We talk a lot about trigger words in our house. Fine, OK, Sure, Just, Only, Never, Can’t – there are many that hold connotations probably over and inappropriately analyzed in settings outside our quintet but when used in our circle create a pause for reflection on true meaning. Yesterday, there was a major outcry after the women’s Wimbledon Final with a focus on the perceived sense of failure of Serena Williams and the need to console her after a loss. I agree wholeheartedly that she deserves accolades for appearing in her 30thGrand Slam Final, spanning from before some of her competitors were even born and extending beyond the retirement of many of her peers. It felt to me, however, that the consolations were an overreaction, creating a false sense of shame that she did not feel for a circumstance that was not a failure. Perhaps we were personally triggered by the experience and our perception of her reaction, projecting our own expectations for the outcome on hers and ironically, as we sought to support her, overlooked the greatest lessons of the message she was sending.
Certainly, her amazing actions on the court, just 10 months after the delivery of her daughter and post-partum complications that nearly took her life as well as a recent injury that led to an early exit from the French Open, speak a thousand valuable words, but those she spoke directly, especially in the precious and precarious post-match moments, were truly priceless.
Both on the initial viewing and after multiple reviews, I was struck, impressed and inspired by her composure, insight and perspective. My perception of her tearful moments was pure overwhelm at the full extent of her year, her amazing career and the boundless horizon ahead and I am simply grateful to her for continuing to show us all the way to greatness, and, even more powerful, that greatness is so much more than the winner’s trophy.
“It was such an amazing tournament for me. I was really happy to get this far.”
Expectations are everything. They can make or break an experience. Certainly, the story book ending with a Finals win to cap her unprecedented victories throughout the tournament would have been fantastic. But, fair or not, she was ranked 449thin the world prior to the French Open in May and, even after a remarkable ascent to 181stheading into Wimbledon, she would have been the lowest ranked woman ever to win a final on those grass courts. Additionally, she was facing an opponent for the third time in a Grand Slam final and this was the rubber match. A loss to Angelique Kerber would be a first only in the matter of repeat losses to the same competitor (the other being Venus Williams) and was by no means impossible. Serena, fully aware of this, came in with an appropriate expectation to allow her to celebrate any result, as she notes in later interviews:
“This particular tournament, I entered just wanting to win some matches. I kept winning, and it kept happening. It was definitely a little bit of a surprise for me.”
Aim high, to be sure, but understand that your expectation can affect the outcome even before you begin and that taking a realistic, broad view into any moment sets up opportunity for success regardless of result.
“It is obviously disappointing, but I can’t be disappointed.”
No one likes to lose. Especially the greatest tennis player of all time, looking to stand free and clear of all other players in the history of the sport with the most Grand Slam titles in and out of the Open Era. Second place (as evidenced by the leaving of the trophy on the chair upon departure from the court) is simply not the goal for Serena, but while the result is disappointing, disappointment in herself is also simply not an option. The distinction between who she is, and the result achieved is a fine and oh-so-critical line. She clearly understands the spectrum of goals – with the primary only a few months ago being the next breath let alone the next step, serve, game point or major final. Would a victory have been preferred? Of course. But spending Saturday on Center Court with her husband and daughter waiting to welcome her home is already a delicious cake not necessarily in need of icing.
“I have so much to look forward to, I am literally just getting started so I look forward to it.”
Perhaps the silver lining of the medal of the same color is the increased drive to improve and the boosted vigor taken into subsequent challenges. Nothing drives a competitor more than avenging a loss and, with the double edged sword of elite defeat, Serena has seen that she is indeed able to hang with the best in class and, on any given day, can reclaim first place:
“I’m already deciphering what I need to improve on, what I need to do, what I did wrong, why I did it wrong, how I can do better, that whole madness that goes on in my mind,” “Then I’m saying, ‘Okay, I do improve with losses. We’ll see how it goes. Also, it was super encouraging to know that I can compete and do well.”
Critical analysis with investment in future outcomes is the best we can do after a less-than-ideal-result.
“No, I’m just me and that’s all I can be.”
Upon being asked how she does it and being dubbed super-human and super-mum, Serena quickly countered that she is simply who she is. She can only be herself and expect her best on the day, knowing that is at once the only thing she can control and also everything that matters. She has no say in the style, speed or strength of the player across the net, the weather conditions, the crowd or the officiating, so it is best to stay within herself, confident in her training and hopeful about her performance rather than take up valuable mental space with variables that would only serve to undermine her efforts.
“I always enter a tournament just coming to do my best”.
“To all the moms out there, I was playing for you today and I tried.”
Serena has long been an icon for so many – young women, tennis hopefuls, African American athletes, sisters, families, working women, entrepreneurs, activists and now mothers. Enormous privilege and responsibility for decades she has wielded with grace, strength and courage under the pressure of life in the spotlight and expectations of unprecedented and continued success. She acknowledges that she is now representing mothers everywhere when she steps on the court and, in these fifteen words captures a sentiment we all have such a hard time accepting – sometimes, most times, all we can do is try. And if we can say we gave our best, that is enough, in fact, it is often truly victorious.
“I just feel like I’m taking the steps in the right direction. I took a giant step at Wimbledon, but my journey has just begun. I just have to keep going.”
As a senior in the sport, Serena continues to illustrate that age is indeed but a number and that each day offers opportunity to move forward. With love in her heart, a willingness to work and continued passion for her profession, she continues on the path to her best self. The 23 titles of yesterday cannot predict her tomorrow, she can only work with who she is today. Though our roads might not lead us onto the court, fine tuning our skills each day keeps us moving in the right direction.
May we all continue to take those steps, sometimes small, sometimes painful, sometimes with a lot of rest in between, sometimes enormous, sometimes so spectacularly awesome, all paving the way to a successful tomorrow set in positive expectations met through our best efforts, yielding a victory to be celebrated.
As for those trigger words, may we realize that the meaning we place might be different than the speaker intended, leading us to hear clearly the message being shared, honoring and celebrating the experience as it is for all involved.
Finally, to Serena – thank you for inviting us all these years to share in your journey – to witness your greatest moments and your most heartbreaking losses – you are everything that is right in competition, motherhood, sports and humanity – best effort and positive attitude, honor for the experience, respect for competitors, gratitude for supporters – demonstrating through actions and words that “just me” is the best, and only, way to be.