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Learning about resiliency from Serena Williams

2019-09-09

As I sat on the edge of my seat watching Serena Williams battle it out against Bianca Andreescu for a shot at her 24th Grand Slam title, I was again reminded of how much she has endured during her athletic career. To get to where she is today, Serena has become a master at using strategies that cognitive scientists like me have studied for many years.

I can’t claim to have predicted her meteoric rise, but I can shed light on what she gets right about approaching high-pressure situations — and what we all might learn from her and adapt to our own lives.

A year ago, we saw the all-time-great in women’s tennis at a low point, confronting the umpire and breaking her racket on the pavement during a tough loss to up-and-coming tennis star Naomi Osaka. The news headlines portrayed Serena as an athlete gone mad; there was speculation that motherhood had weakened her competitive edge. She might no longer have what it takes to be an Olympic athlete, some thought, and her failure to lose gracefully caused many to question her mental ability to compete at the highest levels now that she was a wife and a mother.

In addition, she has long endured numerous attacks on her race, body and appearance. Even the attire she wore at matches came under fire from the French Tennis Federation.

Heading into the 2018 match against Osaka, the pressure was on Serena, a new mother, hoping to earn another title. Some were rooting for her to fail.

But redemption is sweet, and ?Thursday night, with a definitive win against Elina Svitolina to earn a spot in the U.S. Open final, Serena proved to herself, her critics and women across the world that embracing multiple aspects of yourself — athlete, sister, role model, wife and mother — will not hinder you but, in fact, will actually help you to perform well under stress.

Because I am a mother and former athlete who has devoted her professional career to studying what allows people to succeed in high-pressure situations, I knew the belief that taking on a new role somehow compromises performance in another arena of one’s life is not true. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

Complexity, research shows, allows us to be resilient in the face of adversity and criticism. When we embrace — in an authentic, “all in” kind of way — and develop various aspects of our identities, we are better able to handle everything that life throws at us.

The skills that make you a good mother may not necessarily make you a great athlete, or vice versa, and that’s okay. When we recognize our complexities — the multiple aspects of our identities — and strategically develop the characteristics needed to be successful in our various roles, we can tackle anything without feeling that we are under attack.

We are, and should be, more than one thing. It can be devastating if your entire identity is wrapped up in a single role and you experience a major setback in that area. If you define yourself solely as an employee, for example, and you are suddenly forced into an early retirement, how will you cope?

I have dedicated my research to studying the behavior of women and girls in an effort to help us overcome our insecurities, anxieties and the gender bias that holds us back in male-dominated fields, such as sports.

Research proves that by embracing our multi-selves we are better able to recognize our own value. Beyond cultivating the various aspects of ourselves, it is also helpful to engage in self-affirmation. Research also shows that writing activities geared toward elaborating on our positive qualities can, for example, lessen the psychological impact of being subjected to negative stereotypes.

What are your positive qualities? Write them down. That’s what Serena does, and she’s even found a way to use technology to supply herself with a steady stream of positive self-talk: She uses positive phrases as passwords.

Serena Williams has proven that multiple versions of ourselves can still be successful even when we receive a blow to one of our identities. Losing on the court does not equate to a loss elsewhere. A failure in one area doesn’t detract from the fact that we are champions in other parts of our lives. And when we realize this, and embrace our complexities, even when we fail, we have the power to come back stronger the next time.

Beilock is a cognitive scientist and president of Barnard College.