'Fine Line Between Encouraging and Overbearing'

Tennis star Sania Mirza is a trendsetter and inspiration for youngsters. She and father Imran Mirza talk about the importance of positive parenting in the world of sport

By Rajesh Viswanathan

'Fine Line Between Encouraging and Overbearing'

Sania Mirza, the household name of Indian sport, is hitting new highs each day. She recently registered her first Grand Slam win in women’s doubles and what better place to achieve the feat than the grass courts of Wimbledon. In her illustrious career thus far, Sania has four Grand Slam titles to her credit and is currently ranked No.1 in the world in women’s doubles. Coached by her father, Imran Mirza, Sania is now preparing for the season-ending WTA Tour finals to be played in Singapore. In a relaxed mood upon arrival in Hyderabad, Sania and her father, Imran reflect upon the many aspects that have led to the successful journey, and what it takes to remain focussed. It’s a ParentCircle special.

Sania Mirza

PC: Congratulations on winning the Wimbledon doubles title. Must have been a very special experience.

Sania: Yes it is. As a child, I always wanted to play Wimbledon. It’s not just me, any player loves to play at Wimbledon, but only a few are lucky to be winning there. So, I guess it is a dream come true for all of us and I am lucky to be able to share this with everyone in India.

PC: You’ve already achieved so much in your life, but you remain quite grounded. What do you attribute your success to?

Sania: I started playing tennis when I was six and at that time, the facilities were not up to the mark. Then, I made it a point to keep telling myself that results wouldn’t come overnight. You need to work very hard and be determined. I’ve been very lucky as my parents have been rock solid in their support for me and that has helped enormously.

PC: There’s often the observation in the world of sport, especially tennis, that parents are a bit too pushy. We even saw an online letter from a kid to a tennis parent go viral back in March. Is it really tough out there?

Sania: I think that this (my win) should show you what it can do when you don’t put that kind of pressure on your kid. It is great to want to win. Every time I step on to the court, I get upset if I don’t win and I do whatever I can in my ability to try and win. The pressure to win needs to come from within and not from the others. My parents have pushed me to give my hardest, but tennis has always been a part of my life and it’s not been my life. I think it’s very important people understand this, when they are bringing up kids. Sure, tennis has given me so much and it has defined me in many ways, but after I stop playing tennis, I am going to have a life. It is very important to put things in perspective.

PC: How deep is the problem and where should parents draw a line?

Sania: Losing a tennis match is not the worst thing to happen in life. I try and speak to other parents whenever I can, to say how they should give their child her own independence. I have been very lucky with my parents and they’ve supported me on and off the court. Sure, I have made some good and bad decisions, but that’s where family comes in. At the end of the day, whether there’s tennis or no tennis, family is going to remain. That is the most important thing to remember.

Imran Mirza

PC:You are a parent to one of the most successful sportspersons India has ever produced. How does it feel?

Imran: Of course, one feels very proud of Sania's achievements and for someone like me, for whom sport is such an important part of life, I could not have asked for more. With the Wimbledon triumph now, it feels the journey is complete (in terms of accomplishments). What more can one dream of? Wimbledon title, World No.1 ranking. These are very special moments.

PC: When Sania started off about 15 years ago, tennis was not a popular sport in India, which also meant there weren't too many takers.

Imran: Yes, it was never easy but the love for sport kept us going. Success in this global sport does not come easy and there is a reason why Sania is the only Indian woman to have ever broken into the top-100 singles players of the world in more than 125 years of international tennis. Of course, she went on to be ranked 27 in the world in singles and is currently No.1 in the world in doubles. Because it was such a difficult mountain to climb, success tastes doubly sweet now that she has reached the pinnacle.

PC: Did sport and tennis happen naturally to Sania?

Imran: Sport was a very important part of our lives in our family. Hence, it was quite natural that Sania would take up a sport - not necessarily to turn professional but to enjoy it. In her case, it turned out to be tennis and the rest is history.

PC: What kind of role did you play, as parents, in facilitating the wonderful journey of Sania?

Imran: It was a multi-dimensional role and each facet was critical to her development as an international tennis player. Over the years, we’ve had to play the role of a mentor, guide, philosopher, coach, physical trainer, physiotherapist, psychiatrist, travel agent, financier, financial controller, media consultant and accountant amongst other varied jobs that we had to get conversant with.

PC: Motivating children is usually an arduous task. Does it get more challenging if the child is into sport? How did you help Sania handle failures?

Imran: I have always believed that once the fear of failure enters the young sportsperson's mind, there is very little chance that he or she can succeed in handling the pressures of professional sport. So, I worked on helping Sania enjoy the struggle of coping with losses and competing hard in tennis. Provided she had tried her very best, a loss was never considered a big deal at home. It was used merely as something that one needed to learn to improve. I feel this was instrumental in reducing pressure and played a big role in shaping Sania's fearless temperament.

PC: There's often the criticism in the world of sport that parents get too involved and are at times too pushy. Do you believe this is true?

Imran: Yes, I do believe that is true. There is a fine line in being 'encouraging' and 'overbearing'. As parents, we need to keep a balanced approach. There is no denying the fact that in a sport like tennis, it is virtually impossible to succeed without parental support, but the 'support' needs to be constructive as otherwise, it works negatively and is of no use.

PC: You've gone through the various stages of parenting. What has been the most enjoyable one and which one’s been quite challenging?

Imran: It’s been a long journey as a tennis parent that began 23 years ago. Every stage has been challenging and nothing was easy. Yet, I can honestly say that I have enjoyed every moment of the journey and would not exchange it for anything else in the world.

PC: What's your message to all the parents and prospective tennis players out there?

Imran: Tennis is a truly competitive sport that is played seriously in more than 220 countries. It takes a lot of effort, talent and sacrifice to succeed professionally in this game. I would advise prospective tennis players and their parents to take up the sport only if you have a passion for it. Don't do it just for fame or for money. 

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