How do you recover from an emotional meltdown?
That's the challenge tennis player Serena Williams recently faced. Williams, one of the most celebrated tennis stars of all time, lost the U.S. Open to 20-year-old Japanese phenom Naomi Osaka.
But during the course of the game, Williams received a warning from the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, who believed Williams's coach was sending her signals. (Williams's coach later admitted to coaching Williams, although he doesn't believe she saw him.) Williams reacted strongly to the accusation.
"I don't cheat to win. I'd rather lose," she told the umpire.
Six games later, the umpire issued Williams a second code violation after she smashed her racket in frustration, resulting in an automatic point loss. In the ensuing conversation, the previous cheating accusation came up and Williams demanded an apology for accusing her of cheating. When he refused, she called him a thief for "stealing" a point from her.
At this point, the umpire issued a third violation for "verbal abuse," resulting in a lost game for Williams. U.S. Open officials rushed onto the court to examine the matter. At the end of the conference, though, the decisions stood.
Osaka went on to win the match convincingly. But as she and Williams stood for the trophy presentation, the crowd loudly booed and jeered, protesting what they felt was unfair treatment leveled against Williams.
Osaka notably pulled her cap over her eyes, to hide her reaction. Both she and Williams were in tears.
Then, something extraordinary happened.
Williams put her arm around Osaka's shoulder.
She then addressed the crowd:
I just want to tell you guys she played well, and this is her first grand slam. I know you guys were here rooting, and I was rooting too, but let's make this the best moment we can. We'll get through it. Let's give everyone the credit where credit's due. Let's not boo anymore. We're going to get through this, and let's be positive. So congratulations, Naomi. No more booing.
Amazingly, not only did the crowd then stoop booing, they erupted into voracious cheers.
Williams went on to thank the crowd, joyfully expressing her desire to be at the Open again, despite her admission that playing there had been tough on her.
The crowd applauded.
Williams certainly allowed her emotions to get the better of her during the match--but her actions on the podium were a powerful example of positive emotional influence: the ability to inspire others to think differently, to see things from a new perspective, and even to change their behavior.
We can only imagine what was going through Williams's mind at the moment. A fierce competitor, she likely felt that she was robbed of a championship.
But Williams also showed clearly that the last thing she wanted to do was take away from Osaka's moment. So she got control of her emotions, congratulated her opponent, and convinced the crowd to do the same.
It was a remarkable demonstration of respect and empathy--and it was one more reason why opponents' respect for Williams is so great.
"It was always my dream to play Serena in the U.S. Open finals, so I'm really glad I was able to do that," Osaka said. She then addressed Williams directly: "I'm really glad I was able to play with you. Thank you."
To use one's emotions as a power for good, to inspire and motivate others--that's emotional intelligence at its finest.