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Women have a psychological advantage over men in sport - here's how it helps them under pressure

“In the world of elite tennis, women are better under pressure than men are. They choke less.”

Serena Williams: one of the outstanding tennis players of the modern era.
Serena Williams: one of the outstanding tennis players of the modern era.
Image: Dubreuil Corinne/ABACA

NEW RESEARCH HAS shown that women could have a psychological advantage over men in sport, particularly in high pressure situations.

Researchers from the University of St Gallen, Switzerland analysed 8,200 games from Grand Slam tennis matches. Specifically, they looked at the performance of the server in every first set played at the 2010 French, US, and Australian Opens and at Wimbledon.

They found that men’s performance deteriorated more than the women’s when the game was at particularly tense moments, such as in sets that went to 4-4. After reaching the tie, the results showed the number of men’s serves that were broken rose by more than 7%.

“Based on our analysis of 8,280 men’s and women’s tennis games, we find that men consistently choke under competitive pressure, but with regard to women, the results are mixed,” the study said.

“Furthermore, we find that even if women show a drop in performance in the more crucial stages of the match, it is still about 50% smaller than that of men.”

Alex Krumer, an author of the study and behavioural economics researcher at St Gallen, spoke about the findings in an interview with the Harvard Business Review. He said they studied tennis as it is an easy sport with which to measure performance and competitive pressure. They also only looked at the first sets because asymmetry, fatigue, and momentum could all affect performance in later ones.

The real world is a lot more complicated

Previous research has shown mixed results on gender differences in competition. For example, in one paper from 2010, researchers Christopher Cotton, Frank McIntyre, and Joseph Price looked at mathematics competitions, and found that men may outperform women at first, but this advantage doesn’t last very long. In fact, they found that in later periods they may end up performing worse.

“The initial gender difference only appears when we frame the competition as a race; it does not appear when we tell participants that the competition is ‘not a race,’” the study reads.

“These findings suggest that the existence of an initial male advantage depends crucially on the design of the competition and the task at hand, and when the male advantage does exist, it does not persist beyond the initial period of competition.”

M. Daniele Paserman, an economics professor at Boston University, looked at the same data before and concluded that both men and women play more conservatively on key points, when the pressure is really on, and hit fewer winning shots as a result.

“We thought it would be interesting to look at those unambiguous, objective results and ask: ‘Which group choked less when it mattered?’” Krumer said.

As the results only showed men vs. men and women vs. women — and we’re also not all professional athletes — it’s difficult to generalise and apply them to everyday situations. However, Krumer does hypothesise about why women may choke less than men do.

“It could be biological,” he said to the Harvard Business Review.

If you look at the literature on cortisol, the stress hormone, you’ll find that levels of it increase more rapidly in men than in women — in scenarios from golf rounds to public speaking — and that those spikes can hurt performance.

At least one lab experiment has shown that women respond better when they are up against other women, whereas men may have an advantage in mixed sex situations. As men and women compete in the real world, Krumer said the female advantage may not translate well. As he pointed out, just 4% of Fortune 500 chief executives are women.

“Physically speaking, men are still stronger than women, on average. But if you’re talking about mental toughness, maybe in certain circumstances it’s women who have the edge,” Krumer said.

I feel we can confidently say that in the world of elite tennis, women are better under pressure than men are. They choke less. Whether that translates to other competitive settings remains to be seen.

– Lindsay Dodgson, Business Insider

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Business Insider
Business Insider is a business site with strong financial, media and tech focus.

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