability to focus is perhaps the most significant clutch-making characteristic.

“There’s nothing arbitrary about how I rank the five,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan noted that focus is more than simply being able to concentrate. Concentration is useful when driving down Tamiami Trail in high season as you make your way to a dinner reservation, he said; by contrast, focus is what you’ll need to steer a borrowed Bugatti Veyron around a racetrack. Concentration is a flashlight, Sullivan explains, while focus is a laser beam.

In his book, Sullivan also reveals what can’t count as being clutch. Clutch performers aren’t successful because they’re lucky — they’re successful because, even under pressure, they are able to keep making their usual intelligent decisions. They also manage not to over-think those decisions or become too confident in their own abilities.

For Sullivan, writing the book has helped him not only understand the how and why of clutch performance, but also served to strengthen his own clutch abilities. He considers himself more at ease under pressure, and now uses some of the book’s discoveries in his own personal and professional life.

His golf tournament playing skills have improved, too.

“If nothing else, I’m much better when I get invited to somebody’s fancy club to play in a tournament,” he said, laughing.

For more information about Sullivan’s book, log onto the website at

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Contact Elizabeth Kellar at

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