Blame it on Hollywood or the outsize popularity of men's sports, but when most of us think of a clutch player, we picture some lantern-jawed action hero defusing a bomb as the seconds tick down or LeBron James sinking a winning basket at the buzzer.

What do the vast majority of these mental images have in common? They're dudes.

But according to new research, we may need to update our mental picture of a high-stakes performer. When a team of researchers out of Switzerland's University of St. Gallen did an in-depth analysis of the performance of both male and female tennis players in Grand Slam tournaments, they found it was the ladies who were least likely to crumble under pressure.

When the pressure is on, women perform.

As researcher Alex Krumer explained in a recent interview with the Harvard Business Review, the team behind the study decided to focus on performance under pressure in tennis because of the clarity of the data.

"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," Krumer explains.

So what did the researchers find when they looked to see whose performance was affected by intensely high pressure situations? The data were conclusive. "We can confidently say that in the world of elite tennis, women are better under pressure than men are. They choke less," Krumer confidently declares.

Is this applicable outside tennis?

That's a fascinating finding for tennis fans and a testament to the incredible mental toughness of the likes of Serena and Venus Williams, but does it have anything to teach those in the business world? Krumer is more cautious on this front, noting that this study can only really talk about on the court performance, and highlighting other findings that suggest the situation might be different in other high pressure environments.

"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," he notes, adding, "in most real-life arenas, including the labor market, women obviously have to compete with men."

But even with these caveats and calls for more research, the world outside tennis is taking notice of the findings to argue that women aren't the emotional wilting flowers of sexist stereotype.

"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," relates Kumer, who concludes: "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."

This one study obviously isn't enough to prove anything definitely outside tennis, but it should at least nudge us to think about whether we have any preconceived notions of what type of person responds best under pressure, and whether those biases might be due for an update. If you're hiring for a high-stakes position, that soul-searching could mean you don't dismiss the clutch player your company needs because she doesn't look at all like you'd expect.

Check out the complete interview for more on what hormones might underlie men and women's different performance under pressure, as well as a fascinating discussion of how high-stakes situations can wreak havoc on performance in a wide variety of situations.

Published on: Nov 27, 2017
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