posted on: September 10, 2018
author: Brian Lomax
The 2018 US Open Women’s final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka was unfortunately marred by controversy. Many opinions have been expressed about what happened on the court and the fairness of it all. Was this a case of a chair umpire overstepping his bounds? Or perhaps this was a case of a frustrated player letting her emotions get away from her because she was losing. Maybe there’s a bit of both involved. Regardless, let’s examine the incident through a different lens – the lens of mental toughness.
To begin our analysis, let’s start with 5 fundamental truths that hold for sport and life.
Being mentally tough is TOUGH! It’s also not natural. It is very difficult to be mentally tough 100% of the time, and all great competitors stumble at times. That list includes every top tennis player including Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and yes, Serena Williams. They have all had moments of mental weakness in their careers. That doesn’t make them bad competitors or bad role models. They’re just human. At times, we all suffer from nerves, lose emotional control, or misdirect our focus. The best just do these things a lot less than the rest of us.
Life is not fair, and we shouldn’t expect it to be. In sport, there are going to be times when officials make bad calls, your opponents cheat, fans interfere with play, or weather is unfavorable. That’s just the way it is. Expecting life to be fair and perfect is a path to misery.
Adversity is a part of every competition. Performing well and winning is not easy. There is often a lot of suffering on the journey. In addition to the types of adversity mentioned in the previous section, we are going to lose points, lose games, play badly, lose our confidence, focus on things out of our control, etc. Sometimes our opponents are just playing great and there’s nothing we can do about it. We have to expect adversity and know how to respond to it.
How we respond to adversity is our choice. To paraphrase various thought leaders in the world of success, it’s not about what happens to us, it’s about how we respond to what happens to us. Our response to adversity is an indicator of our mental toughness. When we are competing, our mission is to win, and everything we do during the competition must be in the service of that mission. Losing emotional control does not serve that mission.
How we respond to adversity is 100% our responsibility. We must practice extreme ownership in this area. Blaming others for what happens to us is a victim mentality. Mentally tough competitors don’t blame others; they take responsibility for their actions.
If you accept that points 1, 2 and 3 above are true, then points 4 and 5 are where Serena didn’t live up to the standard of being mentally tough in this match. No one made her say the things she said. She was not forced to abuse her racquet. She chose to take those actions. Those were her responses to adversity, and unfortunately, she didn’t take responsibility for them (and neither have many of her supporters).
Many people are pointing at chair umpire Carlos Ramos as the villain in this affair. Frankly, from a mental toughness perspective, I don’t see it that way. When you (or your coach) act outside of the rules or accepted norms of behavior, you are opening yourself up to the judgment and whims of an official. Whether that official is consistent in enforcing a particular rule is not the issue. Your behavior made you vulnerable to that person’s judgment in the situation. If the official doesn’t call you out on it, you were fortunate. If he/she does, it’s your fault, not his/hers.
On Saturday afternoon, Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, was coaching her from the player’s box. The rules say that coaching is not allowed at the Grand Slam tournaments. Everyone knows that is the rule. He decided to coach her during the match anyway, and has admitted that. By taking that action, he put his player in danger of being penalized. Whether this infraction is enforced consistently is not the issue. He knowingly did something that he knew could be flagged as a rule violation. You can certainly make an argument that Ramos should not have made that call in a Grand Slam final, but again, that is not the issue when it comes to being mentally tough. The argument that “everyone else does it (coaching)” is not valid either.
Officials are human and therefore, unpredictable. When Serena abused her racquet, she placed herself at the mercy of the chair umpire. She did it again when she went on a verbal tirade. By rule, both of those behaviors are code violations and therefore are subject to the judgment of the chair umpire. She deserved what she got. But let’s not pile on Serena too much; being mentally tough all the time is very hard.
To be a truly mentally tough competitor, you cannot act in a way that puts your fate in the hands of an official. If you do, you have to accept the consequences. That is the lesson here. If you can ensure that your response to adversity keeps you focused on playing to win, it’s a lot less likely that an official will determine your fate in the end. You can also look back and be proud of how you handled a difficult situation. Keep the 5 fundamental truths above in your mind when competing, and you will be much more likely to handle adverse situations well.
Brian Lomax founded PerformanceXtra™ in 2009 with a mission of helping athletes achieve their goals and their top performances more consistently through a progression of mental skills that enables them to focus on what is truly important.
Learn more about the author: https://performancextra.com/brian-lomax/