Don’t let anyone write you off

Serena Williams has been a ‘trending’ topic over the last couple of weeks, not just for her record-breaking achievements but for what other people are saying about her. Thankfully, the sports writers are being kind this time around, falling over themselves to find new superlatives to describe her complete dominance of women’s professional tennis. Other commentators have been less kind, displaying the types of sexism and racism that have followed her around for most of her career.

The coded racism has surprised even world-weary cynics like me, who think we have seen and heard it all. Imagine being hated for being so good at your job that you make everyone else look ordinary, or because you don’t look like the people you work with. What must it feel like to be taunted for having outrageous feminine curves and, at the same time, be accused of ‘looking like a man’? Even Caitlyn Jenner couldn’t be mistaken for Serena Williams on his best day, much less any male athlete I’ve ever seen.

However, Serena is on top of the world and having the time of her life. I doubt she is giving the haters much thought now that she has proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she is the greatest woman to have played the game. But, it wasn’t always like this. Along the way, she has climbed many hills and fought several battles against the doubters; the ones who batter your confidence, wound your self-esteem and try to kill your dreams.

Often, doubters assume a thoroughly respectable form – a teacher, a parent, a close friend or even an achiever in your field – someone who should know better. Many a time, they are being kind; trying to save you from yourself; or preventing you from being hurt or disappointed. Other times, it’s because they don’t believe you are the right race or gender, don’t have the right background or education, or don’t conform to society’s rules for success in a particular area. In the case of the Williams sisters, it has been almost all of the above.

Let’s look at a few examples of what they have had to endure:

  • When Venus and Serena first burst unto the scene, appearing in the big pro tournaments, I remember how their ‘crazy’ dad, Richard, was patronised and ridiculed for suggesting that his daughters would be No.1 and No.2 and would play each other in a Grand Slam Final. Oh, how they giggled in the studio at his eccentricity!
  • When Venus Williams won her first professional tournament and told reporters, “I have a younger sister who is better than me.” Oh really?
  • When Richard and Oracene Williams coached the girls themselves and made sure that they avoided the junior tennis circuit. Everyone else ‘knew’ that they had to attend an expensive tennis academy and play all the other budding young champions to succeed.
  • In 1992, when Venus was 12 and Serena 11, Richard confidently predicted that Venus would win Wimbledon and Serena would win the US Open, and that Serena would become the better player eventually. In the same TV interview for Trans-World Sport, Serena was asked which player she would most want to be like. “I’d like other people to be like me,” she replied. Some people thought the comment was cute and harmless, while for others this was the start of the ‘arrogance’ the girls were accused of for many years.

My favourite ‘doubter’ has to be Pat Cash, the 1987 Wimbledon Men’s Champion and a respected tennis commentator. It was 2007 and Serena Williams had just returned to the circuit after nearly a year off, pursuing other interests such as fashion design and acting. She had played just three matches in a small tournament, before arriving in Melbourne for the Australian Open, ranked no. 81 in the world. When the media asked about the likelihood of a successful comeback, Serena said that it was “just a matter of time” before she was dominating the sport again.

Writing for The Times, Cash could hardly contain himself. Under a headline that read, ‘Williams is lost cause’, he boldly declared, “For all her talk, Serena Williams will never return to the top again.” According to him, Serena was ‘deluded’, had a ‘limited attention span’, had ‘no patience’ and lacked the ‘fortitude’ required to persevere. On behalf of the players who had conformed to the tennis world’s expectations, he was incensed. “To make such a crass statement on her arrival in Australia was an insult to Amelie Mauresmo and Maria Sharapova, who have risen to the top of the game in her absence,” he fumed.

Two weeks later, Cash was ‘eating humble pie’ (his words) and admitting he had gotten it completely wrong. Serena had swept all before her, defied the odds and become the 2007 Australian Open champion. Since that improbable triumph, she has gone on to win one or two Grand Slams every single year except 2011 when she survived a series of life-threatening illnesses, including a blood clot close to her heart. To his credit, Cash the doubter gave her the ultimate tribute, calling her, “Quite simply the strongest female player the game has ever known.”

