How Serena Williams’ Comeback Can Teach Us The Principle of ‘Un-learning’

Ross Thornley
September 22, 2019
September 22, 2019

One of my favourite stories, which epitomises the remarkable power of all aspects, un-learning, flexibility, learning drive, mindset and resilience, can be found in the brilliant book ‘Unlearn’ by Barry O’Reilly; the story of Serena Williams, perhaps the best tennis player in history.

I had the pleasure to do a podcast interview Barry last week, and I will be sharing a specific article about our deeper conversation about ‘unlearning’ and adaptability in the coming weeks.

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Right, back to the Serena story…

At the beginning of 2010, she was at the pinnacle of her sport. She was the №1 ranked tennis player in the World. However, following an accident in Munich, stepping on some broken glass (for which she needed 18 stitches), she was forced to the side-lines for the rest of the season, ending the season ranked №4.

This seemed a minor, unlucky setback, nothing more. However, in 2011, after having to skip a number of key tournaments, she ended that year ranked №12. Serena’s slide continued. In 2012 she lost to 56th ranked Ekaterina Makarova in the 4th round of the Australian open. But, it was at the French open, the second grand slam event of the season, where everything fell apart completely. Serena lost to 111th ranked Virginie Razzano in the first round. This was the first time in her entire career where she had been defeated in the opening round of a grand slam match.

The New York Times described the defeat as ‘an upset that ranked as one of the most stunning and unexpected in the recent history of the French open.’

Doubts filled her head, and they impacted her performance. She was doing everything she had being doing in the past.

She worked longer and trained harder and her preparations were perfect, but what had brought her success in the past was no longer working, and she was no longer winning. Why weren’t her tried and trusted methods working? Was her time at the top over? There comes a time in the lifespan of every individual, and every company, when doing the things that delivered results in the past no longer deliver the same results.

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The world evolves and conditions change, and new norms emerge. Instead of adapting, people find themselves stuck in the past patterns of thinking and behaving. Most don’t realise the new situational reality, until it bites. This is the paradox of success. The key is to recognise the signals and break through before it is too late. The challenge is to make the adjustments required and not get stuck in the past. It is much easier said than done, however.

As Serena began to assess the devastating losses, she feared she might be facing the end of her career. In 2012, the average age for grand slam tournament players was just 24; Serena was almost 31 years old. She had not won a grand slam in 2 years and the trend was not a positive one.

She wanted just one more win and decided she was going to die trying!

During her journey of re-discovery, which took her to a junior academy court in Paris to practice and unwind, she met one of the owners, Patrick Mouratoglou, who also served as a coach there. He didn’t come from a classic coaching background and had never before coached someone of Serena’s calibre. Patrick’s father had founded EDF energy, which had made him one of the richest men in France. In Patrick’s youth, he had his own dreams of turning pro, but his parents insisted he stay focused on his studies, so he would one day step into his father’s shoes at the firm. He complied, quit tennis, and studied hard; eventually, he took a role in the business, learning the ropes of corporate life and leadership.

However, at age 26, he quit the family business and returned to tennis, opening his own youth academy. He wanted passion and freedom in his life. After Patrick watched Serena for 45 minutes, he gave her his unvarnished feedback:

‘Every time you hit, you are off-balance, which makes you miss a lot — also, you lose power as you are not using your body weight and your game is slow as you are not moving up enough.’ Serena had the bravery to take this onboard and said, ‘Let’s work on this.’

And that is exactly what they did.

They trained together every day for the rest of the week. Days before Wimbledon, just shortly after the experience, she announced that Patrick would be her new coach, replacing her father, Richard Williams, who had held the position from the time both Serena and her sister, Venus, had held tennis rackets. What followed was truly extraordinary. Serena won her next 19 matches, taking Wimbledon and the US open, along with the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics.

She ended the season as the №3 tennis player in the world.

She was back.

When she made the decision to change her coach, she was taking a big risk. Patrick’s methods at the time were seen as unconventional, even radical. Patrick used skills he acquired from time in his father’s business, then adapted and applied them to his coaching. He took a holistic approach: not just focusing on the game, but the mindset and mentality surrounding it, what many people highlight now as among Serena’s greatest strengths.

Patrick’s main approach was one of individualised training, a personalised regime for each player. This created a deep connection with the player, that led them to success. ‘My job is about adaptation, not about repeating a one size fits all pattern’, he says. Both he and Serena were out of their comfort zones, which was necessary to find the breakthrough in her game. With something to prove, this gave them a purpose. This very public experiment could have gone wrong in a very public way, neither knowing what to expect when they began the journey together.

Serena’s resilience, flexibility and mindset allowed her to let go of what had brought success before, to ‘un-learn’, and embrace new learning, leading to breakthroughs in her performance.

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What I find valuable, hidden in this story, is that whilst they thought big, they began small, introducing a few tiny tweaks to existing routines, nothing major, but with each step increasing confidence. It gave Serena the platform to move away from the comfort and certainty of her tried and trusted methods, sparking new perspectives, and new thinking, and ultimately: new behaviours.

Serena listened to her coach, demonstrating a desire to learn and to progress, that it was very important to add new things to her game even after her tremendous past success. In short, Serena un-learned, re-learned, and then experienced breakthroughs again and again, leading her to higher and higher performance.

Each breakthrough developed deeper resilience in her mind, reinforcing her ability to come back from difficult and losing positions, time and time again.

If you are interested in assessing and measuring your resilience, mindset, learning drive, together with many other aspects that make up your adaptability quotient (AQ) then head on over to where you can apply to be part of their beta program, to support people through accelerating change.

When women tennis players lose the opening set, they have on average only a 25% chance of coming back to win. When Serena loses the first set of a match, she is almost as likely to win the match as she is to lose it.

She is 90–92 in her career when dropping the first set, over double the statistical comeback chance of her peers. Even more stark is when a match goes to 3 sets, Serena wins more that 70% of the time, a 150–59 record. During the course of the 2002–2003 seasons, Serena held all four of the grand slam singles titles simultaneously, making her one of only a very small handful of tennis players in history to achieve this. It was labelled the ‘Serena Slam’ by the media. After bouncing back from her defeat in the French open in 2012, Serena set her sights on a second ‘Serena Slam’; this became her new purpose and she achieved it during the 2014–2015 season, 12 years after her first. Becoming the only person, ever, to do so twice. In 2017, she broke the record of her twenty-third major and tenth grand slam simultaneously.

Un-learn, re-learn, and breakthrough.

I am sure, despite the recent string of losses, if anyone can come back again, for the elusive 24th Major, it will be Serena. “Age not an obstacle in Serena Williams’ pursuit of 24th major, Mouratoglou says” (

Thanks to Barry and his amazing book, UNLEARN, I am excited to see how we might all achieve breakthroughs by embracing the very way we learning in an exponential world.

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