This post is about the anti-fragility that Richard Williams taught to his daughters Venus and Serena. The post falls into two parts. Initially I cover his tactics to bulletproof their mindsets in order to secure a brilliant public image, and the second part dives into how the same strategies were reflected in their training. Enjoy.
I, like most others on this planet, am enormously attracted to mega success stories. The type of success that is only attainable by tossing out commonly believed ideas and paths, and therefore leave the subjects up to intense scrutiny on their pre-success journeys. King Richard's story comes to mind, and I believe the secret to his plan was the unwavering rules Venus and Serena had to abide by, even when it seemed extreme. Put simply, to accomplish extreme success, you have to do extreme things.
Richard was well aware of the adversity he and his young superstars were going to face along the way, and he armed them with the strategy of humility. He also made sure they never missed a day of practice, and this included practicing in the rain.
Nassim Taleb's work highlights the foolishness behind predictions of specific events. Instead, it is much more useful to become aware that Black Swan events happen, and accept that you're not sure what kinds. For example, Richard was aware that he and his daughters would face immense racism along the way (in an all white sport), but he was not sure exactly what insults or type of attacks would come his way. He was aware of how fickle the public image of a professional athlete can be (especially a young black woman), and knew that there was no room for Venus and Serena to be unlikeable in any way shape or form.
After Venus wins her first tournament, she and the rest of her sisters are enjoying the victory in the back of Richard's van on the way home. Enjoying it a little too much. Richard outbursts, attempts to leave all five girls three miles from their home at a convenience store, and forces them to walk home and think about their gloating. His wife makes him stop the car and get the girls, but he still let his intentions be known. He continues his tirade at home, forces the girls to watch Cinderella, and is upset when none of them learn the theme of humility from the movie.
In these few scenes, Oracene Price (the girls' mother), plays the role of the rational audience. Why not let Venus and the girls enjoy the win? It seemed harmless. They had been working their whole lives on tennis and finally got to enjoy victory at an official event. It is extreme and dangerous to leave your girls three miles from home in the middle of Compton just to learn a lesson, and also absurd to threaten your daughters to rewatch Cinderella because they did not guess correctly what lesson they should learn (I certainly never got the lesson of humility from Cinderella).
Quick note about Oracene. She certainly had just as much to do, if not more than Richard, with the girls' success, and was totally on board with the entire plan. So much so, she even stayed with Richard to see the plan through, despite her "irreconcilable differences" with him that eventually led to their divorce. The movie easily could've been called Queen Oracene. Anyway, back to the point.
Richard understood the Extremistan nature of the world the girls were going to face, and he knew that he had to train their reactions to the extreme events so that everything in the middle would take care of itself. If they responded to Venus's first tournament win with humility and grace, then they should respond to all of the victories and losses with humility and grace. He enforced those values because he also trained Venus and Serena to respond with unwavering confidence to any questioning about their ability. There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance.
It is useless to have a pre thought out response if a reporter or a fan hurls an insult or asks a conniving leading question, because you cannot predict exactly what the context or the wording will be. Instead, Richard implanted beliefs and virtues that would hold up under any type of fire. All the girls had to do was be themselves in the press room.
From day one, Venus and Serena were told that they were going to be World #1, and not a single player could stand in their way. I'm not sure how many parents and coaches are out there preaching that to their kids and players. There is after all, only one World #1 out of 7.753 billion at a given time. Yet, this is why most people when they get to the point in their career, or in their sport, when they face an opponent with recognized status, they feel the anxiety and the gravity of the moment.
Call it delusional, but Richard had other ways to secure his bet that no one else was willing to do. It was highlighted repeatedly in the film that he and the girls were on the beaten down court in Compton rain or shine. In a literal sense, you could argue that the girls trained at least 34 more days (average number of days it rains in LA) a year than those that were not willing to train on days that it rained. And maybe you could argue that they improved 10% faster than non rain trainees per year.
I took it more metaphorically. There was absolutely nothing that was going to stop the girls from training everyday. Excuses not to train fall on a gradient throughout the general population. If there is some threshold of circumstances that allow you to decide not to train, then you are subject to your circumstances. Every circumstance every female tennis player used as an excuse not to train, was in fact fuel for the Williams sisters (anti-fragile).
Black Swans are guaranteed to occur, but it is a waste of time to predict which ones. Richard knew that random and extreme circumstances would come up that could prevent the girls from training, but there was a steadfast rule to overcome whatever it was. Flat tire on the way to the court, got bullied at school, gang violence in the neighborhood, family member died, feeling tired- doesn't matter. The precedent was set by training in the rain. Train the extremes, and the middle will take care of itself.
Tennis was only accessible to the rich white communities, and the kind of money it took to have your daughter play tennis in Los Angeles could easily afford to have her train indoors on the days where it may rain. During the initial stint of Venus playing Juniors against the best players California had to offer, it became evident that it was not just rain that could deter the other players from training. Venus went 63-0 before Richard pulled her out of Juniors. That is a laughable statistic.
The Williams' story is a staunch example of anti-fragility. Venus and Serena's mindsets are not robust, they are anti-fragile. They did not build up a threshold of tolerance for racist comments or reporters questioning their abilities. If they did, they would have cracked by now and their image would not be what it is today. Instead they gained strength with every attempt to bring them down, just like they gained strength when circumstances posed a threat to their training.