A recent analysis shows that women respond better than men to competitive pressure. The research was carried out by Dr. Alex Krumer of the University of St. Gallen and his colleagues. They analyzed over 8,200 grand slam tennis matches and then concluded that the male players showed a larger drop in performance in high-stakes games than the female players.
While facing Harvard Business Review (HBR) in an interview, Dr. Krumer tells about his research.
HBR: How would you defend your research?
Krumer: We looked at the performance of servers—who normally have an advantage—in every first set played at the 2010 French Open, US Open, Australian Open and Wimbledon, and we found that the men’s performance deteriorated more than the women’s when the game was at a critical stage.
And even when female athletes’ play did deteriorate as pressure increased, the drop-in performance was about 50% less, on average, than that of their male counterparts. They (women) choke less.
Why look at only tennis, and only first sets, and only Grand Slams?
Tennis is a sport in which it is very easy to measure performance and competitive pressure. There is a clear winner of every point, game, set, and match. We looked at only first sets because we thought asymmetry, fatigue, and momentum might become factors in later ones.
We looked at only first sets because winning the initial set provides a huge advantage. In our data, 85% of women and 77% of men who won the first set also won the match. And we focused on Grand Slams because their monetary incentives and ranking points are the largest, and they’re the only tournaments that give the same prize money to men and women.
So Grand Slam–level money and points increase the pressure even further?
There is a lot of research on the inverse relationship between performance and incentive-induced pressure. And it shows those research papers show that a large performance-related incentive makes the player perform worse than the player who gets relatively small incentives.
Did you expect to find differences between the sexes?
We were not sure, because the evidence on gender, pressure, and performance is limited and mixed. Some studies have found no difference between men and women. Some have found that men do better when the heat is on; others have found that women outshine men in certain environments.
But wait. You were looking at women playing women and men playing men. If one player was underperforming because of the pressure, wasn’t his or her opponent—a person of the same sex—outperforming in the same circumstances?
That’s why we focused on the server. There’s wide agreement among tennis experts that any given point depends more on the performance of the server, who has complete control over the first shot of the point, than of the receiver, who simply reacts to it. On average, the person serving wins 72.6% of the time. So when a server loses a critical point, it’s more often because he or she choked than because the other player came through in the clutch.
Still, what if you looked at mixed doubles Grand Slam games—high-stakes competition involving both sexes? Do you think you’d get different results?
It is certainly possible. At least one lab experiment has shown that women respond more positively to increasing pressure in a single-sex environment than they do in a mixed-sex one, while men perform better in the latter. So, we do have to be careful about generalizing. And in most real-life arenas, including the labor market, women obviously must compete with men.
So, we are not the weaker, more emotional sex after all?
It is funny: I am from Israel, where everyone is required to serve in the national military, and we are having a big debate right now about whether women should take on combat roles. In a recent televised discussion of the issue, one speaker cited our study to justify a shift to gender equality in the military. Physically speaking, men are still stronger than women, on average. But if you are talking about mental toughness, maybe in certain circumstances it is women who have the edge.
Source: Harvard Business Review