5 lessons in mental toughness from Serena Williams

Sports writers have been hailing Serena Williams well-deserved praise after she announced her retirement from tennis in an exclusive article for Vogue. Many of these writers focus on her 23 Grand Slam singles titles and her intense drive and mental toughness.

According to Williams, the mental game accounts for 70 percent of her success. She made the comment in a 10-episode run for Masterclass. While Williams covers basics such as serves and foundations, her exploration of the mental aspect of peak performance offers lessons that transcend the sport.

These five lessons in mental toughness apply to any performance, such as giving a pitch or making a presentation when the pressure is high.

1. Practice like a pro.

Professional athletes play games with themselves during training to prepare for the pressure they will feel on race day. For example, Williams practices as she plays, sitting alone during water breaks, just like she would in a real tournament.

Williams also relies on “consistency drills” where she forces herself to take a set number of shots in a row and if she misses, she has to start over.

I also recommend consistency exercises to practice for presentations. Deliver your presentation from start to finish without stopping. If you forget what you intended to say on a slide and you’re forced to look at your notes, that’s fine, but you’ll have to start over from the beginning of the deck. By forcing yourself to give the presentation consistently, you’ll put a little pressure on yourself and build your confidence for the real thing.

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2. Break off the tape.

Athletes watch a lot of match day videos. Williams says she endured the painful experience of watching her lose for much of her career. However, she learned from her mistakes with each video.

You may not have a video of a game day, but you can replicate the experience by recording yourself giving a presentation. Be your own worst critic – look for mistakes. Are you using too many filler words that distract from your message? Do you read from your slides instead of making eye contact?

Most presentation problems are easy to fix if you see yourself making these mistakes.

3. Practice with people who are better than you.

This is one of my favorite lessons from the Serena Williams Masterclass. She finds exercise partners who are better than her. Williams didn’t have to look far early in her career. Her older sister, Venus, provided a lot of competition. “There is no Serena without Venus,” she once said.

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As a young player, Williams also tried to copy Pete Sampras and Monica Seles by analyzing their matches. You can apply the same approach to any type of performance, such as public speaking. You may not have a “practice partner,” but you can look to speakers who are good at what they do. Between YouTube and TED Talks, you’ll have easy (and free) access to the world’s best speakers.

Study people who are better than you, and you will get closer to their level.

4. Forget the past and focus on the present.

Once you see what you’ve done wrong, you need to let your past mistakes go. Williams says you should learn from your mistakes, but if you’re ready to improve your performance, leave the memory where it belongs: in the past.

Your sole focus should be on today’s practice session or tomorrow’s presentation. I’ve worked with a lot of speakers who can’t give their best in the present because they think about the time they’re ruining it.

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Thinking about your mistakes is just wasted negative energy that has nothing to do in the present.

5. Bottle up fear and throw it away.

Williams admits she is “insanely nervous” before a match. Almost everyone who cares about their performance gets anxious right before the game starts. The secret is to turn fear into fearlessness.

Williams sees fear as an emotion that she puts in a bottle. She throws the bottle away when she walks onto the field, because being fearless is crucial to a successful performance. Williams reminds us that champions also experience fear. But they replace it with confidence when it comes time to perform.

When you get to center court and you’re about to start a presentation, make sure you throw away the fear bottle. Play your game. Focus on your strengths. Relax, put a smile on your face and enjoy the spotlights.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not Inc.com’s.

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