Is @serenawilliams today’s John McEnroe?

Well, not usually, but on this occasion her emotions hijacked her behaviour, as they often do in competitive sport.  Plenty of people have debated the rights and wrongs of Serena Williams’ behaviour and the decisions of the umpire, Carlos Ramos.  Few have discussed what was going on emotionally for the two people involved.

I want to look at how they could have handled the situation differently and what we can learn from it about how to manage conflict and disagreement.

Serena was given a warning for being coached on court, and then given a point penalty for smashing her racquet.  She reacted angrily, probably because she felt personally attacked.  Her flight or fight response activated before a more considered reaction could kick in.  These situations typically escalate quickly, as this one did.  Some of the escalation triggers:

  • She used emotive language (cheat, thief, liar) which made her more angry
  • The emotive language probably triggered a defensive response in the umpire
  • The umpire exercised his authority and imposed the penalties
  • She had no way to challenge or negotiate the penalties and this will have felt intensely unfair

In addition, the emotions of the crowd were aroused on Serena’s side, and the noise and booing of the crowd will have added to the heightened emotions of both the player and the umpire.

This sequence of events with rapid escalation is typical of many conflict situations.  So how can we defuse rather than ignite conflict?

  • Avoid emotive language and personal attacks – name calling, slurs, exaggeration
  • Think before you speak, count to 10, move away from the situation to buy some time
  • Take the heat and pace out by using a calm tone of voice and measured body language – don’t point, shout or wave your arms about
  • Show respect for the other person, even if you disagree with their views

It was a pity that what should have been an exciting and joyful occasion for the winner was overshadowed by the controversy.  However, Naomi Osaka’s ability to “keep her head when all about were losing theirs” was impressive, and she will undoubtedly go on to win other major tournaments – and enjoy the presentation ceremony.

For more tips on reducing conflict, see People Management