Walking into the corner office at the Nike Headquarters in New York City, my teeth are chattering. Part of that is due to the fact that they keep the sprawling building at a chilly temperature due to the large numbers of people who come in and out of the place in a given day, but it’s also because I’m getting ready to interview an icon.
As I step in, Venus Williams has her head down, checking her phone while her team gives her space to decompress. She’s just delivered some inspiring words as part of a panel for Dove and Nike’s new tool to inspire body confidence in young female athletes, in the hopes of keeping them involved in sports, and talked passionately about how sport changed her life. Upon approaching her, I don’t know what to expect, but she stands up, a great smile beaming from her gorgeous face, and shakes my hand, welcoming me in with a ray of positive energy that helps me calm down. Williams, throughout our chat, ends up talking openly and warmly, not guarded, and in the end, gives me a hug once we’re done. I’m stunned, not because she’s lovely, but because one of the greatest living athletes, who forever changed the game of tennis, just hugged me and talked to me, laughed with me, like an old girlfriend. That may have plenty to do with the fact that she doesn’t see herself as the giant in the culture that she truly is. She tells me so during our conversation. “It’s hard to really understand the impact. You know what I mean?” she says. “I’m still the thick of it.” Almost 30 years since her first professional tennis match, she’s still going at it on the court, seeking the next Grand Slam, still having confidence in a body that has gone through a lot, including Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease, and still motivating Black girls, all girls, to go after their dreams.
We discussed that and more in our time together at the launch event for bodyconfidentsport.com, including the impact of sport on her life and being a legend, even if she doesn’t fully realize it yet.
ESSENCE: I loved all the impactful things you had to say in today’s panel about the role of sport in a girl’s life, specifically your own. Even though you clearly stayed motivated to pursue tennis, how beneficial would you say a program like bodyconfidentsport.com would have been when you were growing up in pursuing the sport of tennis? Could you relate to having the body confidence concerns that they kind of spoke about when you were in your formative years?
Venus Williams: Yeah. These programs were not available when I was growing up. No one was really having these conversations. That wasn’t even in my era. So I never had that opportunity. I was fortunate to have really strong role models, but not everyone has that. My parents understood the pressures that I was going to go through to hopefully achieve my dreams, and they were supportive of that. But not all parents are co-coaches too, or have played sport or understand those things. They’re just being the best parents they can. They may not know every single step. There’s no right or wrong way to parent.
Obviously I had that support, and so if I didn’t have have that, yeah, this would’ve been something that I would’ve needed. But it’s also something that I would’ve wanted to see some of my colleagues have a chance to have, because I saw the journeys that they went through. And a lot of them fell to the sidelines because of what they went through. They didn’t have those opportunities. So I like being a part of this because it makes me a part of this solution. And also to be able to continue this conversation through sport, through something that I love, through something that’s changed my life.
What were the things that your parents were saying to you that helped you to stay motivated and tune out that noise that people had about what people’s bodies were looking like, what they should look like?
Yeah, everything was a lesson for us in our house. It didn’t matter what it was. My mom was very adamant of, “You don’t need to care about what anyone thinks, ever.” She’s like, “Your sisters are your friends. You don’t need any friends. Friends don’t exist. Your family’s here.” She was intense, but it was like, this is what you do. This is what you think, this is how you live. And it was like a must.
There were no, “Oh, maybe you can do it if you choose to.” So the way we grew up was independent thinking, being able to choose for ourselves, knowing our value and who we were, knowing that the world’s out there and it’s happening and how to navigate all of that. So in essence, they taught us how to be adults, how to make decisions. You can’t be a kid forever. We got to have fun and all that stuff too, but a big part of being a kid is learning how to be an adult. Taking that time to incubate yourself to be ready for this world. So our parents were on it. We were so fortunate.
I love that. And how has being a champion in your sport given you additional confidence in your body and what it can do?
Yeah, absolutely. I think that there are so many moments. There’s so much pressure that you have to deal with. Some of the biggest pressures are from yourself and the thoughts that you have in your head that, “Gosh, I missed this shot the last 100 times.” And you have to figure out how to say in your head, “What if I make it the hundred and second or the hundred and first time? What if I can?” Because a lot of times you might be saying, “What if I don’t? What I fail?”
So all these thoughts, you have to learn how to control your mind. And there’s failures in between. There’s failures in the beginning, there’s failures in the middle, there’s failures at the end. It’s always going to be a failure, but it’s about how you handle it and what is that self-talk. And then being really self-aware of what you’re thinking, why you’re feeling it.
