Excerpt: Venus Williams' 'Come to Win'

Tennis superstar, other experts share advice on how to be best at what you do.

ByABC News via via logo
June 9, 2010, 10:02 PM

July 7, 2010— -- Tennis superstar and entrepreneur Venus Williams joins with business leaders, artists, doctors and "other visionaries" to dish out advice on how athletics can help make you the best at what you do.

Read an excerpt of the book below, and then head to the "GMA" Library to find more good reads.

The arc of an athlete's life is funny. Just when other young professionals are peaking, hitting their stride, and consolidating their skills, we're starting, if we're smart, to think of our future, one that doesn't depend on our athleticism and our injury prone bodies to pay the rent. Let's be clear: I'm not retiring anytime soon. At thirty, I still have game and can think of nothing more gratifying than traveling the world to play tennis. But I am putting into practice something my mother, Oracene, and father, Richard, who once owned a security-guard company, told me and my sisters, Lyndrea, Yetunde, Isha, and Serena: Think entrepreneurially. When we were growing up in Compton, California, the whole family would have these sit-down meetings led by my dad, who is a philosopher type. He'd ask questions such as, "Why is it that the poor person stays in the ghetto and the rich person gets richer?" or "Why is it that when you do something for someone it doesn't work as well as when you help them help themselves?" We wouldn't always have an answer, but that was, in a way, beside the point. He was training us early on to be independent thinkers. Of course, he was also training us to be financially independent. I remember him talking to us about the mechanics of buying properties out of foreclosure. While I was too young to absorb the details, the basic ideas seeped through. And if he was teaching us about real estate when we were young, you can only imagine how much my parents stressed the importance of education.

I coveted getting a degree as much as I did having my own business. After enrolling in an interior design program through the London-based Rhodec International correspondence school, I launched V Starr Interiors, a commercial and residential interior design company, in April 2002. I received my associate's degree in Fashion Design in 2007, the same year I debuted my clothing line, EleVen. And last year Serena and I bought a minority stake in the Miami Dolphins NFL team, a wonderful way to become even more entrenched in the business world. Let's say my parents' advice made a lasting impression.

A multitasker, I wanted to play tennis and study, and I also wanted to launch my first businesses while I was still playing rather than wait until after my career was over. There are a few benefits to starting a business early. The obvious one is I get to use my name to help market my endeavors; but, just as important, I gain experience and credibility now so that when I do retire, I'll already have industry knowledge as well as a client base. As Earvin "Magic" Johnson points out in the pages that follow, it's harder than it looks for athletes to start businesses because many people will take meetings with us just to get a ball or jersey signed with no intention of taking our proposals seriously. Like Roger Staubach, whose story also follows, I want to log in the hours that lead to credibility in the businesses while I continue to play professionally rather than get in after the fact, when it will be more difficult to be taken seriously.

With the launch of V Starr, I immediately realized that although tennis and design couldn't be further apart, I was bringing lessons learned on the court into the meetings, whether they were with potential clients, my team, or suppliers. My curiosity piqued, I began to compile a list of former athletes (not all of whom played professionally) who are now at the top of their professions. If I could talk to each one I'd ask them if their sports background was of any use in their professional life. And that curiosity led to this book. Along with my co-author, Kelly E. Carter, I did get to talk with this impressive and varied group of former athletes, and their responses comprise this book. I was encouraged and pleasantly surprised by their contributions. Though they come from a variety of fields—there are actors, designers, CEOs, chefs, doctors, editors, financiers, reporters, and politicians, as well as former professional athletes—the drive and discipline they bring into their work mirrors what they gave on the field, rink, and court or in the pool.

