Psychology reveals wives play a key role in who wins at male sports competitions
The Australian Open Tennis final is contested by Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, who both, relatively recently, got married.
There is a new theory in psychology which contends marriage impacts the male competitive spirit and even suggests that it’s these background issues in the personal lives of elite players, which could ultimately dictate the outcome of sporting contests, like the Australian Open Tennis Final.
A study entitled ‘Marriage affects competitive performance in male tennis players’, by psychologists Daniel Farrelly and Daniel Nettle, found that professional male tennis players perform significantly worse in the year after their marriage, compared to the year before, whereas there is no such effect for unmarried players of the same age.
The authors of the study, published in the ‘Journal of Evolutionary Psychology’, suggest that following marriage, men experience a psychological mechanism which has evolved over many generations from our ancient past, and which inevitably leads to lessmotivation to engage in competition.
Daniel Farrelly and Daniel Nettle investigated male tennis players who had appeared in the top 100 players in the ATP singles rankings at the end of each year, from 1995 to 2005.
Their investigation found married players suffered a significant decrease in ranking points between the year before getting married, and the year after, whereas there was no such difference in performance for unmarried players, during the corresponding time period.
Married players also suffered a significant decrease in winning percentages between the corresponding years, whereas there was no such difference in performance for unmarried players.
But married players may not be suffering decreased competitive drive, but merely less ability to commit to tournaments around the world? The authors of this study, based at the University of Worcester and the University of Newcastle, argue that their results indicate this does not seem to be the case. Success in actually winning matches significantly decreased following marriage.
This is possibly produced by reductions in the levels of hormone Testosterone, which men experience as a result of marriage. Testosterone is found in much higher levels in men compared to women, and is associated with aggression, competitiveness, dominance and risk-taking. Testosterone is thought to be important in winning in sports and other adversarial encounters between men.
Psychologists argue that men compete in sports, and other activities (practically anything in fact), to become ‘top dog’, as this then makes them more attractive to the opposite sex.
This need to beat others is therefore an evolved motivation in male psychology. It could be said to be genetically wired into the male brain. In ancient times moving up the hierarchy of the tribe was a sexual strategy for men. Being seen as superior in physical and mental prowess, gains greater opportunities to mate with more desirable women, through increased status, according to this theory.
Competing successfully in adversarial encounters with other men, in our ancestral environments, led to maximising male reproductive success – passing on more genes to future generations.
Other research, in support of this theory, has shown that when a male’s mating strategy shifts from acquiring mates to maintaining them (i.e. following marriage), his Testosterone levels drop. This has been shown among married men, and those in long-term committed relationships.
Following marriage, however, (according to this theory) men devote their resources to looking after their partner, and so divert energy away from beating male competition. Marriage, according to these evolutionary arguments, inevitably means men lose their edge when competing.
From an evolutionary standpoint, men need to protect their genetic legacy, and this is best achieved after marriage, by looking out for their family, rather than continuing to compete with other men, so running the risk of neglecting their partner or children.
Indeed should they continue to challenge other men outside the family home, then the neglected partner left back at the cave, might become contested for by another male.
According to this evolutionary theory, men compete to rise up any ladder, tennis rankings, or anything else (it doesn’t actually matter what), because, fundamentally, they are really trying to get hooked up.
However, Novak Djokovic has continued to relentlessly gather Grand Slam wins following his marriage, and even declares in a recent quote to The Daily Telegraph Newspaper, following his 2015 Wimbledon victory; “Family’s always there. When I go back home, I’m not a tennis player anymore, I’m a father and a husband. That’s a kind of balance that I think allows me to play this well.”
Marriage may be good for men, even in a competitive arena. Economists Francesca Cornaglia and Naomi Feldman point out in their recent investigation that married men have been found in previous research to earn roughly 10 – 40 percent higher wages, across the board, and outside sports, than their single counterparts.
One theory for this effect, discussed in their paper, is that marriage may ‘afford specialization between household and non-household work’. Perhaps because men are freer to concentrate on labor outside the home, following marriage, they therefore become more productive workers.
Francesca Cornaglia and Naomi Feldman chose to investigate the issue of the impact of marriage on elite sports performance and wages by investigating professional baseball. In contrast to other team sports, such as basketball and soccer, performance in baseball is directly measureable, with a number of individual results that are relatively independent of teammates.
The authors of this new study, from Queen Mary University of London and London School of Economics London, United Kingdom and the Federal Reserve Board, Washington, tested the impact of marriage on sports, directly measuring the impact of marriage on productivity using a sample of 3404 professional baseball players engaged in Major League Baseball from 1871 – 2007.
The study entitled, ‘Productivity, Wages, and Marriage: The Case of Major League Baseball’, showed that lower ability sportsmen see an increase in ‘productivity’ following marriage. Yet, despite the lack of any effect on productivity, higher ability married players earn roughly 16 – 20 percent more than their single counterparts.
The benefits to you of being married seem to change depending on where you are in the ability spectrum if you are an elite athlete.
Francesca Cornaglia and Naomi Feldman found a positive link between the proportion of married players in a team and ballpark attendance. Increasing the fraction of married players in a baseball team by ten percentage points is associated with approximately 1.8 percent higher yearly attendance. This represents roughly 21,000 additional attendees. In addition, there is also a positive and significant correlation with the number of team wins.
Maybe certain characteristics might be more likely to be found attractive by both sportsteams and potential spouses, for example, because of enhanced stability and industriousness. Marriage may also lead to reliability, maturity and leadership skills that single players of the same ability level are less likely to display.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEjviglgZaQ(link is external) Perhaps wives push their husbands’ to harder negotiate or perhaps marriage increases the self-worth of the player which then comes through in the negotiation?
The authors of the study argue that the fact that the pre-1975 results show no consistent patterns or statistical significance, on average, for any of the players in terms of ability levels, for either productivity or wages. Maybe the role of a wife has changed over time. More recent periods perhaps witness a much more visible presence of the wife and her role in the husband’s sporting career.
Possibly tennis and baseball are very different sports which might involve contrasting psychological characteristics in order to win. Maybe to succeed in baseball you have to be more of a team player than in tennis.
But even the baseball study found a stabilizing and de-stabilising effect of marriage. Lower ability players were found to have the highest variability in their performance, and marriage had an overall stabilizing effect on this variability. Higher ability players, however, saw an increase in variability following marriage, which chimes a little with the tennis study. For these players, the authors of the baseball study argue, the “distraction” of marriage may override any stabilizing effect.
Francesca Cornaglia and Naomi Feldman conclude that this is in line with much of the popular anecdotal evidence that marriage interferes periodically with the performance of elite level athletes. They conclude their study by pointing out that the wife remains the closest person to the life of a professional athlete.
While the cameras during the Australian Open may pan to the two famous coaches of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray – Boris Becker and Amélie Mauresmo – the media focus may in fact be neglecting the key players in an athlete’s life who determine the final result more than might be realised.
It’s the wives, whether absent from the arena (often due to maternal duties), or present cheering their spouses on, who yet who might be the true ‘life coaches’, having most impact, behind the scenes, in all successful men’s lives.
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A version of this article has appeared in The Huffington Post