I want to talk about the time I met Serena Williams and she made my day. It has to do with what we often leave out when we tell the stories of prodigies.
I labeled that section below, so you can skip down to it if you’re in a rush; but before getting to that, I’d like to share thoughts on King Richard, the new film starring Will Smith as Richard Williams — father of Venus and Serena. The film surprised me. Not just in how much I liked it, but in its nuanced portrayal of the Williams family.
After Tiger Woods, the tennis-filled childhoods of Venus and Serena may represent the most powerful stories of early specialization in existence. In a previous post, I wrote about research indicating that early specialization is the exception, not the norm, en route to athletic stardom. And yet, the exceptions seem to make a much greater cultural impact, and to be treated as if they are the norm.
Once upon a time, I covered sports films at the Tribeca Film Festival for Sports Illustrated; when I sat down last week to watch King Richard, I expected the relatively straightforward trope I’d become accustomed to from scores of (mostly fictional) sports flicks. I expected a portrayal of a hard-driving father and his two daughters dripping blood, sweat and tears onto the tennis court, disproving all the doubters with sheer force of will until they became the best in the world. I expected a lot of yelling.
There were indeed ample doubters in the film — it is, after all, about Compton-raised African American girls and their father blazing a trail into an extremely white sport. There was also plenty of sweat. But there was a conspicuous absence of tears. And had there been tears, they probably would have been from laughter.
This film about adversity and achievement has so much smiling. Richard and his daughters have so much fun. The first scene at a court shows Venus and Serena laughing while riding around in a shopping cart full of tennis balls, and throwing rackets as an entertaining way to learn an overhand motion. Meanwhile, Richard sets up a game — a pile of balls that the girls have to try to hit and blow apart.
At home, the girls have an impromptu singing talent show, play charades, and crack jokes during prayer before meals. When Richard wants to teach the girls a lesson about bragging, he has the family cozy up to watch Disney’s Cinderella together and insists that the main theme is humility.
Rather than drilling his daughters into the ground, Richard is distinguished from other tennis parents in the film by his focus on fun. He keeps reminding his daughters to “just have fun out there,” even when it’s in the same breath with his grand ambitions: “You gonna win Wimbledon....you just go on out there and you have fun.”
The first tournament in the film is filled with images of parents criticizing or cold-shouldering their children (“Do you even want to be out there right now?”), and the children berating themselves. Richard and Venus provide a contrast with their smiles — and with Richard’s insistence on telling a girl who loses to Venus that she did well and should be very proud of herself. On the ride home, Richard asks for “no more tennis talk.” (Which reminded me of The Culture Code author Daniel Coyle’s writing about the importance of the car ride home.)
Later, when Serena sneaks into a youth tournament she wasn’t supposed to enter, Richard is not pleased, but the message he leaves his daughter with: “Just make sure you have fun, that’s all we here to do.” And when his girls get a chance to hit with Jennifer Capriati — a teen phenom a few years older than them — Richard yells his familiar refrain: “Just have fun.”
Throughout the film, Richard — in one way or another — is difficult for everyone he encounters. But he also appears to have a preternatural ability to prioritize his daughters’ long-term development, even when agents and coaches upbraid him for not moving more quickly.
At one point, a famous coach tells Richard that if Venus — then eleven years old — doesn’t play more matches, “you’re going to ruin her.” Richard responds by pulling Venus and Serena out of the junior tennis circuit entirely. “They don’t need all that pressure,” Richard says. “They need to just be kids.” Venus didn’t play an official match for the next three and a half years!
The central challenge in the movie is approximately the opposite of the one now endemic in youth sports — that being parents pushing youth athletes too quickly. In King Richard, the title character is constantly getting into conflicts with coaches because he’s slowing things down, and prioritizing his daughters’ education.
In one scene, a prominent coach — who was pivotal in Venus and Serena’s development — shows up to the Williamses’ home to scold Richard because “you pull them out of practice constantly. For music lessons, or homework, or church.” (That coach, by the way, recently said that the movie accurately reflected his experience.)
I actually knew that Richard Williams had pulled Venus and Serena out of competitions when they were kids; I mentioned it once in the New York Times. But there was something else about their development that isn’t in the movie, and that I didn’t know — until Serena told me.
That Time Serena Made My Day
Two years ago, I was giving a short talk about some of the research in Range, and — just as the book does — I started with sports before branching into other subjects.
I felt a very unusual mix of exhilaration and dread when Serena sat down in the second row. Exhilaration because, I mean, it’s not every lifetime that you get to perform in front of Serena Williams. Dread because I was going to talk about how the Tiger-path to success is an exception in many domains (like sports), and outright myth in others.
Despite knowing that Richard had pulled Serena and Venus off the junior tour, I thought for the most part that Serena’s upbringing conformed to the Tiger narrative. I hadn’t really looked into it; that’s just what I had absorbed or assumed, I guess.
And sure, I was going to marshal plenty of research about the benefits of early diversification and all that. But you can spout all the research you want and if the GOAT stands up and says that’s all wrong and you’re an idiot, it’s gonna be a bad day.
So I finished my talk, and I think I made a nervous joke — thanking the audience and asking if anyone other than Serena Williams had questions. It’s kind of a blur, but it was something like that. And, of course, Serena raised her hand to ask the first question. I wish I could remember what was going through my head at that point, but I can’t. My guess: probably something along the lines of, “The sun will rise tomorrow.”
Then Serena stood up, and began. “I think my father was ahead of his time,” she said. And then she proceeded to inform the audience that as a child she participated in ballet, gymnastics, taekwondo, and track and field. It was amazing. I talked to her later that day, and she said that she and Venus would throw a football to develop the motion for a powerful serve, a habit they continued as pros. After meeting her, I read Serena’s book, On The Line, and was amused by the section where she described the card game UNO as “a great teaching tool for any individual sport.”
Thus, the moral of the story is: Serena Williams is that person who raises their hand after a talk and then doesn’t ask a question;) No, seriously, it’s a tremendously cool memory for me. And I don’t share it to suggest that pure Tiger stories don’t exist. But I think we tend to tell these stories too simply.
I think, to an extent, that’s even true of the literal Tiger story. I want to pick that up next week. Just as Serena added nuance to a prodigy story I assumed I knew, I’d like to add a bit of nuance to two other prodigy stories you’ve heard.
Thank you for reading. And if you enjoyed this post, please share it. Until next week…