For me, a lot of that process is through journaling. Why am I feeling this way? What’s really the problem? Sometimes it’s just a bunch of thoughts in your head. You might not even hone into the real problem, just like writing it down. Then you’re realizing, actually, this is what’s bothering me. It’s not all this other stuff.
So it takes constant work. Feeling good and feeling confident is purposeful. It’s something you work on every day. It’s something that you put in work on every day. And that work is sometimes just by showing up and being there, putting in the work, then you get some success. And then when the failure comes, really realizing that’s just a part of the work too, even though it’s not the result you wanted.
I love that and I love especially what you were saying about controlling the mind. That for me, I’m always like, “I wish my mind was a little stronger.” So would you say as an athlete, that is part and parcel? One of the most important aspects of being able to play any sport and be at the professional level is kind of controlling the mind?
Yeah, controlling your mind. And every athlete has the moments where they can. You have that bad day and you have that bad day in front of the world. And that’s why it’s entertainment, I guess. But it gets real, real fast. And it’s about being able to control that part of your mind. And when you’re at your best, you’re at your best. And there are moments when you’re awful and no one knows how bad you felt, but you still managed to win.
And it isn’t easy. And I don’t think you can go into it with the expectation that it’s always going to be great, but that’s okay. Once you normalize that it’s okay that I don’t feel that great today. I don’t feel confident today. Today’s a disaster. But normalizing that. Once you normalize it, you’re like, “Okay, there’s going to be ups and downs, but I’ve got the tools still to get through it and to still succeed.”
Yeah, I love that. And your body has also been through some things as an adult with autoimmune issues. If you don’t mind me asking, how do you show it love and continue to have confidence in it?
Autoimmune issues can take everything away. It takes everything away. So it’s about learning how to not be afraid when everything you have is gone, and that’s when all you have left is your mind to get through that. That’s all you have. And then also learning to not be afraid because you don’t have what you used to have. And also instead of looking at it, instead of focusing on what you can’t accomplish… I can’t do the same things. I don’t have to. No matter what I do or what I try, I can’t control that anymore.
Just focus on what you can accomplish. That’s what I always try to tell myself. Try to focus on what you… And that’s hard. It’s like every day after still telling myself, focus on what you can accomplish on this day. And it’s a day-to-day thing, but the day-to-day is worth it. The fight is worth it every day.
Nice. And what advice would you give to young girls who are feeling discouraged by changes in their bodies and enough to feel like they want to move away from sport?
That you can’t make decisions in your life based on a moment. In this moment, I don’t feel good. This moment, my body’s growing. This moment, I’m smaller than I want to be. This moment, I’m larger than I want to be. It’s a moment. It doesn’t end there. There’s a lot more moments to go. You get to choose your own narrative, and don’t let anyone take that choice away from you, especially yourself.
You’ve inspired so many people by the doors that you and Serena have opened in the sport of tennis. How does it feel to see so many young Black girls not only taking part in the sport but excelling compared to when it was just you guys in the beginning?
Honestly, it’s kind of surreal, to be honest. As I’ve watched it, not only at the professional level, African-Americans winning grand slams, but also at the collegiate level, at the grassroots level, so many faces of color playing now. And we always could, just didn’t know that it was there. Now we know it’s there.
So it’s surreal because I also still play and I’m still trying to be my best. And it’s hard to really understand the impact. You know what I mean? I’m still the thick of it. So it’s just really surreal, very exciting. And the awesome part is that now this next generation will inform even more people of color, all people. This is an option. You can do this, you can play this. And even if you don’t go pro the things like we talked about, you learn from sport.
So many more opportunities in tennis, it’s one of the best sports to learn from. It’s a gladiator sport. It’s a chess match. It’s an endurance match. It’s a sprint. It’s a bunch of stuff. It’s independence. It is the ultimate sport. And I’m so happy that more people have that chance to play it. I’m very biased. It’s my favorite sport, clearly.
Yeah, it’s a sport. You can play for a lifetime too. You can play forever. It’s a community. So even just seeing sport tennis grow at a recreational level, more people are exposed to it. More people are playing racket sports. I love it.
Nice. And so because you’re in the thick of it, you don’t realize that you’re like a legend?
I mean, when you are up, you can lose at any time.
But you’re still a legend.
Any time. So you’re not thinking about, “Oh, I’m a legend today.” You’re like, “I need to win this round.”
It is real right at that moment. So I think at some point there’ll be a moment to reflect or realize, but not right now.
Learn more about the Dove x Nike tool at bodyconfidentsport.com.