Why players perform better when they’€™re losing

Whether a golfer, soccer player or tennis star, professional sportsmen hate to lose. That’s obvious. But did you know that athletes actually perform better in situations where they are striving to avoid defeat, rather than if they were just aiming to win?


The psychology behind this “€œloss aversion” is simple: humans hate to have things taken away from them. As such, if an outcome is framed as “losing”€, sportsmen and women will perform extra-hard to avoid it. There’™s been a lot of research on the subject, but one the most potent real-world examples is on the PGA Tour, which demonstrates the effect of loss aversion on professional golfers.

After studying 2,525,161 putts from the PGA Tour between 2004 and 2009, researchers Devin Pope and Maurice Schweitzer observed that a disproportionate number of putts for par were completed compared with attempts for a birdie. A huge 82.9% of putts for par were successfully completed, while just 28.3% birdie attempts were sunk.


Of course, not all putts are equal, and it’€™s likely that many of the birdie attempts were from more difficult distances than the par attempts. However, even when the researchers averaged-out the distances, golfers still putted 3.7% more shots for par than for birdies. But why?

The researchers theorised that loss aversion must play a part. While both situations -€“ missing a birdie and missing a par putt - mean that the player is one shot worse-off, psychologically, sinking a birdie will always be considered as “œwinning”€ a point -€“ putting the golfer one-under. A bogey will always be seen as losing a point (one-over), and therefore the golfers seem to up their game for losing situations.

Loss aversion also leads to another golf-specific issue. Player’€™s birdie putts - when missed -€“ tend to go short, putting them in a more advantageous position should they miss the hole. Over-hitting risks putting the player in a position that could be even worse.

Loss aversion for other sports

Loss aversion is easily quantifiable in golf, but it’€™s also a phenomenon that can have a big impact on a variety of sports and situations. An obvious example is towards the end of soccer matches.

If a team is winning, they tend to become more defensive towards the end of a game, rather than try to attack to extend their lead. This happens despite the fact that league structures reward teams who score more (goal differences) or in two-legged ties where aggregate scores can prove vital.

To some extent, it also goes in the face of common sense - teams who have been performing well alter their tactics, despite their original strategy giving them the advantage to begin with.

The change in tactic can be attributed to human heuristic called endowment theory. Endowment theory states that a person -€“ or in this case, a team -€“ becomes even more loss averse when they have already gained something. Therefore because teams start games at 0-0, when they score a goal (or are endowed with it), they reframe the match in the new terms.

Considering their 1-0 advantage, the team’s desire to score more goals lessens, because a win and two goals is only marginally more valuable than a win and one goal, but both are worth more than a draw,

Loss aversion could also explain the tactics employed in the first leg of a two-legged tie. Away teams tend to approach the game defensively, opting to counter-attack, while home teams strive to avoid conceding an €œaway goal€, which is valued at more than a home one.

Reference points, not three points

The avoidance of conceding in a two-legged cup-tie is a good example of how it’€™s not just for the end result that can be influenced by loss aversion, but also the desired outcome.

If a team expects to win a game 3-0, the side could be loss averse to anything but that final outcome. This is because that score is a “€œreference point”€ - €“ the outcome the team expects to achieve. Anything less than that outcome would be a disappointment. Likewise, if a home team in a cup-tie wants to avoid conceding, loss aversion wouldn’t just apply to the match outcome but also to conceding a goal.

An example of loss aversion for tennis

One of the biggest examples of loss aversion occurs in tennis, usually twice per service game. Tennis stars across the spectrum (and almost without exception) utilise a slower second serve to avoid committing a double fault and automatically losing the point.

However, while only 65% of first serves go in, 75% of those points go in favour of the server. For second serves, the result is 50/50. That means the potential win percentage for a fast first serve and a slow second serve is 64.5%. If two fast serves are used, it€™s 65.8%.

Serve win percentage, fast 1st, slow 2nd: 64.5%
1st serves won 1st serves in 1st serves in & won
75% 65% 48.75%
2nd serves won 2nd serves in 2nd serves in & won
50% 90% 15.75%
Serve win percentage, fast 1st, fast 2nd: 65.81%
1st serves won 1st serves in 1st serves in & won
75% 65% 48.75%
2nd serves won 2nd serves in 2nd serves in & won
75% 65% 17.06%

This loss aversion in tennis serves actually costs players an 8.7% chance of winning the service point.

Loss Aversion and Bettors

Loss aversion isn’€™t limited to professional golfers and soccer teams. Bettors can also suffer the influence and make irrational decisions because of it. We’€™ll be discussing that in more detail in the coming weeks.

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Source: pinnacle.com