The mindset of a champion

Why life for Serena Williams is more than just winning

After winning her Wimbledon semifinal match in 2016 – and right before taking home the championship – Serena Williams was asked what it meant to reach three major tennis finals in a row. “For anyone else in this whole planet, it would be a wonderful accomplishment,” she said. “For me, it’s not enough. But I think that’s what makes me different.”

She stopped, then added for emphasis: “That’s what makes me Serena.”

Serena is a powerful force of nature on the tennis court and one of the fiercest competitors in the history of the sport. This past January, she surpassed Steffi Graf with 23 career grand slam titles to her name.

But what’s her secret to success? And just what does success mean to someone who keeps pushing herself harder and higher?


In 2015, Serena won 53 of the 56 matches and three of the four Grand Slam events. Sports Illustrated named her the 2015 Sportsperson of the Year, a title that no individual female athlete has been given in more than 30 years. In 2016, she continued her impressive performance, smashing the competition both in singles and doubles matches. Instead of coasting, she continues to push herself. When a reporter asked what she thought of talk about “going down as one of the greatest female athletes of all time,” Serena’s response was decisive: “I prefer the word ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time.’”

When you get on top, sometimes you have to fight even harder to win.

But winning and tennis are just part of Serena’s life today. After a crushing injury caused her to plummet from her #1 spot to #172 in 2011, she seemed to become a totally different player. Serena didn’t lose her talent or her drive, but she lost her focus. She spent too much time and energy thinking of her losses and being paralyzed by fear, instead of letting her hunger for future wins take over when on the court and training.

Cue Tony Robbins. As he says, “where your focus goes, energy flows.” If you focus on your negativity and fears, those thoughts will consume you and suck all of your energy, just as they did for Serena. When Tony started to work with Serena, as her life coach, his task was not just to remind her to stay hungry and re-focus on her game, but also to remember that life is more than just her time on the court. Like Tony says, “Success leaves clues. People that are the most successful in the world over and over again are not lucky.” They have found what works and doing that consistently leads to consistent success.

The rich life is living, not just winning. And living requires fulfillment, not simply achievement.

Understanding the ART OF FULFILLMENT

As Tony says, an extraordinary life depends on the science of achievement and the art of fulfillment. Striving without ever being satisfied makes successes hollow, not enriching. There’s always a way to make more money, but what makes you happy? What brings you joy? Finding what’s going to fulfill you is critical for happiness and a life of fulfillment.

In other words, trade expectation for appreciation.

Serena embodies this approach. “Everything I do from this day forward is a bonus. Actually, from yesterday. It doesn’t matter. Everything for me is just extra.” By appreciating what she has already accomplished, she found a way to shift her focus and alter her energy, moving beyond fear to a position of strength.

Another sign that Serena has moved beyond fear was her appearance in Beyoncé’s video for “Sorry” on “Lemonade,” her recent visual album. Serena explained that the director and Beyoncé said, “We would love for you to be in this particular song. It’s about strength and it’s about courage and that’s what we see you as.”

@beyonce ????

A photo posted by Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) on

But even this dancing cameo took strength and courage. “[Beyoncé] told me that she just wants me to dance, like just be really free and just dance like nobody’s looking and go all out,” Serena said. “So that wasn’t easy in the beginning, but then it got easier. … I thought that particular song on the visual album was really a strong song, and it was also really fun at the same time.”

The result is a clear image of power and confidence. Even better? The joy that’s clear when she shows the world just how to twerk like she does in the video. Here is confidence.

Giving: Serena’s secret for living

Another result of Serena’s confidence has been following through on life-long ambitions not related to tennis. As a young girl, Serena told herself, “I will work in Africa and help kids and help people.” In 2008, her foundation partnered with Build Africa Schools and Hewlett Packard to open the Serena Williams Secondary School in Mattooni, Kenya — two years later, she opened another school in Kenya. Outside of her own foundation, she has traveled to Asia and Africa as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and partners with numerous non-profits including Elton John AIDS Foundation, Beyond the Boroughs National Scholarship Fund and several charity tennis tournaments.

Serena’s giving doesn’t stop there. Having lost her older half-sister to violence, Serena also is dedicated to helping victims of violent crimes through her work with the Equal Justice Initiative and her partnership with the Caliber Foundation, a non-profit working to end gun violence. She understands life is about we, not about me.

Hungry for more on Serena? See our related article, CEO lessons from Serena Williams – how to approach your business like a high-performance athlete.

Header image © flickr/mirsasha

Team Tony

Team Tony cultivates, curates and shares Tony Robbins’ stories and core principles, to help others achieve an extraordinary life.

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