If you’re not a tennis fan, should you care about any of this? I think so; especially if you’ve always had a burning desire to be great at something. Not just good, but great. The lessons in Serena’s story are as powerful as any epic I have seen onscreen and we would do well to emulate them. So, here goes:

  1. Believe in yourself and your talent
  2. Focus on one thing at a time
  3. Work with the resources you have until things get better
  4. Practice day and night until you are the best you can be
  5. Make sure to pursue something you enjoy, or you might quit when things get tough
  6. Don’t be afraid to be different or to be the first
  7. Get a good coach or mentor who believes in you, even when you don’t believe in yourself
  8. Surround yourself with family and friends who will cheer you on from the sidelines
  9. Ignore the naysayers, even if they are so-called experts
  10. Keep getting up and going out, even when you don’t want to
  11. Don’t get distracted by success or failure; stay focused
  12. Keep some balance in your life – family, friends, pets, rest, travel and other interests

Very few of us have a Richard Williams in our lives, deflecting the doubts and fears, and standing up to naysayers on our behalf, with absolutely rock-solid belief in our ability to achieve our dreams. Most of us have to do this for ourselves.

It’s easy to look at this 33 year-old millionaire with the world at her feet and believe that, but for a lack of sporting talent, we would be there also. Truth is, most of us would not be willing to pay the price – the pain, injuries, repetitiveness of practice, strict diet, fierce competition, unforgiving crowds, constant travel, unfriendly locker room, slights, criticism, racism, sexism, body shaming and insults.

So, whatever you do, make sure it’s worth the price you will have to pay for greatness. Never let anyone write you off, no matter how many times you’re down and no matter how many times you have to make a comeback. It’s not over until you say it is. Just ask Serena Williams.

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30 thoughts on “Don’t let anyone write you off

  1. Its always good to pursue our dreams doggedly against all odds. The Williams are typical examples. For the West and their racism, I reserve my comment. Thanks, the piece is worthwhile Sir

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  2. ‘Never let anyone write you off’ goes to re-emphasis the need for self-belief and determination in pursuing your dream.Doubters – parents, teachers, friends, siblings, employers, etc, are one of the greatest dream killers. They tell you your dream is too big. However, when the dream is achieved they’re usually the first to celebrate with you. They tell you they always believed in your ability to achieve your dream.
    Thanks for this piece Michael. It is the reminder I need at this time.

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    1. You’re absolutely right, Godwin. Dream-killers are everywhere, mostly trying to protect you from the disappointments they have experienced. It takes a great deal of courage and independence of mind to succeed when all around you there is doubt. Just keep going. Thanks for the support!

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  3. Michael, you got it right! I admire the Williams’ sisters for all those attributes you mentioned. I would recommend your article to folks of all ages who are striving to be great in their chosen fields. I hope there is a way to put this article out there where Serena herself can see it. Submit it to a Sports magazine or something. Thanks for another excellent piece.

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  4. You know this reminds me of your pep talk to me a few days ago. I realise that for Serena and Venus to have come this far, their journey is not one to turn your nose up at. Reading through this article, I have noted the words to return to everyday I feel like things aren’t going to turn out well in the end. Thanks Michael for this piece. One of my favourites yet…..

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    1. I’m glad you found this piece inspirational – it did come out of the talk we had! I wanted to inspire anyone going through a tough time, just as Serena inspired me with the way she continues to play her best tennis at an age when almost everyone either retires or is in decline. Take those 12 rules and put them somewhere that you can see them every day. You’ll be just fine.

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  5. It was Oprah Winfrey that said, “Excellence is the greatest deterrent against sexism and racism”. This article does a perfect job of expounding on that truth. Great read! Highly inspiring!

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  6. I really wasn’t a Tennis fan but the Williams sisters sparked my interest. Wimbledon 2015 happened to be the first Tennis tournament i followed and i was rooting for the Williams sisters all the way. Just wish Venus had gone a little further though! The sky should never be a limit to anyone. You are your own “limitation”

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    1. You’re absolutely right – we get in our own way and obstruct ourselves more than any other obstacle, real or imagined. Considering that Venus is battling a debilitating disease, it’s surprising that she’s still competing and winning matches, and is still the third highest paid female player in tennis. Most of us would have quit some time ago. Keep watching – I think the best is yet to come.

