I Completely Lost My Focus During COVID: Here Is How I Got It Back! - EleVen by Venus Williams

I Completely Lost My Focus During COVID: Here Is How I Got It Back!

My dad usually comes to all my practices, he turned 78 this February and still runs a tight ship. He has always held an incredibly high standard for how I practice and even more importantly my attitude while training. Everything is intentional, from how I strike the ball right down to how I walk. He insists that water breaks don't last too long and he doesn't allow me to chit-chat on the court. He pushes us to hit hundreds of balls in a row, perfectly. When he comes on the court I know I have to BRING IT.

All this changed when COVID-19 reared its infectious head.

My dad is in the age group that is most at risk for having serious complications with the virus. So when I headed home from Indian Wells in March, the first major sporting event in the world to be canceled at the start of COVID-19, it wouldn't be the usual homecoming. I usually get to see my dad first thing after a trip and we resume our father daughter activity of hitting the courts. But this time, like most of the country, I went into quarantine right away, breaking the rhythm of our schedule. I didn't want to take any time off the court, but just finding a court was a challenge in itself. The entire country quickly shut down and left us scrambling to find a place to train.  Eventually, we found a private home to train at and created our own quarantine tennis bubble. But my dad couldn't come, it was just too dangerous. 

Initially, I naively imagined that COVID-19 would only last a few weeks. I had no idea that this pandemic would stretch on for months eventually leading to the cancelation of Wimbledon and the postponement of the French Open. This left me in a situation that I had never dealt with before: I was not working towards any particular tournament or goal. I always have a sense of urgency when I am training, I am always against the clock to perfectly prepare for the next big event which is always around the corner.

With no tournaments in sight and no end to the pandemic, I had no urgency.

Weeks of training passed, and I worked very hard, but still with no idea if we would even play at all this season. I continued to quarantine away from my dad out of paralyzing fear of infecting him. With Dad gone and no tournaments in sight...well you know what they say, when the cat’s away, the mice will play!  Water breaks got longer. I started showing up to the court on conference calls and worse still, I hadn’t set any goals. Instead, to save myself from disappointment, I told myself that tennis could be canceled for the entire year. I didn't realize that the laser focus my dad has insisted on my whole life was slowly unraveling. 

Venus Williams and father

Tennis is full of footwork. It looks easy but it takes incredible endurance and discipline. Just imagine taking tiny steps at a rapid fire pace (called short steps) while staying extremely low and level with your legs. Now imagine doing this for hours... it's exhausting!  On top of the demands of tennis and its insanely demanding footwork, I was working long days and nights to meet the demands of two companies operating during COVID circumstances. I was tired by the time I got to the courts in the afternoon. I began to rationalize to myself, “you don't have to run for every ball." 

I stood, feet frozen, as the out balls zipped by - unlike the run for every ball mentality I have operated with all my life.

More weeks passed and the world continued with quarantine and I continued with my frantic COVID work schedule. Add my additional #CoachVenus workouts in and more rationalization crept in. I reasoned, “I don't need to take all these short steps. I am not playing anytime soon. If I take one less step it won't really make a difference and I can get through this training easier.”  

graphic with the quote "cheating yourself is the ultimate betrayal. It means you don't value yourself enough to give yourself the best"

I've come to realize that the pressure of a tournament around the corner made me frantic. I knew I had to hone my game quickly before the bell rang to fight!  This pressure helped to make me work harder, longer and faster so my performance could be exceptional. This time the bell wouldn’t ring. The competition would have to be with myself. No one but me could tell the difference in my training. It was imperceptible. But I knew.

I was not getting 100% out of myself. I was working VERY, VERY hard, but I wasn't giving EVERYTHING and then some which is what it takes to be great. I was cheating myself.

I finally had to admit to myself that I was cutting corners and it wasn't sustainable. I had to hold myself to the same standard my dad had, even if there was never another tournament again in this life! I had to clean up my act and  stop gossiping between rallies - shame on me! I got off of the phone and stopped taking extended water breaks. That night I was talking to a friend of mine that plays in the  MLB about returning to play. I shared my focus issues with him. His words were the wake up call I needed. 

text conversation

Have you ever been cheated on? If you have been, you know how crumbling and devastating it can be. But cheating yourself is the ultimate betrayal. It means you don't value yourself enough to give yourself the best. 

I had allowed myself to become another victim of the virus by using it as an excuse to relax my standards for myself. 

I hadn't realized how much training I had not only put into the physical aspects of the game but also into the mental aspects. What I found as I began to recalibrate was staying 100% focused wasn't as easy as it had been before. I had to remind myself of footwork instead of it coming automatically. The worst of my symptoms surfaced in match play. My mind wandered in and out randomly. One moment I was thinking of tennis and in the next moment, what I would be having for lunch later that day or some other random thought. My machine-like focus had dissipated and I found myself strangely disconnected and dispassionate. I had to retrain myself to not allow outside thoughts to come in and force myself to connect mentally by using physical cues on each point played, like a fist pump when I won a point, (even the easy ones!) and a thigh pat if I lost. I put away my phone and I stopped gossiping. 

I learned some powerful lessons: 

  • I am not great. The work I put in allows me to perform at my greatest.  
  • I can’t just turn it on when I want. I have to keep the fire lit. A room goes cold when the fire goes out and it takes time for that room to get hot again. I’ll never let the fire dim. 
  • You get what you put in. I'd been so used to putting in everything my whole life, the kitchen sink plus blood sweat and tears on top of that! I didn't realize that it really is true, you do get out what you put in. If you don't put money in the bank, they definitely won't be letting you take any out. Save up! 
  • I need to stop gossiping so much. (Shame!) 

After learning some powerful lessons, I cleaned up my act. Here is how I did it: 

  • Set goals - I set some short term goals even if there were no tournaments to play. This helped me to set the direction of my work and created some excitement
  • Set standards for expected behaviors - I defined how I expected myself to behave on the court. In fact, I just adopted my previous standards. What matters is that the standard was set. 
  • Built in rewards - I built in rewards for the hard work I was putting in. The rewards were  simple things  like doing drills I enjoyed or a day off, but they gave me something to look toward and gave me a sense of fulfillment. 

Thankfully my experience has a happy ending and I recovered from the effects these uncertain times had on the court for me. I hope you can use these lessons I learned in your everyday life to keep you motivated during this unprecedented time. 




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