Researchers from Switzerland’s University of St. Gallen analyzed the performances of elite tennis players and found that women performed better than men when the game was at a critical juncture.
“These findings make sense when you look at how men and women react differently to stress,” says Matt Berenc, director of education for the Equinox Fitness Training Institute, who points to research that shows that men produce more of the stress-response hormone, cortisol, than women do, which is known to impede problem-solving and complex skills. “With tennis players, when they have the serve, they have the opportunity to think about what they are doing—’I need to hit the ball here’—and analyze in the moment. But when your brain is being flooded with cortisol [in a high-pressure match], it impedes that process at a time you need that most.” Berenc also notes, though, that this stark of a contrast between the sexes is more likely to appear in sports where strategizing is important; long-distance runners’ performance, for example, probably wouldn’t be as affected by a cortisol tide because the body’s movement is more or less rote.
Regardless of sex, Berenc you don’t have to accept that cortisol might ruin your performance when the going gets tough. Berenc points to the importance—for men and women—of training your mental game, as much as you focus on the physical one. This can mean anything from visualizing how to handle high-stress competition scenarios, to practicing deep-breathing calming techniques and meditation. For sports like tennis, he also suggests adding sessions of physical stress before training more mentally challenging skills. “The body doesn’t really differentiate between mental and physical stress,” Berenc says. “Unless fatigue is a factor, you can add physical stress to get your body more familiar and ready to handle mentally stressful situations.” An example would be to do wind sprints (which will tax the legs and lungs) before practicing your tennis serve.
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