When it comes to Women’s tennis, Serena Williams is the best there is. She deserves recognition for missing most of the season due to injury and illness, then bouncing back into the circuit as the favorite to win the U.S. Open for 2011.
Regarding her athleticism, she has it all. Rising back to the top in a short, concentrated period of time is no easy feat under the best of circumstances. She has battled blood clots in her lungs and other serious illnesses this year. Making it to the finals of the U.S. Open is a testament to her commitment to tennis.
So why did she lose? It wasn’t because her opponent, Samantha Stosur of Australia, broke her serve. Stosur winning the title was unexpected. Her strong desire to play all out because she didn’t expect to win anyway gave Stosur an edge. This freed her up to be more relaxed and take more risks. She didn’t really have anything to lose.
Stosur had a stronger mental game than Williams. Williams outburst, verbally abusing the chair umpire, calling her “a hater and unattractive inside” was a turning point in the game. Her temper had an opposite effect on Stosur. Instead of being intimidated, she grew calm. Williams is technically excellent but her mental game needs work. Her anger worked in her favor for awhile, but quickly contributed to her loss in the long run. She just was not able to get her head back in the game.
Losing emotional control, regardless of circumstances including umpire calls and the competition, is a flaw shared by many naturally gifted athletes. As long as things are going her way, she is good to go. When adversity strikes and it is not in her favor, all composure is gone. The unexpected caught her off guard.
Performance on the court is the tip of the iceberg. Like most elite athletes, imagine the numerous hours Serena dedicates to her skill set. Massive hours devoted to improving her killer serve, strengthening an impeccable back hand and weight training for power plays. Now if Serena brought her mental game strategies up to speed she would be untouchable.
Her U.S. Open outburst is not an isolated incident. She’s been fined for bad behavior before, and is currently on probation for anger issues two years ago. The good news is that emotional intelligence is teachable. The bad news is, as things stand now, Serena gets low marks concerning her game face.
Integrating mental game coaching will round out her training program. The tangible benefits would include more wins and a growing bank account. Why? Because composure and the ability to read your opponents affect gives you an edge.
Identifying, assessing and controlling personal emotions as well as interpreting an opponent’s emotions is the framework of Emotional Intelligence. The primary five categories include:
- Self Awareness – By developing an emotional vocabulary, athletes are able to self assess what they’re feeling. Instead of becoming reactive, possibly losing control, it becomes possible to choose a response according to the situation. Maintaining a game face under all circumstances raises self confidence.
- Self Regulation – No one has complete control over their emotions. Unexpected circumstances typically lead to automatic responses, becoming reactive. With mental game skills, an athlete has the power of choice. How long an athlete dwells on something directly effects performance. High performers want to quickly recover, regaining focus on the present moment.
- Motivation – Clear goals along with a positive mindset drive motivation. Some people are more prone to negativity than others. Athletes learning to develop positive goals possess a stronger level of commitment, initiative, drive and optimism. When distractions appear the right tools keep athletes focused on the BIG picture.
- Empathy – Understanding another person’s emotions creates a competitive edge. Reading body language accurately is not used in Western cultures, but strongly emphasized in Eastern cultures. Learning to read other peoples body language creates a competitive advantage. Imagine accurately recognizing and anticipating an opponent’s response, how would that develop an edge?
- Social Skills – Leaders, including elite athletes, require social skills. Whether it is the press, teammates, trainers or coaches, people skills are necessary. Excellent communication skills improve negotiations, comprehension and influence. There is a difference between being outrageous and having charisma. Charisma fosters influence and leadership.
Speedy recovery from mistakes is mandatory for high performance athletes. Cracking under pressure in a high stakes game comes with a steep price tag. Serena gave away $1.3 million dollars in potential earnings because she was unable to keep her head in the game.
Coaching Serena on Emotional Intelligence would make her unbeatable. This one component added into her training program would provide the tools she needs to quickly recover from upsets, stop blaming others for her actions and maintain control under extreme pressure. For Serena, that would be money in the bank. Along with a better handle on her emotions, she would have the ability to read her opponents.
Composure, whether on the court or in front of the press, displays confidence. There is a difference between control and empowerment. The blaming, the temper tantrums and the threats would disappear.
The bottom line is many abilities are purely cognitive, like an athlete’s IQ and technical execution. Then there are the actions requiring thought and feelings. Basically Emotional Intelligence emphasizes the connection between emotions and high performance.
Building this mental muscle is a game changer. When something unexpected occurs, Serena could choose a new response. High stakes play leads to high emotions. Being able to maintain composure under pressure is the trait of champions.
Activity: Where do you get easily distracted? When that happens what thoughts are going through your head? What are you telling yourself? The longer you dwell on the distraction, is valuable time lost on high performance. You are just not in the present moment when thinking about something which is now already a part of the past. Using key words are excellent tools for recovering quickly from distractions.
Choose one or two specific key words which have significance for you. Saying that word will remind you of how you want to perform and where you want to place your focus. Some keywords are “power burst,” “focus,” “calm,” or “powerful.” Once you choose your key word then bring it into your training program. When you realize your thoughts are elsewhere say your key word. Remember like anything else, practice builds the connection. The more you practice using your keyword improves its ability to work on refocusing you to the here and now.