Here’s why Serena Williams likely won’t retire anytime soon: She appears to have what psychologists call internal locus of control. That is, she believes her successes and failures result from things she did or failed to do, not external factors that she can’t control. Whether or not she’s right, thinking that way has helped her win 23 grand slam titles over her career. And it looks like that mindset will keep her in the game a while longer.
When you or your business have a triumph or a setback, how do you explain it? Is it because you did something right, or something wrong? Or is it the result of things beyond your control such as market forces, timing, or plain luck?
It doesn’t matter which explanation is right. In most cases, it’s some combination of both. But if you believe what happens is mostly the result of your efforts, you have an internal locus of control, according to psychologists. If you believe it’s mostly the result of your circumstances, you have an external locus of control. There are advantages and disadvantages to both mindsets, explains psychotherapist Richard Joelson in a piece at the Psychology Today website. But, he writes, someone with an internal locus of control, “will be more motivated and more likely to learn.”
Which brings us back to Serena Williams. After her loss to Naomi Osaka in the Australian Open semi-finals last week, she attributed the defeat to her own unforced errors. “I made too many mistakes, easy mistakes, not like I was on the run or anything,” she said.
That was the infamous press conference that Williams left abruptly in tears. I wrote a column about it that has gotten 538 comments on Facebook. The comments mostly fell into one of two groups: those who admired Williams and praised what she said and those who thought she should have acknowledged Osaka for playing so well, and that her failure to do so meant she wasn’t a gracious loser.
Those critics are right–praising Osaka’s playing would have been the gracious thing to do. But I think I know why Williams didn’t do it. Mentally, she couldn’t afford to.
One more Grand Slam?
Osaka is 16 years younger than the 39-year-old Williams. Everybody knows how this story will end. One day, Williams will have to retire or else she’ll be forced out of serious competition by the effects of aging, which sooner or later catch up with all of us. When that happens, it’s highly possible that Osaka will be left as the clear champion among female singles players.
But Williams doesn’t seem to believe that day is anytime soon. “I don’t think she will stop until she at least wins a Grand Slam, because she came back to win Grand Slams. She doesn’t quit,” her coach Patrick Mouratoglou said in a recent People interview. For Williams to return to tournament-level tennis after a difficult childbirth in 2017 took “unbelievable effort,” he explained. “Mental effort, physical effort, so many hours to get back in shape. She would never even start that if she didn’t think she was able to win a Grand Slam.” (The four Grand Slam tennis tournaments are the Australian Open, French Open, U.S. Open, and Wimbledon.)
There’s a small audience of Inc.com readers who receive a daily text from me with a self-care or motivational micro-challenge or thought. Often they text me back and we wind up in a conversation about how to achieve success and happiness. They tell me that mindset makes all the difference in their successes and failures. (Interested in joining? You can learn more here.)
You can’t do something like winning a Grand Slam tennis tournament unless you have the right mindset, and that’s where internal locus of control comes in. For Williams, believing that her Australian Open loss resulted from her own mistakes means she can win that tournament or one of the others if she works harder and avoids those mistakes next time. To say she lost because Osaka played a superb game would suggest that Williams is up against insurmountable odds. That, maybe, she should just give up.
That alternate version of Williams might have been more sportsmanlike but I like the real Williams better. The one who’s ready to do whatever it takes and believe whatever she needs to give herself the best chance of being a champion again.
Next time something goes wrong for you, don’t just curse your fate. Ask yourself what you can do to make it go right next time. The more you believe that you can create your own future, the better the odds that you really will.