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  7. This will be one of your most important reflections, and probably the most difficult to bring to bear. I have forwarded to at least 50 people (parents like me especially but also teenagers) and counting….I hope it does provide a stairway but I often wonder if it isn’t the unspoken other that is the reason why so few make it down this path.
    In the film, The Devils Advocate, Satan (Al Pacino) speaks to the audience at the with a rueful smile, “Vanity — definitely my favorite sin.” Methinks its vanity that makes it hard for us to look at ourselves and really know what we are and what we can become. Those who excel get naked in front of the mirror, they don’t see what they want but what really is and they smile. Knowing who you are is what keeps you going towards what you can become.

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    1. First of all, let me thank you for sending it on to so many people – I’m truly grateful. It’s possible that vanity, as much as fear, could be responsible for us not taking a good look at ourselves. Self-awareness is the first step towards self-improvement and if you think too much of yourself, it would prevent you from seeing yourself as you are. Thanks again!

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      1. You’re probably right, Charles. As you know, I tackled fear in an earlier post. This is just a strand of reaching for success – dealing with naysayers who can distract even the most fearless, if we aren’t focused. If Richard Williams was White, I think people would have been sending their kids to him for training and someone would have invested in a Richard Williams Tennis Academy by now. Clearly, he knows something about fearlessness.

        I was looking forward to your response on my last two related posts. Still waiting.

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  8. My initial thoughts are ‘You’re a product of you’re own environment, so surround yourself with as many positive people as you can. You are what you’re around. ‘
    Serena has shown to be a true trooper, some of whose actions and sentiments I share personally.
    When I went for a position as an assistant commercial lawyer, in a commercial / corporate legal firm, I was faced with a panel comprising three white men. One of whom said ” you are very articulative, so would be better suited as a criminal or family lawyer.” The panel were clearly finding it difficult to see me in a position of male corporate lawyers.
    I had two strikes-female and black. However, like Serena, I refused to absorb their negative responses. In fact, I pitied them, as no matter what laws you pass, you will never eradicate racism or sexism. It would take a good dose of education to try and show the panel as to how their comments could be seen as negative, sexist and racist. For although ignorance is no excuse, it is an every day occurrence. So we as individuals must hold close to ourselves that no matter what we want in life, we will strive to achieve it, and not let race, religion, colour, creed or sex hold us back.
    An inspiring piece! 🎓.

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    1. Thank you my darling. I’ve often thought of you as being quite Serena-like in your refusal to be pigeon-holed and marginalised. Like her, just keep going and don’t let what other people are saying about you matter one iota.

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  9. Great writing. Inspirational I must say. Believe in yourself and work hard at it. Nor talent nor obstacle is enough to determine your success. Prove them wrong! !

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    1. Thanks Attah, your absolutely right. I know that you are only too aware of how people can try to distract you with careless talk. I saw the results of an interesting study today – the main finding is that people who aggressively criticised others online, especially women, are actually ‘losers’ in real life. Apparently, low achievers (males) feel threatened by successful women because they might lose social standing to them. Here’s to your success!

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  10. There will always be obstacles and naysayers when we choose to follow our dreams and aspirations. However, nothing beats having the courage of our convictions and pursuing our passions despite seemingly insurmountable odds. As long as we are willing to make the necessary sacrifices, anything is achievable. Interesting and inspiring piece Michael! Thanks for sharing.

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    1. You’re very welcome, Eche. Now you know why I ignore the naysayers and just keep going. It’s easy to get distracted. As with Serena, success is achieved over the long term, therefore the single victories don’t look like much. However, add them up over the duration of a career and the results can be stunning. Thanks for the support.

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  11. Michael, an excellent article that deserves a much wider audience. I love the lessons which are inspiring. The only person who can limit what you do as an individual is you…..so here’s to living a life with no limits but plenty of balance. Keep writing.

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  12. Quite inspirational! I recall that year she fell to 175th in the world female tennis ranking. But she fought hard and regained her one number position. The attributes she displayed are worthy of copy. May we believe in ourselves & find strength to pursue our plans. Thanks for the piece ,sir.

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