When the stakes are high, male athletes are far more likely to crack under the pressure than women, according to recent research from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) as part of a study of men’s and women’s Grand Slam Tennis tournament play.
In the paper detailing the study, Choking Under Pressure and Gender, researchers described their analysis of competition performance—which was a real-life contest with valuable monetary rewards and other prizes—as showing that men consistently underperform when they feel the pressure of competition, while with women the results are mixed. "However, even if women show a drop in performance in the more crucial stages of the match, it is still about 50 percent less than that of men," says Dr. Mosi Rosenboim of BGU’s Department of Management.
In the study, researchers analyzed 4,127 women’s and 4,153 men’s tennis games from all four Grand Slam Tournaments in 2010 and tracked whether and how much each gender deteriorated or improved during crucial stages of the match.
"The purpose of this study is to shed additional light on how men and women respond to competitive pressure and use its conclusions to better understand the labor market," according to Dr. Danny Cohen-Zada of BGU’s Department of Economics. The data ultimately disproves a widely-held, though very antiquated, theory that men earn higher salaries in the workplace because they respond better under pressure than women. Still, the study warns that the research data should be applied carefully when examing the labor market because an all-women's tennis match isn't a comparable environment to that of an office, in which both men and women work.
Researchers largely attributed the onset of stress during competition to increased levels of cortisol, which "indicates that in response to achievement challenges, cortisol levels increase more rapidly among men than among women, and that high levels can harm the mind’s critical abilities,” according to paper co-author Dr. Offer Moshe Shapir of the Center for Business Education and Research at NYU Shanghai. High amounts of cortisol have been shown to negatively affect performance, whether it be a poor second serve in tennis or a bad golf swing, in a variety of other sports-related studies. So if you've got a big match coming up, don't stress or psyche yourself out, instead try out some of these tips to help you keep your cool under pressure. Your performance depends on it.