“He/She is just a different person once the game starts.”

You hear this said all the time about elite athletes. It doesn’t matter how mild-mannered, relaxed, or quiet they are during their off-days — when game day arrives, they take over with their play, their words, and their swagger.

You can call it the heart of a champion, the will to win, or whatever you want. The fact of the matter is when the game is on the line, the great players separate from the good ones. As their opponents tense up, the elite relish these big moments. They become even more focused, driven, and motivated. It’s what they live for.

What it really comes down to is their winning mindset. The experts over at STACK have written a lot of great articles on the topic, and it’s clear that top athletes put just as much work into the mental side of the game as they do the physical side. They enter into a zone once it’s game time and don’t relent until the clock hits zero.

So what can you do to find that zone and deliver in the clutch? To step up when your team needs it the most? We asked some of the world’s best athletes, and here’s what they said:

J.J. Watt, Houston Defensive End


Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Wide Receiver

Sammy Watkins

“You definitely feel the tension when the guys are looking at you to make a play. When you come into the huddle and it’s 3rd and 10, and you need to make that big catch. So it’s a lot of pressure being on the field, but you just need to go out there, make the big play, and get the first down.”

Luke Kuechly, Carolina Linebacker

Luke Kuechly

“When I’m in the zone during the game, it’s the best feeling. You feel like you can make all the plays — you’re playing fast, you’re having fun, and you’re trying to get a win.”


Danielle Colaprico, USWNT and Chicago Midfielder

Danielle Colaprico

“On game day, I try to stay a little relaxed. I think that once I get to the locker room and I’m with the team, I think that’s a good time to start focusing in on the game ahead of us. I think if you think too much, it’ll stress you out. So it’s mostly about being confident and focusing in on doing what it takes to win.”

Lucas Melano, Portland Forward

Lucas Melano

“There are certain situations that happen during the game, and we need to play 100%. We need to display different forms, different plays. I have to keep moving forward and play in the moment and be ready to take advantage of the situation.

Zack Steffen, Columbus Goalkeeper

Zack Steffen

“When it’s a penalty kick, I try not to get in my head. You can get nervous, but I try and stay calm. You kind of have a gut feeling where the striker is going. But it becomes a mental game.”

Byron Buxton, Minnesota Centerfielder

Bryon Buxton

“What really calms me down at the plate is just thinking about something different. Don’t think about what he’s about to throw next or what pitches he’s got. If you think about something that is outside of your at-bat, it helps you relax more.”

Kent Bazemore, Atlanta Shooting Guard

Kent Bazemore

“You’ve got to understand that you’re never going to play perfect defense. You’re going to close out perfectly on a great shooter, and he’s still going to rise up and hit one every now and then. I think mentally, once you accept that, you can keep coming — and things like that kind of set apart elite defenders from just good ones.”

Focused. Confident. Relaxed. These are some of the traits that elite athletes from every sport have when it gets to crunch time. So, when it comes down to it, will you follow these athletes’ leads and come through in the clutch?