Players who believe the hype about their competitors are destined to play worse

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There are some things a competitor doesn’t need to hear. Like hype and buzz about their 15-year-old prodigy opponent, for example. That would be up-and-coming tennis player Coco Gauff, who defeated Venus Williams at Wimbledon. It happens in every sport: Leon Spinks defeating Muhammed Ali by split decision in 1978. Tiger Wood’s first Pro win as a 20-year-old college kid in 1997. Hearing their closest competitor “bigged up” can get inside a player’s head so much it can actually damage their game, according to new research from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

The study looked at 117,000 pro tennis matches and over 5 million observations in online amateur chess and found that even when competitors are equal in talent, players do worse against an opponent they know has been up-and-coming.

That’s because a player risking in rank gathers what social scientists call “status momentum,” said Hernant Kakkar, PhD, as an assistant professor at Fuqua and author of the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What goes up, keeps going up

When competitors see an opponent steadily moving up they begin to freak out.

“Our experiments suggest this is because people take the physical laws of momentum into their mental landscape,” Kakkar said. “For instance, they know a ball rolling downhill will keep rolling until someone applies a force to stop it. They do the same mental gymnastics or mental calculations about a competitor. They tend to think, yeah, this person will keep moving up. Because of this, they start feeling threatened and their performance tends to suffer.”

In tennis, the researchers found that players committed more double faults when up against an opponent with status momentum – a type of error that points to their mental, not physical game being off.

Researchers found two ways to alleviate the pain of dealing with an up-and-comer with social momentum. One was practicing affirmations of their own skills and talents before competitions.

The other was very human: finding a reason to doubt the opponent’s game.

“Once you present people with some kind of doubt to the veracity of the rankings, such as a clerical error that affected the rankings, that alleviates some of the adverse effect of the opponent’s momentum,” Kakkar said. “We are generally given to think more favorably about ourselves, so when given a reason to doubt others – even a slight one – we tend to think, maybe this person isn’t actually that good, and that can change how threatened we feel.”

In addition to Kakkar, study authors included Niro Sivanathan of the London Business School and Nathan C. Pettit of New York University.