A recent study of Grand Slam athletes finds that female tennis players deal with pressure better than their male colleagues
In this Battle of the Sexes, women come out ahead.
A new study from Switzerland’s University of St. Gallen reveals that female tennis players handle stressful moments significantly better than their male counterparts. Alex Krumer, an economist at the higher education institute, studied the performance of servers at 8,200 Grand Slam matches—including every first set played at Wimbledon and the U.S., French and Australian Opens in 2010. Together with his colleagues, he found that the performance of male athletes dipped when they had won an equal number of sets as their opponents—something that women statistically didn’t display.
Krumer chose to study the world of elite tennis because it’s the rare sport where men and women champs get compensated equally. This matters because differing financial stakes could lead to varying stress levels. He chose to only measure the first set of each tennis game in order to eliminate the impact of fatigue and other factors. His team constructed a “pressure index” that tracked how much stress a player was under at a certain point in the game and found that for men, a single standard deviation increase meant they were 4.9% more likely to lose a game on serve. The corresponding increase in pressure for women meanwhile, meant they were only 2.8% likelier to lose.
The evidence doesn’t just apply to tennis. The economists also studied bronze medal judo fights in the years from 2009 through 2013 and found that men who had won their previous match were likelier to continue their successful streak, whereas the record of female judo wrestlers had no statistical impact on their probability of victory. “I feel we can confidently say that in the world of elite tennis, women are better under pressure than men are,” Krumer told the Harvard Business Review.
What explains this psychological deviation? One possibility is how cortisol, the stress hormone, impacts men and women differently. “In response to achievement challenges, cortisol levels increase more rapidly among men than among women…high levels can debilitate the mind’s critical abilities,” the researchers write.
Of course, limiting their analysis to single gender sporting events does restrict the applicability of the study’s insights. Indeed, Krumer concedes that it’s possible women “choke’” more than men during stressful moments in mixed gender matches, since there’s some evidence that male performance rises in such environments. “We do have to be careful about making generalizations,” he says. “In most real-life arenas, including the labor market, women obviously have to compete with men.”
That said, Krumer thinks that even non-elite athletes can benefit from his research, since top executives may face roughly comparable stress. “You don’t generally see average Joes or Janes filling” top corporate gigs, he says. “You see a different type of elite, experienced performer. And still only about 4% of Fortune 500 chief executives are women.”
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