I loved working on this book, and I hope you too take something away—whether you're an aspiring visionary, an established or ascending executive, a burgeoning designer or actor. I hope you'll see how sports gives you a foundation that is transferrable, and how if you've played sports (at any level, professional or amateur), you are carrying around knowledge that you can use effectively in other fields. Reading the experiences of others made me cognizant of the benefits from sports I didn't even realize I had received—character, strength of body and mind, confidence, a sense of value and validation. Sarina Bratton, an entrepreneur who started a cruise line, perhaps sums it up best: "All of the training, the discipline, the determination, the good attitude and hard work that you're putting into your sport now are inherent values that you will carry with you through life, and you can apply those same values and disciplines to anything that you choose in your life. Recognize that and never be afraid to use them in your career or whatever you choose to do."

Not only did this book validate my sense that sports will benefit my post-sports career, but the stories also moved me. I get teary-eyed every time I read about former secretary of defense William Cohen's dad standing in the snow, peeking in through the window to watch his son play basketball, or how Vera Wang's figure skating not only bonded her to her family but may have extended her mother's life when illness struck.

More than move me, these essays motivated me. They have given me words of wisdom I'll take with me on the court and in the proverbial boardroom. In fact, I've already started putting some of these inspirational thoughts into my notebook—another idea I picked up from my father. He would prepare notebooks for us and fill up the pages with thoughts—sometimes even stories—about improving our tennis and attitudes. Everything was typed out, and the pages were laminated. Sometimes he'd hand us just a couple of pages, and sometimes a laminated binder folder. Some of them were even made into signs with sayings like "Believe It. Achieve It"; or "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail"; or "Perfect practice makes perfect," which he'd hang around the tennis court and in the house. There's still one hanging in the bathroom that reads: "Always try to be the most polite person in the world."

I'll use ideas from the contributors in Come to Win to inspire my next generation of signs. I can see the first one already; it simply says, "Extreme Effort." It will remind me that just as I have to work my tail off as an athlete, I'll have to put in the hours at EleVen and V Starr to make them work. As a little girl I practiced no fewer than five hours a day, every single day of the year. The only time we got a break was when it rained, which is why, to this day, I still find the rain comforting. Every athlete in this book somehow acquired a similar work ethic. Dr. Keith L. Black got up at five to swim laps before school, and Wang trained twelve hours each day. Richie Rich puts it in context: "Practice was an hour and twenty minutes away. I would go to the rink and skate for about four hours and then drive an hour to school, then after school, go to the local mall, Vallco, and skate, and then do my homework. And I loved it. Looking back at how hard I worked, it was so crazy." Crazy, yes. But just as the focus helped him launch his business, having a similar work ethic has already served me in my schoolwork and in playing professionally, in preparing designs for my clients, and in training for a major tournament. It goes back to what Bratton calls "Extreme Effort"—hence the sign. As she explains, "One of the greatest lessons I learned from sports that has helped me in business is to never be afraid to put extreme effort in. If you don't do your absolute best, then you can't expect to achieve anything different from what anybody else has done."

There are so many more lessons that are transferrable, so many more "signs," some related to teamwork, some related to visualizing success before you even start a challenge, others related to leadership or the notion of consistent improvement. It inspires me to know that the more I design, the better at it I'll become. The most surprising takeaway I gained from working on this book, however, is that people who've walked the path I want to walk have found that they learned more from losing than from winning. I was brought up to respect my parents, so I could relate to Jack Welch's respect for his mother, Grace, and the influence she had on his development. He recounts a time when she runs into the boys' locker room after a loss in which he ungraciously threw his hockey stick across the ice in anguished defeat. Suddenly his mother appears in a floral print dress, yelling at him in front of all his teammates. Embarrassing, I'm sure. But the lesson stayed with him: "If you don't know how to lose, you'll never know how to win," she insisted. I'm not sure if that's a slogan I'll laminate anytime soon, though intellectually I can see how she might be right. For me, losing is still emotional.

