BEERSHEBA, Israel — It’s a common problem for tennis players at the highest level: losing inexplicably to lower-seeded opponents. But is one gender more prone to choking than the other on the court? Apparently so. A new study finds that elite male tennis stars are adversely effected by stress in high-stakes competitions twice as much as female players.
Previous studies have shown that the stress hormone cortisol interferes with mental processing, and that men are usually show a higher spike in cortisol than women. So researchers from the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel sought to find out if that study held true in a sport often defined by unexpected losses.
The researchers analyzed thousands of tennis matches played across the four Grand Slam events in 2010. Each Grand Slam tennis competition — the U.S. Open, Wimbledon, the French Open, and the Australian Open — offers the same prize money to the women’s and men’s side, which the researchers determined ruled out as the explanation for performance differences in men and women being because of different levels of pressure.
The authors broke the matches down to players’ individual games, weighing the amount of pressure in the matches and assessing the importance of each game for the odds of winning the match. They used several metrics to measure high-leverage situations when the pressure would be highest on the players. When they calculated that the unit of pressure increased by a standard deviation, male tennis players were 4.9% more likely to lose a game they were serving. Female tennis players were affected, too, by the pressure, but were only 2.8% more likely to lose in a similar situation.
“Our robust evidence that women can respond better than men to competitive pressure is compelling,” the researchers wrote, according to the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest. “Our results do not seem to support the claim that gender differences in wages in the labor market can be attributed to the fact that women respond more poorly to competitive pressure.”
The results remained the same even when the authors factored out other components, such as ranking comparisons between players and fatigue levels during a match.
The full study was published in the August 2017 edition of The Journal of Economic Psychology.