PALM DESERT, Calif.— Tennis legend Billie Jean King — who blazed a trail for equality and ushered in a new era for women’s sports in the 1970s — never perceived herself as a great athlete.
“I never thought I was good enough,” said King, who spoke Thursday here at the EY Strategic Growth Forum. “I always wanted to be better than I was in the last match.”
It was that drive for excellence that made King — who won 39 Grand Slam events and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 — a champion.
King offered a few insights on her unlikely rise to tennis star, lessons that certainly can be applied to entrepreneurship, business and family life. And while it takes some strong physical attributes to succeed in athletics, King said those who achieved the most success had a unique “ability to recharge our batteries every day better than the others.”
“I think there are three parts to being great in whatever you do,” King continued. “Your head, your heart and your guts. You bring all of yourself to something. You bring all of it, all of the time. Most players, most athletes — it does not just have to be tennis — have two of those things going… But you need all three to be great! You got to bring it all, every moment.”
King, who is perhaps best known for defeating Bobby Riggs in 1973, a match that is the subject of the new movie Battle of the Sexes, said the best tennis players also used the down times during the match to regroup or strategize.
“Seventy five percent of the time in the match, you are probably not hitting a tennis ball,” she said. “Champions use that off time as I call it or that in-between-point-time, better than anybody else.”
Beyond that, King noted that those who achieve greatness show total commitment.
“In business, in life and with your children, it’s commitment, not involvement. It’s commitment. There’s a huge difference, and the greatest people in the world, there is a total commitment, whatever they do,” she said. “Whether you are a CEO of a company, whether you are an entrepreneur, or whether you work for a non-profit … whatever you do, you got to care, you have to give it everything you got, and then you do take breaks to relax.”
King also said that she loves talking to kids who are learning the game of tennis, and always asks them: “what’s your best shot?” She never focuses on what the kids need to work on.
“The best practice their strengths every day,” she said. “That’s another misnomer. People say: ‘Oh, you got to work on your mistakes all day.’ No! Always work on what you do well, every day. Your strengths. Always do it…. Think about your strengths.”
With kids, it’s especially important to reinforce what they do well, she said. “That gives children self confidence faster than anything else, tell them what they do well,” she said. “And they love it. And they start to thrive.” King also said that her parents never focused on winning, which took the pressure off of her as she competed. King and her brother, a former relief pitcher with the San Francisco Giants, ended up thriving on pressure situations, something she attributed to “not having helicopter parents.”