Truth be told, I am mildly obsessed with Serena Williams. Her talent and intelligence on and off the court, the longevity of her career, her comebacks, the authenticity of her ambition, her grit and determination, and her overall appeal are hard to ignore.

Other than Serena herself, no one was hit harder by her recent loss in the US Open than I was. And Serena was hit plenty hard: Her coach announced just yesterday that she may sit out the remainder of the tennis season, disappointed by her performance in New York.

Much has already been written about how no one expected her to fall short against an unranked opponent; this article doesn’t jump on that bandwagon. Champions sometimes lose, and that’s just that. As a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, I’m as interested in what happens between the lines of a tennis court as I am in what happens between players’ ears.

In my work with people who want to maintain their greatness, there are a few specific psychological themes that emerge that help them stay on top. These ideas apply universally, whether you’re a world-class tennis player looking to return to dominance or someone who’s guiding yourself through the business world.

Are You the Favorite or the Underdog?

Being “straight outta Compton” made Serena the automatic underdog in her tennis career. Since then, however, her incredible rise to the top and her utter dominance have made her the perennial favorite.

She knows that everyone has forgotten about her underdog status, and she seems to want to remind herself and us about it. Psychologically, this may make some sense. In 2008, sports psychologist Krista Munroe-Chandler and colleagues found that when you imagine yourself coming from behind, your sense of self-confidence and self-efficacy increases. This might explain the nail-biting three-setters we’ve seen this year.

In addition, being the favorite puts Serena at risk of something called “crisis at the summit” — a syndrome described in 2007 by business consultants George Parsons and Richard Pasquale — in which talented people suddenly choke at the top of their game. Add to this the burgeoning research that shows that people are wired to want envied others at the top of their game to fall, and you can see why being on top is a challenging position to be in.

Serena has her haters, as any star does, and in general, she does a great job of ignoring them and rising to the occasion. But you can see that she has holes in her psychological game when she’s wagging her finger at a crowd that loves her instead of remaining within herself and in the zone. A person of her caliber should focus on playing in noise, wind, and emotional tumult — and get really good at it without getting out of her own zone.

For people who win all the time, as much as they intellectually know that they want to win, their primitive hunger for winning will lapse. Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena’s coach, even implied this himself after her loss at the 2015 US Open semifinal, opining, “I think she lost her way mentally. Tactically, she didn’t know what to do.” After the match, Serena insisted that she didn’t need to win the US Open. She said she’s had plenty of success in her career, and she tipped her hat to the victor.

I don’t fault her for thinking this way — but this may eventually translate to complacency that impacts her primitive desire to win. Serena’s psychology must be more nuanced. She needs to recognize that she is both vulnerable and powerful. She’s weakened by the pressure of success, yet empowered by her history of winning.

If you aren’t an underdog, pretending to be one will only end up hurting you. But you also have to learn how to manage the psychological challenges that come with being the favorite.

Should You Focus on Winning or Avoiding Loss?

Focusing on past wins in an effort to inspire future wins is a double-edged sword. It will help boost your confidence, but research shows that it will also increase the number of risks you take and lead to reversed priming— a phenomenon through which people unconsciously feel the need to counterbalance an overly biased viewpoint. In other words, if you focus too much on winning, your brain may steer you toward losing.

Similarly, social psychologist Daniel Wegner is famous for his many studies that demonstrate that when you focus too hard on what you shouldn’t do (like telling yourself “don’t lose” over and over again), you’ll end up doing exactly the opposite.

Thinking positive thoughts before a big match (or meeting) is key. When people are primed with the word “old,” they’re more likely to walk slowly down a corridor. When primed with words associated with “professor,” people are more likely to score highly on a quiz — whereas the word “stupid” leads to worse performance. But just being positive is not enough. How you frame these thoughts can make all the difference in the world.

It’s important to prime your brain to act from your greatest strengths, but this requires more than just self-reassurance. Coaching yourself in the second person (“You’re going to rock this” instead of “I’m going to rock this”) has proven to decrease stress and increase confidence. But you need to be specific about the words you use, too.

Can You Properly Reframe Negativity?

In continuously telling the press that she didn’t actually lose the US Open, Serena is making an understandable but poor attempt at cognitively restructuring her loss. She wants to stay positive, of course, but denying a loss is not a productive way to cope.

If you’ve been paying close attention to Serena’s facial expressions on the court, you’ll notice that in her most recent matches, she often looks like she’s on the verge of crying. To compare, take a look at her fiercest expressions. In 2001, Stanford social psychologist Larissa Tiedens demonstrated across four studies that people award higher status to people who express anger than they do to those exhibiting sadness or guilt. Serena’s current mental state may not be creating a psychological advantage over her opponents.

She also needs to be herself. She can be a mature fighter. She can be imperfectly angry. She can be tenacious. Research shows that authenticity affects well-being , so she could stand to let down her guard a little more and be real about her anger and determination — especially to herself.

The US Open semifinal was a terrible disappointment for all of us who look to Serena for our daily dose of someone to admire and support. But Serena should know that her supporters want to help her get back on track, give her food for thought that she can accept or reject, and remind her that no person — no coach, psychiatrist, neuroscientist, or significant other — knows more about herself than she does.

Once she connects with the nuances of being the favorite and develops new forms of self-talk, she can more easily return to the powerful and winning mindset that has entranced us for nearly two decades.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Srini Pillay, founder and CEO of NeuroBusiness Group, is a pioneer in brain-based executive coaching who is dedicated to collaborating with experts to help people unleash their full potential. He also serves as an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and teaches in the Executive Education Programs at Harvard Business School and Duke Corporate Education.