Five lessons from the GOAT herself
Earlier this month, Serena Williams hinted at her retirement from tennis, noting that she would “evolve away from tennis” following the 2022 US Open. If you know me, you know that I am deeply inspired by Serena Williams and see her as one of my personal idols. Although I didn’t anticipate publishing another post until late September, I’m jumping in now to share a few lessons that I’ve learned from her that have helped me be a better graduate student, mentor, and scholar. Besides, I had a lot of time to think on my drive from Chicago to Long Island.
Although fiercely private, Serena has redefined what it means to be an elite athlete through her entrepreneurship, advocacy, intense commitment to her family, and ability to fundamentally change a sport both in terms of play and participation. Of course, it’s difficult to think about Serena’s contributions independent of her sister, Venus. Indeed, they have collaborated on many joint ventures—both on and off the court. However, here, my focus is Serena. I know that what I share below will undoubtedly be incomplete. Nonetheless, I hope there’s something you can take with you to help you navigate the upcoming term either for yourself or your mentees.
We first knew Serena as a tennis player. She, along with Venus, quickly ascended to the highest levels of the sport, winning major tournaments and setting records. To do this, she accelerated the uptake of a newer style of play—one that required both power and finesse and continues to dominate the general style of play among players on both the women’s and men’s tours. Her dominance and willingness to unapologetically be herself has long been met with intense criticism rooted in misogyny and racism.
As an adolescent watching her career unfold, I was inspired by her fortitude—she was going to play tennis whether people wanted her to or not. As a scholar and mentor, I now see how important her support network was in creating a space for her to thrive and reimagine what tennis could be and for whom it could be. How can and will you support your colleagues and mentees pushing at the boundaries of their fields?
Push against white cultural norms.
Serena’s mere presence in tennis, a predominantly white sport, was met with resistance. Early in her career, she was criticized for wearing beads in her hair. Later in her career (2018 French Open), she was criticized for wearing a catsuit to promote blood flow following a bout with blood clots. In short, Serena’s body and behaviors have been policed in countless ways. This is not unique for Black women; however, I suspect her experiences have been exacerbated by her position as an elite tennis player. Yet, Serena has not wavered in her commitment to hold tennis and its fans accountable for their behaviors and mistreatment of her and other marginalized players.
Many scholars (at all levels) have committed to diversifying and decolonizing their fields. At the same time, public commitments do not always yield change (these commitments are sometimes genuine and sometimes not). If committed to change, it’s imperative that scholars hold themselves accountable and identify opportunities to assess progress toward their goals. What is this going to look like for you?
Nurture outside interests.
In addition to experiencing record success on the court, Serena has invested heavily in her development in several other domains, including fashion, entertainment, and advocacy. She even has an ownership stake in the Miami Dolphins (alongside Venus) and more recently joined as a founding member of Angel City FC, a new National Women’s Soccer League expansion team. Throughout her career, she has been criticized for allocating time to nurturing her interests outside tennis. For example, in 2001, she decided to pursue fashion studies at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. Doing so required her to limit her playing. The joke, though, was really on her critics as she went on to complete a “Serena Slam” winning the French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open in 2002 and the Australian Open in 2003. I suspect that Serena’s commitment to being her whole self has helped to create the conditions for her to have the long tennis career she has had.
As scholars, particularly early-career scholars, it’s easy to forego nurturing our own interests outside our academic work. Yet, appreciating who we are outside the classroom, office, and lab is so important. I regret placing intense restrictions on myself early in my career—I’m certainly no better off now than I would have been had I indulged in a hobby or two as a graduate student. How are you going to create space to see yourself outside your science? How are you going to model being “whole” for your mentees? How are you going to encourage your mentees to nurture their own interests?
Advocate for yourself and others.
In 2019, Billie Jean King said, “Quite frankly, if I were Serena, I would give up being a celebrity for a year and a half if she wants to win titles.” In response to King’s comment and others like hers, Serena said (to a journalist), “The day I stop fighting for equality and for people that look like you and me will be the day I'm in my grave.” Perhaps as a matter of necessity, Serena has always used her platform to bring attention to issues of inequality, misogyny, and racism, among other things. I specifically say ‘necessity’ because Serena, as a Black woman in tennis, does not have the luxury of being silent. That is, just existing and thriving in the sport is viewed as an act of rebellion.
We must learn how to advocate for ourselves and we must mentor students in how to do the same. We must also advocate for our students and colleagues, especially when they cannot do so for themselves. Disciplines are incomplete when participation is limited to a select few. In short, we cannot be good scientists without also being good advocates and activists.
Be seen, be heard.
In 2018, Serena launched her own her own apparel line called Serena. In addition to offering inclusive sizing, her clothing offers positive messaging. In 2019, she launched the “Be Seen Be Heard” collection, which inspired my post “Be seen, be heard, be present.” This call to action (Be Seen Be Heard) reflects decades of her doing the same.
As scholars, we need to be seen and we need to be heard. We also need to make space for others to be seen and heard. What is your plan for putting yourself out there without doing so at the expense of others? What is your plan for elevating others, especially your mentees, as they embark on their own journeys?
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Until next time!