When I lose, the pain is so intense, and the emotions roll through me. Facing a loss where I know I could have done better is even harder. When I do think about the losses, I'm more inclined to side with Susan Mersereau, who says that "one of the things that helped me later on in my business career was not seeing failure or losing as a bad thing so much as something you can learn from. . . . Losing never felt good emotionally, but how we handled failure was almost more important than the failure itself." My loss to Martina Hingis in the semifinals at the 1999 U.S. Open later benefited me in the way Mersereau notes. In that match, I had a lot of opportunities. Hingis was very good, but I believed I was the better player. Yet I didn't win, which was upsetting. I thought, from now on I'm going to do whatever it takes to win. (Well, not whatever it takes—certainly not cheating.) So going forward, if a ball lands short and I can get to the ball and come to the net, I'm going to get there. I'm not going to sit back and hit the short ball and be scared on the baseline. If the court is open, I'm going to take my shot. I'm not going to miss it. From that loss, my mind-set changed. I played a few more tournaments that year and then had an injury. I was off four months in the beginning of the next year but was determined to win a major at that point. When I played Wimbledon that year, I was the most determined in the draw. That was my tournament and no one else's. I think that loss to Hingis helped me to make sure I did what it took to win my first Grand Slam tournament.

And, boy, do I love to win; everything is right in the world when I do. I go to tournaments with that goal in mind. From my perspective, you learn a lot from winning and putting yourself in a position to win. There have been times when I've woken up after Wimbledon thinking, "Ah-ha, I'm the Wimbledon champ." There's a complete feeling of satisfaction. Senator Bill Bradley, who won two championships with the New York Knicks, writes about the memories of reaching the mountaintop. I've been there, too. Once you're there, you take a deep breath and look down, with a deep feeling of satisfaction, though it doesn't last forever because there's always something new to conquer, another tournament to play. But it's amazing, and nothing in my interior design business, no matter how much I love design, compares to holding something like the Venus Rosewater Dish, awarded to the ladies' singles champion at Wimbledon. And yet, since so many of this book's contributors—people I look up to, from Robin Roberts, Phil Knight, and Irene Rosenfeld to Mersereau, Ken Chenault, and others—talk about the value of losing, I guess I'll have to give some more thought to the idea that losses can be beneficial; it certainly seems to be the case in business. Already, EleVen has had some distribution challenges in its young life, and while I could see these as setbacks, I'm going to try to internalize what Donny Deutsch says: "You don't grow from the wins. You grow from the defeats."

It would be a mistake to think that the rich material here is just for established and budding creative and business executives. I hope coaches, parents, and young athletes are inspired as well. An obvious benefit for our youth, as President Bill Clinton writes, is that active children are less likely to be obese. I, too, encourage parents to get their children involved in sports, not only for the physical benefits but also because it teaches them to set and reach goals, and gives them that sense of pride and self-worth that goes along with it. As the oft-repeated story goes, my father once heard tennis commentator Bud Collins say to Romanian tennis player Virginia Ruzici, the 978 French Open champion, "Forty thousand dollars isn't bad for four days' work." My dad thought it was a joke, but the next day he read it in the paper. He told my mother they were going to have two kids and get them into tennis. My dad learned how to play by looking at tennis magazines and watching videotapes, but for the most part he taught himself his own theories. My mother learned to hit very well, as did all of my sisters. Isha, the second oldest, could have been a great but for the intense back spasms she experienced. I was born in June 1980 and Serena followed fifteen months later. Because I was probably about three years old at the time, I don't remember the first time I picked up a racquet. Later, my father said that when he took us to the public courts to practice, I was the only kid who wanted to hit all of the balls in the shopping cart. I wasn't happy until I did it, and if I had to stop before the cart was empty, I'd start crying. On the last ball I always wanted to say, "Last one," and that was very special to me because it signified reaching a goal, though I most likely wouldn't have articulated it that way as a young girl. Whacking a basket of tennis balls and not stopping until I could say "last one" was probably my first experience with goal setting, and I haven't stopped setting goals since. (Incidentally, that was something I continued to say up until just a few years ago.)

