Learn from Watching Professional Athletes.

September 29, 2022

Learn from Watching Professional Athletes.

May 29, 2023

In August, I attended the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament in New York. This has been on my husband's bucket list for a long time so we bought tickets months in advance for opening night.

What we did not know was that Serena Williams would announce her "retirement" and she was going to play on opening night. And that we would watch what might be her last professional tournament appearance!

If you follow tennis, you know that Serena won. Commentator Chriss Evert said Serena played the best she has played in the last five years! It was a record-setting attendance day and Serena set a record for attendance for a U.S. Open match.

After Serena won, there was a beautiful video tribute to her and Billie Jean King made some moving comments about Serena's legacy. Serena went on to win the next match and then lost in the third round, but it took three sets.

It was a day and a night I will always remember.

If you read any of the articles about her, watched any of the U.S. Open Tournament, or listened to any of her interviews, you know how Serena did not use the word "retirement." She said she prefers the phrase "evolving away from tennis.” Joe Coughlin said Serena is challenging retirement as we know it.

Professional athletes have to make the decision to leave their profession earlier than most of us and we can learn a lot from watching them about how or how not to do this. I kept thinking how difficult it would be to leave when people are calling you the GOAT--Greatest of All Time!

Watching Serena made me reflect back on a blog post I wrote for the Modern Elder Academy called "Olympic Gold: Be Careful What You Wish For." I had just watched the documentary titled "The Weight of Gold" narrated by Michael Phelps.

The focus of the documentary is on life transitions and how difficult transitions are without support and resources. It is about the mental health challenges Olympic athletes face and the lack of support provided.

Basically, the documentary emphasizes how athletes don’t know how to transition from training to be an Olympic athlete to living and working as a regular citizen. Even if they are gold medalists, they often struggle. Several of the athletes said, "No one prepared me for life after being an Olympian."

Serena was open about sharing how she sought the help of a therapist to help her process the timing of leaving and how to gracefully exit competitive tennis--her profession.

The GOAT taught me a lot about how to let go. Serena had to overcome many obstacles in her career. Last year, the film “King Richard” reflected the Williams sisters’ challenges and rise to success.

But do most people remember that earlier in Serena's career, even when she was ranked higher than Maria Sharapova --Maria made more money? How do you explain that? Much of their compensation is based on endorsements, but it would be hard to understand and rationalize. Yet, Serena had a gracious response.

While it is true that Serena acted out at times and said some things to officials that she now regrets, no one is perfect. At the end of her career, I believe Serena modeled how to think about life after one's career. The word "evolve" resonates because it implies continued growth and moving forward.

What struck me is how Serena has worked hard to control her ego and not let her ego control her. This is hard for most of us to do because our professions provide our identity. If who we are is based on what we do, then it is so hard to walk away.

Tom Brady tried to “retire” and couldn’t let go. Now we can watch how Roger Federer evolves.

Who are you becoming? How are you continuing to grow? How are you evolving?

Jann Freed, PhD, is a leadership development coach, speaker, and author. She is the author of Leading with Wisdom: Sage Advice from 100 Experts (ATD, 2013). Her next book Breadcrumb Legacy: How Great Leaders Live a Life Worth Remembering (Routledge Publishing) will be out in early 2023. She writes a column “Leading Edge” for Training Magazine and hosts a monthly podcast Becoming a Sage where she interviews thought leaders about wisdom. Jann is a MEA alum and a Corazon member. www.jannfreed.com

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