Genakos, Christos and Pagliero, Mario (2009) Risk taking and performance in multistage tournaments: evidence from weightlifting competitions. CEP Discussion Paper, No. 928. Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK.
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We analyze the impact of interim ranking on the risk taking and performance behaviour of professional athletes participating in international weightlifting competitions. Weightlifting competitions are multistage tournaments with the unique characteristic that the athletes must announce in advance the amount they intend to lift at each stage, thus allowing quantification of the riskiness of their choices. We present two key findings. First, risk taking exhibits an inverted-U relationship with rank: risk taking increases up to rank six, but athletes then revert to safer strategies towards the bottom of the ranking. Second, athletes systematically underperform when ranked closer to the top, despite higher incentives to perform well. An athlete is more than 30 percent less likely to lift the announced weight when ranked first than tenth. Athletes also underperform in relatively more prestigious competitions, when the competition is more intense, and when the potential gain from a successful lift is higher. Taken together, these findings suggest that athletes may systematically “choke under pressure”.
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