According to a new study, women consistently outperform men when it comes to high-stakes competition

By Julia Malacoff
November 11, 2016

If you've ever played a competitive sport in school or as an adult, you know that there can be a lot of pressure and stress associated with performance. Some people even get nervous before gearing up for a big CrossFit workout, extra-tough spin class, or long training run. Of course, it's also super common to feel anxious before a big race like a marathon. (FYI, even Olympians get nervous about running big races!) But it's how you work through tense situations that make all the difference when it comes to the outcome of those high-stakes competitions. And one study says when the game is down to the wire and the demand to win is at an all-time high, women can stand up to the pressure a whole lot better than men.

In fact, the study, conducted out of Ben-Gurion University, shows that when faced with the potential to choke under competitive athletic pressure, men are way more likely to see their performance affected-and for the worse. The researchers evaluated men's and women's Grand Slam tennis tournament results, as this kind of sporting event is one of the few examples of a competition that both men and women participate in for a high-value prize. The researchers evaluated more than 4,000 games each for both men and women, ranking the stakes from low to high depending on how far along athletes were in the competition. The authors defined "choking" as a decreased performance in response to higher stakes than normal-like a large monetary gain (and big bragging rights) if an athlete clinches the top spot.

The results were clear: "Our research showed that men consistently choke under competitive pressure, but with regard to women the results are mixed," said study author Mosi Rosenboim, Ph.D., in a press release. "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." In other words, men choked more often than women, and when women did lose a little control, their performance didn't see as much of a drastic drop. (P.S. Brining some of those competitive vibes into your workout could give you a boost in the gym, too.)

So what's the reason for this difference in reaction between women and men? The study authors think it could be because men release the stress hormone cortisol more rapidly than women (but that's a topic for another research study entirely).

Beyond athletic performance, the study authors explain that one of their primary motivations behind conducting this research was to explore how men and women respond to competitive pressure at work. "Our findings do not support the existing hypothesis that men earn more than women in similar jobs because they respond better than women to pressure," said lead study author Danny Cohen-Zada, Ph.D., of BGU's department of economics. (Psh, as if you ever bought into that idea, right?)

Of course, there are limitations to how much this study can be applied to real life. For example, in a tennis competition, women are only competing against other women, but in the workplace, women must compete against both men and women in order to win jobs, promotions, and raises. Still, the study authors believe these results provide compelling evidence that women respond better in high-pressure situations, and that more research into the topic is warranted and necessary. (Here, six female athletes speak out on equal pay for women.)

The bottom line: The next time you feel stressed and under pressure at work or before a big race, know that as a woman, you're incredibly strong and resilient. Plus know you know that you also have a competitive edge.