Why staying composed in sport is important and how hard is it – Serena Williams’ example.

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If you follow tennis, you have probably seen or heard of Serena Williams breakdown during last Grand Slam US Open final. At 6-2, 1-0 for her opponent, Serena got a 1st warning for being coached from the stands by her coach (through signs and gestures) which is not allowed and which he didn’t deny after the match, saying that he had never been warned for coaching in his career and that every coach was doing this all year long. Serena apparently didn’t see the gestures of her coach and went toward the umpire: “I don’t cheat, I’d rather lose than cheat” she told him. She took this warning personally, as an attack to her own integrity.

She later smashed her racket furious of having lost an advantage and got a 2nd warning. After the minute rest, she again spoke to the umpire: “this is incredible. I wasn’t coached. I don’t cheat, I have never cheated in my life, I have a daughter and I defend what’s right, you ow me some excuses”.

Later in the game, still upset, she aggressively told him: “You attacked my person. You have insinuated that I cheated. You’ll never referee one of my matches again. You are the liar, You ow me some excuses. Say it, say it!”. She then treated him of “thief” and finished with “don’t talk to me, don’t talk to me”. She eventually got a 3rd warning, which meant a penalty with 1 additional game given to her opponent. Serena couldn’t believe it and further exploded, broke in tears and finally lost the set and the match.

My point here is not to blame Serena and give lessons to her. She is a great champion who has accomplished an amazing career with 23 Grand Slams and she was on her way back after giving birth to her daughter and aiming at that 24th Grand Slam that would place her at the 1st place with Margaret Court so there was a lot at stake in this final. My goal is to point out a few lessons from this event:

  • First, even great champions may have a hard time to stay composed. So, don’t blame yourself when you don’t stay composed. It’s hard simply because we are humans and have emotions. Now if you keep bursting out, breaking down, not controlling your emotions and don’t work on it to improve, then you can blame yourself.

 

  • Second, when you are ruminating negative thoughts, your energy and attention goes there and not on your task, on your strategy, or in your body. Negative emotions are a huge energy drain. If your overall energy and focus is like a plastic glass full of water, it’s like having holes all around that will empty the glass very quickly. So, if you don’t manage to refocus on the task and keeps these thoughts in your head and emotions in your heart, you’ll have less energy, less mental focus and play worse. You’ll lose control of the game. It’s better to let go of it for now and come back to it after the game.

  • What could you do in this situation?
    • First, get prepared: imagine something similar happens, and choose how you want to Respond (instead of React). What do you want to remind yourself in that moment? Visualize yourself responding the way you want.
    • In the moment, you can remember the 3Ps: Pause, Process, Proceed.
      • Pause to not being pulled in this vicious circle of negative emotions (just a few second give some space to not react and enable a clearer thinking of the situation),
      • Process what would be the best way for you to respond: what is triggering you? what are the consequences of such response?, etc…
      • Proceed with how you chose to respond.
    • Refocus on the task and let go of these thoughts and emotions. It’s not easy and you need some anchors and triggers to make it a new habit. An easy start is just to take a few slower than usual breaths and repeat “I inhale calm(or composure)” … I exhale tension (or frustration or whatever the word is for you)…”. There are also some more advanced emotions management techniques I usually teach my clients to ease that process and that impact the heart rate directly, not only the “mental/head” part of it.
    • Practice, practice and practice. Knowing something won’t serve if you don’t practice. You need to reset your automatism and that happens only by practicing, not (only) by reading a blog post 😊

If you want to improve your mental and emotional games, reach out to me for a complimentary introduction.

Take care,

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