When the ‘carrot’ fails to serve for good, or how tournament trophies make favourites fail.

Have you noticed that in various sports sometimes during the one-on-one tournaments the trophy is prominently displayed near the athletes as they compete? This reminds me of the ‘carrot’ story… Namely, there is an old story that to make a donkey move, one must put a carrot in front of him. Today this story is used rather as a metaphor that relates to use of rewards or incentives for motivational purposes. Though, in light of the ‘carrot’ story one can argue that the displayed trophy serves for good, the recent research suggest quite the opposite.

According to the findings of Dutch researchers (2011) the trophies may severely hinder the performance of favourites in the competition by continuously reminding them of what is at stake. Specifically, Bijleveld and colleagues related their study to the phenomenon of ‘chocking’ under pressure in sports and questioned whether trophies, viewed as subtle reward cues, can induce such chocking.

In the field of sport psychology, chocking under pressure is identified when athletes perform worse than expected in situations of perceived high pressure. Authors refer to recent research when saying that monetary rewards are one source of pressure and thus can greatly contribute to chocking. Further, they also note that people who are more vulnerable to choking are the ones, who have enjoyed previous success, and thus are the favourites in the competition. Hence, Bijleveld and colleagues analyzed 106 professional tennis event finals to test the hypothesis that presence of trophy, as a cue of valuable monetary incentive at stake, influences whether or not favourites choke under pressure.

The snap-shot of the results reveals that hypothesized relation does exist indeed, as in case of a lot of money at stake and displayed trophy the favourites failed to outcall underdogs on several aspects of performance as they would normally do.

Interestingly, such lower-than-expected performance emerged during tennis rallies and not during serving  processes, which lead researchers to speculate on the ‘how’ the trophy relates to impaired performance. Namely, when explaining the mechanisms of choking under pressure, the researchers refer to the distraction theory, which states that performance pressure results in irrelevant thoughts and worries that occupy working memory (our brain system which actively holds information in the mind). In other words, researchers proposed that rally performance relies highly on working memory (e.g. predicting the direction of the ball), and thus trophy induced athletes to use their working memory for irrelevant thoughts and worries related to the money at stake, rather than concentrating on tennis relevant processes. Hence: the impaired performance.

In spite of several limitations and generalization barriers, which accompany most of scientific research, the authors conclude that their study suggests ‘that the seemingly trivial presence of a trophy near the court – just a subtle reward cue – can have substantial consequences with respect to what tennis finals look like’.

Following up on their conclusion, my personal thoughts and athletic experience strive for the further discussion though. Coming back to the ‘carrot’ story, does not our common sense tell us that creating reward cues has to be motivational and make an athlete run faster, jump higher or fight stronger? However, being a sport psychology master student makes me challenge this common sense and add up the currently reviewed study to the other existing evidence of rather negative impact of emphasizing rewards on athletic performance. In this sense, making an athlete think about the importance of the competition, the meaning of winning it and the rewards being at stake in the decisive moment of the tournament, may, instead of ‘helping to make the last defeating steps’, create and extra pressure and distract the athlete from the relevant task at hand.

Thus, maybe the ‘carrot’ does not always serve for good?

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1 Response to When the ‘carrot’ fails to serve for good, or how tournament trophies make favourites fail.

  1. Pingback: Some interesting articles in aap Blog | all about performance

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