05/01/2012 03:12 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2013

NBA Playoffs: Clutch players -- What Makes Them Tick?

Ben Bolch of the L.A. Times recently wrote in an article entitled "Win or lose, they want the ball at game's end," that the top NBA closers -- including Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Dirk Nowitzki and Carmelo Anthony -- have no fear of failure in the final seconds.

What's up with that?

In a sentence: The final moments are the place where neurochemistry, phylogeny and hyper focus meet.


Adrenaline (= Power), Testosterone (= Aggression), Dopamine (= Pleasure)

Most extreme athletes are adrenaline junkies. Why? Because an adrenaline rush when focused makes you feel not just powerful, but superhuman. Two things trigger adrenaline, either "fight or flight." What causes Bryant, Paul, Nowitzki and Anthony to be great is that their inherent testosterone/highly competitive/aggressive nature always causes them to choose "fight" and then focuses that adrenaline rush to be able to execute at an amazing level. And after they have, the dopamine surge of pleasure that follows is close to ecstasy.

Adrenaline plus testosterone (causing them to focus and fight vs. run and flee) together are the body's natural Adderral which is what enables people with A.D.D. to become calm, centered and focused. As you may know many of the best athletes have A.D.D. which is not truly about an attention deficit, but is really about not paying attention to things they don't want to such as understanding and being prudent about finances and listening with undivided attention to their spouses and children.


Think of your brain as being composed of three brains (referred to as Triune Brain). The oldest is your lower/reptilian/fight or flight brain which is 245 million years old; the next oldest is your middle/mammalian/emotional brain which is 65 million years old; and the relative newcomer is your upper/human/thinking brain which is about 200,000 years old.

The more impulsive, unfocused and scattered (a.k.a. scatterbrain) a person is, the more loosely configured are each of these three brains to each other and the more poorly they work together in unison. In fact under stress they almost seem to function separately in such people who may explain how chaotic these people seem to act. Think of such people as a rickety old pick up truck that feels like it will fall apart at any moment.


On the other hand, the more tightly these three brains are configured and aligned to each other aimed towards a singular purpose, the more focused, centered, determined and formidable these people are. Think of such people as a Turbo Porsche that grabs and almost controls the road no matter how it bends and curves.

An analogy to better understand this is to think of how young military recruits enter basic training. They may be filled with "piss and vinegar," but their focus and minds are often all over the place. However, then they are broken down and built back up into a force that can defeat and kill a fearsome enemy. To do that, their thinking upper brains, feeling middle brains and acting lower brains become almost arc welded to each other and the result is a warrior.

The problem for soldiers and many extreme athletes (are you listening O.J.?) is that without a life or death or high stakes situation, all that adrenaline/testosterone/dopamine has nowhere to go and nowhere to blow. Without a war or a game with everything on the line, there isn't sufficient at stake to trigger that adrenaline rush which them enrolls the testosterone to generate dopamine pleasure.

This may explain why so many extreme athletes and power players (Are you listening Tiger, Bill Clinton, John Edwards?) do outrageous things outside of their sport or job. Why? Because the thrill of an adrenaline rush is often exceeded by the agony of an adrenaline crash. And when you do things that are dangerous, forbidden, risky and even foolish, that triggers an outpouring of adrenaline and another rush, which offsets the listless, irritable feelings these people have when coming off an adrenaline induced dopamine high.

But put them in overtime and it is a sight to behold (that triggers a dopamine surge in viewers which may explain why we keep watching replays of those moments).

Greg Gumbel once asked hockey's greatest player, Wayne Gretzky, "What is it like to be in overtime of the deciding game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, knowing that there are 10 seconds left and that the puck will be passed to you?"

Wayne flashed that huge, delighted (and no doubt dopamine filled) grin and responded: "I live the whole season for that moment."