Then there's the obvious. Sports show you how to work on a team, an invaluable trait if ever there is one. I couldn't run my business without my team, which includes my family. Sports also teaches humility— for every time you hit the game-winning hit, you just might strike out. And it keeps kids out of trouble, as Denzel Washington and others remind us: "It wears them out. I've heard that the most dangerous time for kids is after school between the hours of three and six, because the parents usually are still working. When you're young, you want to fit in somewhere. You're going to fit in with jocks, or you're going to fit in with the geeks, or you're going to fit in with the stars, the handsome people, the Goths, the drug heads. I just felt it was important for my children to stay busy"—and so he made sure they fit in with the athletes. Sports are, as Betsy Bernard says, an awesome enabler of success.

Advocacy in women's tennis has long been a concern of mine. Picking up where Billie Jean King left off, I, along with others, have fought hard for equal prize money for women at Wimbledon. Many people point to an essay I wrote that appeared in The Times of London in 2006, before the fortnight began, as a major turning point in the battle for equal pay. So I was particularly heartened when I read what a positive experience sports has had on the women in this book. I started playing tennis after Title IX , so I never realized what an advantage I'd had as a result of having played competitive sports and having my competitive fire lit early on until I read passages from the successful women in this book. Debra Lee eloquently speaks to what an advantage athletic girls have out in the world: "One of the advantages that men had over women is that they learned at an early age to compete and that it's okay to lose and keep going. Girls missed out on that for a long time because we didn't have team sports. I see what my kids have gone through recently and it's a whole different world. . . . The more girls grow up competing and learning how tough it is and that you've just got to get back up and keep going when you lose, the better off we are." I've always wanted to compete, and not just for the sake of competing, but to gain against the big guys. When I first went pro, I didn't understand the seeding of players in tournaments. In my first breakthrough tournament, a player asked me, "So, what part of the draw are you in?" I said, "Oh, in the middle." She said, "There's no middle." I didn't get it. We weren't taught draw. We were taught, "Go out there and play. It doesn't matter who you play. Play your game, then you're the better one." Back then, you got "quality points," so if you beat a higher-ranked player, you would get more points. If you beat the number one, you got one hundred points, and if you beat the number one hundred, you got one point, or five points. When we drew a higher-ranked player, we said, "Yeah! Now I can get all those points." The other players had the attitude of, "Oh shoot! I drew this higher-ranked player. Bad luck for me." My mentality was totally different. Back in the day, if someone asked me whom I would rather play, I said, "Well, whoever is ranked higher," because I wanted the points. I didn't want to labor against someone lower-ranked and not even get any points. Once a generation of women finally got to play organized sports in college, it's no wonder they made the strides they did in the marketplace.

Yet more than learning how to be competitive early on, sports can give girls healthy attitudes about their bodies, attitudes that if nourished can last a lifetime. Soledad O'Brien expresses it best: "One of the reasons I wanted my kids to play sports is I just love the idea of thinking of your body as something positive as opposed to thinking, 'I'm fat.' . . . I want my girls to feel like they're strong. To think, 'I can do a backflip. I can stand on my hands. I can jump a fence with my pony. I can run faster than somebody.' To think of your body in those terms for girls is a really empowering thing." I'll take that. We have had some proud moments at V Starr, which designed the set for the Tavis Smiley Show on the PBS network, and the Olympic athletes' apartments used by the city of New York in its proposal to host the 2012 Olympic Games. When I designed my first large residential interior, I can't say the client was the easiest to work with. I had to convince them that it would look good. And when the work was completed and they were happy, it was more than satisfying for me not only because I delivered but because I knew then that I was able to trust my team. On the final walk-through, I nodded to myself and thought, "Yeah, this is my work." That's how I feel about this book, which is a labor of love, taking what so many of us love—sports—and seeing how we can utilize its benefits in other ways.

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