Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sania Mirza and the curse of over-rewarding

Writing recently about Somdev Devvarman got me to thinking about the more famous tennis player from India, Sania Mirza. I don’t know if she has changed her name since her 2010 marriage to Pakistani cricketer, Shoaib Malik. As with just about every other decision taken by Ms. Mirza, her marriage was clouded in scandal when her betrothed initially denied but was then forced to publicly acknowledge a prior marriage after his first wife’s family produced proof to the media. I hoped only that he had been more honest with wife #2 whom he reportedly purchased for a dowry of US$137,500.

And just as I found myself thinking about Mirza, there she was accepting wildcards into the 2011 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships and the Qatar Ladies Open. After a series of silly controversies that no doubt left her feeling kind of bitter towards her fellow Indian Muslims, Sania publicly declared that she will no longer play tennis in India and that she will make Dubai her home. Hence those wildcards.

In Dubai, she unforgivably beat my darling Akgul Amanmuradova, but then lost to Japan’s Ayumi Morita whom I had honestly never even heard of before. In Doha this week, Sania survived Serbia’s Bojana Jovanovski – whom I know at least as well as I know Morita – but then was sent packing by Jankovic with a humiliating 6-1 6-0 score. Ouch.

It’s hard to believe that this is the same Sania who in 2004 was awarded India’s Arjuna award for outstanding achievement in national sports. Then 18, Sania had amassed a total of eight (8) ITF doubles wins and six (6) ITF singles wins. She had yet to achieve any WTA trophies. But India celebrated her tremendous Junior accomplishments in style. Indeed, she is the last tennis player to be honored with the Arjuna. (Devvarman thus far has received zip. Zilch. Nada. Despite his NCAA wins, a Commonwealth gold medal, and two gold medals from the Asian Games in Guangzhou, China. What gives?)

I first took notice of Mirza during the 2005 Australian Open where she made it to the third round, losing to eventual champ, Serena Williams. A month later Sania won her first and only WTA singles title at Hyderabad, India, becoming the first Indian woman to ever win a WTA event. Needless to say, most of India went crazy with excitement. The WTA awarded Sania Newcomer of the Year for her accomplishments in 2005.

That turned out to be the second of several accolades. From that point on, in my opinion, Mirza started receiving a level of reward and recognition that seemed way out of proportion with her actual achievements. I wonder if this kind of excessive and premature rewarding has served only to destroy her promise and motivation.

After all, as far back as the 1960’s, psychologists have used equity theory to demonstrate and explain why over-rewarding can result in a loss of motivation to perform. You’d think that by now folks would have incorporated this information into some of their decision-making. It’s important to hold on to the hunger. When that hunger is excessively satisfied, one can become emotionally lazy and unmotivated.

In 2006 Sania won two silver medals (singles and team) at the Doha Asian Games, and gold in the mixed doubles with Leander Paes. For this she was honored with the Padma Shri, India's fourth highest honor, historically similar to a Lifetime Achievement award, and typically reserved for honoring a body of work over an entire lifetime of performance. For instance, the names of many aged Bollywood actors and directors appear among the list of recipients. It’s rare to find someone thus honored for a single season or two of sporting achievement. At the time I wondered about the possible negative impact on Sania’s motivation to play tennis having received what seemed to me to be an excessive level of recognition.

To be fair, initially there seemed to be no negative effect on her performance. Perhaps there might have even been a positive impact. In 2007 she made it to the third round of the US Open and won four doubles tournaments during that US Open summer. She started 2008 by getting to the third round of the Australian Open, losing in two close sets to Venus Williams. As with many opponents who come close to challenging Venus, Sania walked away with an injury – in her case a left adductor strain. This was the first of many injuries that would block her out of tennis for the rest of that year.

Despite this, in 2008 Sania was accorded an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from the MGR Educational and Research Institute of the University of Chennai. I’m not sure which award was least deserving – outstanding sporting achievement at age 18, a version of lifetime achievement at age 19, or the equivalent of a Ph.D. at age 22. And all of these awards came before she finally won the 2009 Australian Open mixed doubles with fellow Indian Mahesh Bhupathi. I suppose that by that point India had run out of awards to give her.

I can’t help but wonder if all of this over-the-top awarding may have conspired to destroy Sania’s motivation to continue constructing a serious tennis career. Or to put in the serious fitness preparation required to do so. From a psychological perspective, the effects of over-rewarding can be damaging. What else is there to work for when one has been accorded the very best? Why toil and slave in the hot sun when you can rest on your laurels, knowing that with your sundry ITF wins, one WTA singles, and nine largely lower-level doubles titles, you have, as they say, put your country on the map?


happygeek said...

I wonder if turning down an award is a very disadvantageous thing to do. It isn't being forced on the athlete, right? I mean, don't they get wind that they're being nominated? They can decline at that point. But I'm really off-topic here, I know.

tennischick said...

Turning down an award is not an option. It would be rude. The problem was not of Sania's own making.

happygeek said...

Right, "rude", that's the right word. First time I heard of such extreme rewarding. Plus they blanked the guy! Something's strange with their system.

Anonymous said...

Indian government/system likes to believe(read cover up) that they are promoting women in sports. In the process, they forget to build the real system for it, or look at the achievement part :(.

Saina Nehwal (badminton) at least works towards earning it and has far more to show for sports. It may also be getting minority vote as far as Sania Mirza is concerned, or her looks that they might be admiring.