Harvard Business Review — 30/10/2017 at 09:00

Women Respond Better Than Men to Competitive Pressure

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In analyzing more than 8,200 games from Grand Slam tennis matches, Alex Krumer of the University of St. Gallen and his colleagues found that the male players’ performance showed a larger drop in high-stakes games (relative to low-stakes games) than the female players’ performance did. Their conclusion: Women respond better than men to competitive pressure.

Dr. Krumer, 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, U.S., and Australian Opens and at Wimbledon, and we found that the men’s performance deteriorated more than the women’s when the game was at a critical juncture. For example, in sets that went to 4–4, the number of men’s serves that were broken rose more than seven percentage points after the players had reached the tie. Among women, we saw barely any difference between pre- and post-tie performance. 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. So my coauthors—Danny Cohen-Zada and Mosi Rosenboim from Ben-Gurion University and Offer Moshe Shapir from NYU Shanghai—and 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.

HBR: Why look at only tennis, and only first sets, and only Grand Slams?

Tennis is a sport in which it’s very easy to measure performance and competitive pressure. There’s a clear winner of every point, game, set, and match, and you can assess the extent to which victory in a particular game—when the score is, say, 1–1, 3–1, or 5–0—affects the probability of winning the match. We looked at only first sets because we thought asymmetry, fatigue, and momentum might become factors in later ones. Also, 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. Men do play more sets in those matches—five, compared with three for women—but if anything, that makes it even more important for women to take that first set.

So Grand Slam–level money and points increase the pressure even further?

There’s a lot of research on the inverse relationship between performance and incentive-induced pressure. Dan Ariely at Duke University and his colleagues published a paper called “Large Stakes, Big Mistakes,” which described experiments with villagers in India and college students. In them, subjects who were given very large performance-related incentives did worse on tasks than subjects given relatively small incentives. Other studies have shown that Australian basketball players sink more free throws in practice than in games, and that professional golfers are more likely to miss a shot on the final hole of a high-stakes tournament.

Did you expect to find differences between the sexes?

We weren’t 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. M. Daniele Paserman at Boston University actually looked at this Grand Slam data before we did and found that both sexes play more conservatively on key points, making fewer unforced errors and hitting fewer winning shots. But he didn’t directly assess the effect of competitive pressure on the likelihood of winning. We thought it would be interesting to look at those unambiguous, objective results and ask: Which group choked less when it mattered?

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.

Isn’t there more parity in men’s professional tennis, though? Maybe the male servers were just up against tougher competition? Or Federer’s and Djokovic’s stellar returns skewed the results? 

Our estimations controlled for player characteristics within a given match, including world ranking, body-mass index, height, and home-court advantage.

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’s 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 making generalizations. And in most real-life arenas, including the labor market, women obviously have to compete with men.

We’re not all Serena Williams either.

I get your point. Our study looked at the best of the best in tennis. Perhaps these elite female athletes have something that most women don’t, which enables them to be more clutch than men at the same high level. But think about other roles in which you’d want people who stay calm under pressure—CEO positions at large companies, for example. You don’t generally see average Joes or Janes filling them. You see a different type of elite, experienced performer. And still only about 4% of Fortune 500 chief executives are women.

Even if we stick to the narrow finding—in Grand Slam tennis matches women choke less than men do—how do you explain it?

We don’t know, but it could be biological. 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. We weren’t able to get blood samples from the tennis players, but I wonder if we might have found similar evidence. Danny Cohen-Zada, Ze’ev Shtudiner, and I have also published some research suggesting that men are more affected by psychological momentum than women are. We looked at bronze medal judo fights from 2009 to 2013 and found that men who had prevailed in their previous contests were more likely to win in bronze medal rounds than men who had just lost, whereas female competitors’ prior-fight record had no effect on their probability of victory. Again, that makes sense biologically because we know that testosterone, a proven performance enhancer, spikes after triumph and ebbs after defeat in men, but not in women. While winners who keep winning might sound like a good thing to you, outside the athletic world, there’s a risk it leads to overconfidence.

So we’re not the weaker, more emotional sex after all?

It’s funny: I’m from Israel, where everyone is required to serve in the national military, and we’re 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’re talking about mental toughness, maybe in certain circumstances it’s women who have the edge.

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