Match point. It could be mine. I feel it physically – a flutter of nerves, a tension in my hands. I am playing table tennis in an outdoor bar on holiday. It’s only my husband, but I really want to beat him. I aim the ball over the net and… in that second, I know he’s won. Sure enough, the ball skits back off a corner, I miss the return, and my husband bags the game.
This isn’t the first time I’ve wondered why I always fail at the precise second that opportunity meets desire. If I hadn’t wanted it so badly, could I have won? Is it self-sabotage – do I feel I don’t deserve to win? And, crucially, am I more likely to feel this because I am female?
Traditionally, we assume that women are less competitive than men, lacking the killer instinct that will enable them to win at all costs. Yet the latest research shows that women can and do compete, they just experience the stress of competing differently from men. ‘We found that men and women were just as good as each other at coping with stress, but they worry about different things,’ says Dr Mariana Kaiseler, lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at the University of Derby. ‘Men are more stressed by outcomes: whether they’ll win or lose. Getting the reward is their main motivation.’
In contrast, women were more concerned with their performance. ‘They come across as more task-oriented, worried about the getting there more than the winning. We also know that men rely more on planning before a match, and women like to talk more about their anxieties.’
Significantly, researchers have found that even though women admit to more anxiety, it doesn’t appear to make them less successful. As Andrew Lane, professor of sports psychology at the University of Wolverhampton, says, ‘It’s nothing to do with the level of anxiety men and women feel, but their openness to reporting it. Female anxiety isn’t inhibiting how well they do.’
If anything, say many sports psychologists, admitting to anxieties and fears can be a positive attribute, making clients easier to help. ‘Women tend to be more co-operative and have greater levels of self-disclosure. They are more likely to admit to what they see as shortcomings. Men are more closed and don’t like to admit to weaknesses they feel may be embarrassing. It can be a strength for women, and they are more likely to get help for a problem,’ says Dr Sandy Wolfson, sports and exercise psychologist at Northumbria University.
Caroline, 36, used to play tennis professionally, and built up an invaluable relationship with her coach because she could be so honest. ‘I would say, “My serve is useless at the moment, what can I do?” I was brutally honest about my performance,’ says Caroline. ‘She used to joke that I was impossible to compliment, even when I did serve well.’ Amanda Hills, a psychologist who specialises in body image and exercise, says that Caroline’s comments ring true for sportswomen in general. ‘Coaches will always say it’s difficult to compliment a female player. They’ll say, “That shot was fine but the rest of the time I’m useless”.’
It is a familiar story that we hear beyond the world of sport – that female instinct for self-deprecation. Yet, says Hills, such an attitude doesn’t hold female competitors back. Instead, she believes, it offers valuable signs as to where a strategy needs to be put in place. ‘[A self-critical attitude] can be helpful, as long as you turn it around,’ says Hills. ‘[A coach] can say, for instance, “You feel your serve is useless, how would you like it to be different?” It’s a problem if someone won’t admit to an issue. It’s very difficult to work with them.’
Women may be more forthcoming than men, but they can also downplay their abilities, on and off the sports pitch. One area where we typically do this is that of ‘mental toughness’, where men typically rate themselves higher than women. Mental toughness covers ‘what we call the four Cs – commitment to winning, confidence, ability to control your emotions and view a stressful situation as a challenge,’ says Dr Adam Nicholls, lecturer in sports psychology at the University of Hull. Although men rate themselves more highly than women in these areas, in reality, their performances are no better. Women are simply more likely to mark themselves down – or to be more honest.
Women competing in any area should be aware of this difference in self-perception and adjust accordingly, says Hills. She teaches sportswomen to confront their inner dialogue, in particular that snide inner voice that can be so critical. ‘If you’re starting to get anxious and fall into a spiral of certain thoughts, I say try not to think or talk about them. Do something right now that builds your self-esteem. Don’t focus on the voice that tells you you’re not good enough.’ We can also improve the way we respond to mistakes. Much of sports psychology focuses on those crucial seconds when a competitor, male or female, falls apart – what went wrong cognitively as well as physically.
According to Wolfson, our state of mind after a mistake is vital to performance in any area of life. Instead of seeing it as proof that you’re not up to the task, says Wolfson, ‘be aware that everyone makes errors, that they’re advantageous because of what you can learn. You have to remind yourself that what happened was a one-off – you’re in that situation because you’re good, so view it as an opportunity for improvement.’