Understanding High-Stakes High-Performers - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #033

Understanding High-Stakes High-Performers

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How leaders perform when the stakes are very high or when they confront unusually high pressure depends on similar ‘critical abilities’ to the tennis players. Using data from the US Open professional tennis tournament, ‘critical abilities under pressure’ are examined to demonstrate that – what we might also refer to as ‘courage under fire’ – has a major impact on a player’s career success. Applied to the world of business this research helps us understand how leaders are likely to perform when the stakes are very high.


From the point of view of a decision maker, performance in critical moments matters much more than in other moments. Psychological skills impact that performance, and the pressures faced when making a decision should also be taken into account when analyzing behaviours.

To consider whether the ability to ‘rise to the occasion’ varies between individuals, the researchers behind this Idea studied point-level data from 12 years of competition in the US Open professional tennis tournament. As hypothesized, they found that the ‘critical ability’ to perform well when it matters most does indeed differ across individuals and can be linked to career success.

This study helps to look at the potential consequences of reactions to crucial situations. Tennis is an effective medium through which to examine this because, in the case of professional tennis players, there is very strong evidence that the importance of a point has a measurable and meaningful effect on the point’s outcome. In other words, the skill of critical ability explains a substantial part of a player’s professional success, controlling the other main skills involved in winning tennis points.

Players in the study differed “significantly and substantially” in their critical abilities, and these capabilities were important in explaining point outcomes; players with greater critical ability were more likely to win important points than their opponents. The relationship between critical ability and career success remained even when the researchers accounted for players’ experience levels.


We can match these findings the workforce, a context where critical abilities also play an important role. Workers are likely to vary both in their general abilities and also in their critical ability (i.e. their capacity to adjust their performance to the importance of the task). An efficient matching of workers to roles and tasks therefore requires accounting for critical ability.

It is important to better understand where high critical ability comes from. Some aspects of it may relate to psychological skills that are difficult to learn. On the other hand, it may also be that it can be improved by training, or simply through experience. Understanding the determinants of critical ability will make it easier to predict which individuals can be expected to perform at their best in important situations - a valuable asset to firms, and to society as a whole.

Thus, when analyzing behaviour, in addition to effort and cognitive skill, one should also take into account, for instance, the pressure agents will face when making their decisions.
In this way, the US Open research paves the way for future research into the impact of psychological responses in other competitive environments and especially in business settings.



Performing Best When It Matters Most: Evidence from Professional Tennis. Julio González-Díaz, Olivier Gossner & Brian W. Rogers. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization (December 2012).

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Idea conceived

December 1, 2012

Idea posted

Jan 2013
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