Game Change Nation

How Gratitude Helped Coco Gauff Move Past Her Fears


Do a Google search of “Coco Gauff Wimbledon” and magical is the word that appears in headline after headline to describe Gauff’s historic run through the 2019 Wimbledon tennis tournament.  

The magic started in the very first round when Gauff faced Venus Williams. Gauff was a 15-year-old girl staring across the net at her tennis idol, a woman who had previously won seven Grand Slam singles championships, including five at Wimbledon, and a gold medal in singles at the 2000 Summer Olympics at Sydney. This was Gauff’s first Wimbledon.    

In a stunning display, which became the most talked about match of the tournament, Gauff played nearly flawless tennis. Ironically, it was Venus who struggled, committing 26 unforced errors, which Gauff coolly took advantage of by converting all three of her break opportunities. On the final rally of the match, Venus hit a shot into the net. Game. Set. Match, Coco Gauff.  

“Thank you…”

As the reality that she had just defeated her idol began to sink in, Gauff put her hands on her head and began to weep. She walked to the net and accepted a handshake and “Congratulations” from Venus. Before Venus could walk back to her chair, Gauff pulled her in closer to say a few additional words. Gauff later revealed what she had told her idol. “‘Thank you for everything that you did. I wouldn’t be here without you.’” She added, “I always wanted to tell her that.” 

Gauff went on to win her next two matches, which put her in the Round of 16, where she lost to eventual champion, Simona Halep 6-3, 6-3. To put that into perspective, Halep went on to win the next three matches without losing a set, including a 6-2, 6-2 thrashing of Venus’s sister, Serena, in the tournament final.   

At 15 years old, Gauff was the youngest player to win a match at Wimbledon in 28 years. She defeated her idol, a legend in the tennis world, and, along her journey throughout the tournament, Gauff captured the hearts and minds of sports fans around the world. 

It almost didn’t happen.

About a year before the Wimbledon tournament, where Gauff’s performance would serve as a great inspiration to so many people, she herself had lost her inspiration to play. In a post on the website, Behind the Racquet, Gauff said, “It was 2018 where I remember waking up and not wanting to practice.”

Gauff was one of the most acclaimed players in all of junior tennis, with the promise of an amazing career laid out right in front of her. You would think knowing that would have given her the confidence to want to get up every day and continue on her path to greatness. However, it was precisely that expectation that began to hold her back. 

Anxiety, which came from the hype of being a rising tennis star, almost forced Gauff to take a hiatus from tennis. The game that she loved so much was no longer fun to play. Gauff explained her fears, “It added this pressure that I needed to do well fast.” She added, “Throughout my life, I was always the youngest to do things, which added hype that I didn’t want.” Gauff found herself starting to envy her peers that had a more “normal” life. She said, “At times I found myself too busy comparing myself to others. Most of my friends go to normal high school. I felt like they always seemed so happy being ‘normal.’ For a while, I thought I wanted that but then I realized that, just like social media, everyone isn’t as happy as what you see in their posts.” She said, “I thought I had to be perfect, but I’ve done a lot of soul-searching and moved past it.”

Although Gauff is a uniquely talented tennis player, her fear of needing to live up to a perceived standard of perfection is not that unique. A research survey, commissioned by Procter & Gamble, found that the pressure to be perfect and the social perceptions of others contributed to a fear of failure that is especially prevalent among young ladies. 

The 2017 study found that during puberty, 50% of girls felt paralyzed by a fear of failure, 70% avoided trying new things because they were afraid to fail, 60% said that failing made them want to quit, 80% reported that societal pressure to please others contributed to their fear of failure, 75% agreed that social media contributed to that pressure, and over 80% acknowledged that if they felt failing was acceptable, they would have kept doing the things they loved and grew in confidence.  

It is sad to see how prevalent the fear of failure is among young ladies. However, fear is not gender specific. It is also not age specific. We all have it and fear of failure is not the only one.

There are numerous fears. To name a few, there is fear of rejection, fear of losing control, fear of change, fear of missing out, fear of poverty, and fear of death. These are just a few examples of what holds us back.

Gauff came to realize that for her to be able to enjoy tennis, she could not let the pressure of other people’s expectations burden her. In her post on Behind the Racquet Gauff explained the process of getting there.  “When you are in that dark mindset you don’t look on the bright side of things too often, which is the hardest part. Everyone asks me how I stay calm on the court and I think it’s because I accepted who I am after overcoming low points in my life. Now, when I’m on the court, I am just really thankful to be out there.” 

Having gratitude for the big things and the small things in life is a powerful way of being. Why? If you tend to see and focus on those experiences for which you are grateful, you will have a more positive outlook on life. You will have less stress, fear, and anger about the normal upsets that are presented in your lifetime. You’ll be more at peace, and most likely, healthier.

There is scientific data about the positive impacts of gratitude.  Dr. Glenn Fox, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, has dedicated his professional career to studying this. In an interview with PBS affiliate WHYY, Fox said, “Grateful people tend to recover faster from trauma and injury. They tend to have better and closer personal relationships and may even have improved health overall.”

The article cited a study from the University of Indiana that divided people suffering from depression and other mental health issues into three groups. One group was asked to write letters of gratitude, a second group wrote reflections on their deepest feelings, and the third wrote nothing. The study revealed that the group that wrote the gratitude letters showed better mental health scores than the other two groups.   

Gratitude is especially effective when in a fearful or anxious state. We are constantly surrounded by our fears of being negatively judged and the rise of social media has only made matters worse. Many people fall into the trap of feeling insecure for not having the seemingly perfect lives of others instead of appreciating what they do have.  

So, how can you start creating a more grateful attitude?

One great way is to keep a daily gratitude journal and jot down various things that you enjoyed throughout the day. It literally could be things as simple as seeing a beautiful sunset or hearing your child laughing in the next room, or getting together with friends to watch a movie. 

Here’s the cool thing – the more you recognize gratitude, the more experiences will occur for which to be grateful. It’s a cycle – the gift that keeps on giving.  In Coco Gauff’s case, her gratitude came from simply recognizing she was playing tennis because she loved it. 

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