Columnist

Sally Jenkins


Michigan’s Jordan Poole released the winning shot against Houston in the second round of the NCAA tournament. (Charlie Riedel/Associated Press)

Loyola’s Donte Ingram’s three-pointer knocked out Miami in the first round two days earlier. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The combination of gathered tension and free unwinding makes the buzzer-beater such an interesting shot to replay. Take Loyola Chicago’s Marques Townes, with that dodging ball move with six seconds left, then a rise in the air to ruffle the net calmly from deep in the corner as if he was dropping the ball off on the way to dinner. Nothing special about the shot at all — except the time on the clock and the way it ended, sending his team so improbably forward in the NCAA tournament.

Shot doctor Ben Sullivan collects buzzer-beaters. Every time somebody hits a game-winner in the final seconds, the Atlanta Hawks assistant coach goes to the tape and dissects it frame by frame. Sullivan, who is renowned for upping the percentages of players such as Kent Bazemore, says there are common characteristics to buzzer-beaters, even the ones that look desperate, such as that split-legged jumping jacker that Michigan freshman Jordan Poole sank to beat Houston and carry his team to the Sweet 16.

“If you freeze the tape, the split-second they are actually shooting, their body is on balance and their eyes are on target,” Sullivan said. “Their eyes are at rim; they can see it. They get themselves on balance for just long enough to shoot it.”

The analytics folks always are debating whether there is such a thing as clutch. Clutch-deniers argue that athletes tend to perform statistically at about the same level in regular situations as they do under pressure and that we overemphasize the last shot. So what? That entirely misses the point. Clutch describes a set of stresses that simply don’t exist earlier in the game. It’s well worth examining and even anatomizing how people can manage to make their arms and legs work in the most important moment, with stakes and pressures at their highest.

A buzzer-beater is a marriage of mechanics and mind-set, both of which can be taught and even imported by us commoners. Young ballplayers seem to be realizing this and increasingly practicing their minds as much as their bodies, employing cognitive training along with 1,000 shots or weight training.

“I consider the vast majority of what I do to be mental,” Sullivan said.

Sports psychologist Graham Betchart, founder of a company called Lucid, has been teaching the buzzer-beater state of mind to young ballplayers for some years now, building a stable of clients that includes Tyus Battle of Syracuse, as well as various NBAers such as Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Ben Simmons, Karl-Anthony Towns and Aaron Gordon. Betchart uses a variety of cognitive techniques, including yoga and meditation, to attain “presence,” that alert but restful state, a less woo-woo term for concentration. The player who makes a buzzer-beater, he contends, is not “pre-living or reliving”; rather, he has been trained to de-escalate the event and take his mind off results, the thinky state that can freeze a player with a fear of consequences, such as the impact on draft status or a contract.

To the buzzer-beating player, “Failure is not missing the shot; it’s ‘I didn’t take it,’ ” Betchart says. “It’s a complete shift, where everyone else is obsessed with winning and losing, which is paralyzing. People who have a hard time being present are afraid of the results.”

The mind-set can’t be trained overnight. Betchart starts working with athletes when they are teenagers — he has coached Battle since he was in high school and Gordon since he was 14 — and may not see the full results until they are collegians or pros, he said. He begins with visualization.

“Be where your feet are,” he tells them. “What do you see right now? Nine players and the refs, that’s what’s happening. Nothing else.”

The buzzer-beater doesn’t consider himself lucky or desperate. He has the ability to set his body on default, to achieve a state that Dan Peterson labels “automaticity.” Peterson, who co-authored “The Playmaker’s Advantage ” with noted sport performance scientist Leonard Zaichkowsky, said, “He’s not thinking at all about mechanics, the release point, where he is on floor.”

Listen to Poole talk about that last shot: “I’ve been hitting shots like this all year in practice,” he said. “I saw it. I looked at the board. I knew what I was supposed to be doing.”

This composure is reliant, of course, on conditioning. “There is being willing to do it, and then there is being able,” Sullivan said. A buzzer-beater has an essential economy and clarity that’s learned only through mundane but intense repetition, “hours and hours of diligently working on your craft so when you get to that moment you aren’t thinking, ‘How am I holding the ball? Am I leaning back or leaning forward?” Sullivan said. Automaticity starts with the feet on takeoff, which in turn align the shooting elbow, hip and wrist. A finished follow-through is a sign of someone who trusts his mechanics.

“You can see when someone tightens up; it doesn’t look as natural, doesn’t flow,” Sullivan said. “That’s a guy who doesn’t have as much belief.”

Sports psychologists and behavioral researchers have spent a lot of time thinking about choking. Buzzer-beaters are studied less commonly, but they yield an important insight, one that has nothing to do with clutch statistics. It’s this: Stress can sharpen a knife. “For sure,” Sullivan said.

Somewhere along the line, stress got a bad name. But stress is interesting and complicated, and the arousal it causes is a potential enhancer if you learn to use it. It’s a basic principle that the greater the pressure, the more our large motor skills improve, thanks to our adrenal firings. As Jeff Wise, author of the book “Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger ,” said, “Any idiot can run fast when a bear is chasing you.”

But stress has a subtler and not always helpful effect on fine motor control. For more than a century, psychologists have recognized something called the Yerkes-Dodson law: Performance of complex skills improves with a certain amount of stress but then declines if the stress increases further. But here’s the really interesting part: According to Wise, under even higher stress, such as the end of a hard-fought basketball game, performance can either decline catastrophically — or improve dramatically. And the more highly trained you are, the more likely the latter is to happen. It’s why Yo-Yo Ma can be at his best in a world-class concert hall.

“The better you are, the more true that is,” Wise explained. “Precision and fine motor coordination depend on skills, but there is a mental component, too, that is very much affected by your arousal level, which in turn is affected by your conception of what you’re doing. There’s a big similarity between fear and excitement. If you interpret it as terrifying, then you’ll do worse. But if you interpret it as exciting, then you’re encouraged. Psychologists call this framing.”

What shot doctors do is help players frame. Preparation and conditioning are the ultimate framers; they link mechanics and mind-set, allow a buzzer-beater to convert pressure to enhancement.

“A lot people with a strong fear of performance ultimately become excited and good at it,” Wise said. “It’s a power a lot of people don’t realize they have.”

For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.