It’s been thought that challenging competitions bring out the best in a competitor.  However, the research on the Superstar Effect shows the opposite is frequently true.  The Superstar Effect has been studied in sports, business, economics and entertainment.  Its premise – that perception is often more important than fact – is especially true when it comes to sports.

Studies (Brown) show that when players compete against someone who they perceive to be a “superstar”, even if they have comparable skills, they often don’t rise to the challenge.  It can affect everyone from elite athletes to the most amateur.  There are many ways a player can self sabotage due to the Superstar Effect, here are 5 of them.

Give up – Many players lose control over the mental and emotional part of their game due to their opinion that the competitor is going to win.  They forfeit dominance of the game to someone who’s not actually more skilled than them, but who they perceive as better in some way.  The player “accepts” the inevitability of defeat and concedes a point, set, or match to their opponent before they even play it.

Manifest physical symptoms – Some players will become physically ill before or during a match, but only when playing particular opponents.  This can be especially true for children and teens, who will often develop stomach aches and headaches.  Grandmaster competitors playing a match against chess great Bobby Fischer often came down with a mysterious illness (i.e. flu-like symptoms, migraines and elevated blood pressure) known as “Fischer Fear”.

Thinking too much – The Superstar Effect can cause players to become too focused.  They have trouble establishing and keeping control of their game because they’re too intense.  Over thinking creates anxiety and depletes valuable mental resources, which can inhibit creativity and instinct.

It affects a player’s ability to react and adjust to immediate game situations. Studies (Glucksberg) have shown that many people who are given an incentive to think quickly usually take more time solving a puzzle than those who are given no incentive.

Trying too hard – There is a tipping point when trying harder makes people perform worse.  It can override essential muscle memory.  Forcing shots can negate practice and talent – players may start to lose the fundamentals.  Too much focus on producing the “perfect” stroke, backhand or serve to defeat the superstar can become counterproductive.

Envy – One of the places that the Superstar Effect is the most evident is in the amount of attention a superstar will get.  Players have the expectation that winning should generate a certain amount of attention and glory.  But, Tiger Woods has received more attention for losing a tournament than the player who won it.

If the superstar gets more notice it can cause upheaval and jealousy in others.  This is true at all levels of play, but is particularly true at the junior and amateur levels.  Local tennis clubs are rife with gossip, intrigue and envy concerning the local superstar.  This can’t help but negatively affect the game of even the most centered junior competitor.

Competing against a well matched opponent, who’s identified as a superstar, can make some people step up their game, while causing others to choke.  It’s the player’s responsibility to learn their mental and emotional triggers.  They can then develop strategies to overcome them.  The Superstar Effect is only a problem if they make it one.

Nicole Abbott – writer, educator and psycho-therapist

About The Author

Ron has started several businesses around technology and communications. He founded the WorldWide Tennis Association to use his technical skills to improve tennis players ability globally to compete, get ranking and have fun without unnecessary barriers.