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John T. Reed’s review of King Richard—the Venus and Serena Williams story

Posted by John Reed on

My wife and I saw the movie King Richard today. The basic, true story, is much like another movie we saw recently: RESPECT

Both were about African-Americans from relatively low-income families who dreamed of being superstars—and did.

RESPECT was the Aretha Franklin story. In that story, the driving force was Aretha herself. In King Richard, the driving force clearly is Richard Williams, the stage father of two tennis GOATs Venus and Serena Williams. Although without the girls buy-in too, their success does not happen.

I had a connection to Aretha in that songwriting and performing is a creative exercise where the goals is to BE YOURSELF which, in turn, means you need to figure out who you are. Same in my career: writing books and articles. My Succeeding book has a chapter on be yourself.

In King Richard, the titular character is a maniacal father-coach and career manager. I have been a coach of about 36 teams and written ten books on coaching. The Williams family was into tennis.

I played recreational tennis, not competitive tennis—but enough to understand the essential nature of the game. That is ZEN.

Zen also applies to some aspects of baseball—batting on the first two strikes, fielding hot grounders in the infield, and throwing. I played through semipro and coached baseball and wrote two books about coaching baseball.

Zen is also how place kicking works in football.

I added a chapter on Zen in the third edition of my Succeeding book. Zen is captured in the statement “Don’t make it happen. Let it happen.” It also applies to falling in love, but not to meeting the person you fall in love with.

Succeeding book


To succeed at a Zen activity, you must turn off your conscious, upper, reflective brain and trust your subconscious, lower, reflexive brain.

Most activities are NOT Zen. In most things, trying harder and concentrating your upper brain is the best way to succeed.

They never mention Zen in the movie. They do some vague discussion of controlling your conscious brain.

In a key scene—I can’t spoil because it is a famous true story—a tennis pro ices the older Williams girl, as football coaches often do to place kickers, by taking a sort of tennis timeout. That gives the in-the-groove rookie teenager too much time to think and successfully gets her out of her Zen groove. The old pro knows about the Zen.

Interesting exchange in the film. A tennis expert suggests early on that the girls try basketball. Richard Williams says that’s why he chose tennis. Sounds like he figured out what one of my Succeeding book chapters says in its title: “Make yourself scarce.” That is, go where what you have is rare, valued, and compensated and what you do NOT have is irrelevant.

The example I use in the book is if you are smart enough to get into Harvard Medical School, DON’T go there. Harvard Medical School School is full to the brim with super smart people. Instead, go to Harvard BUSINESS School or some other profession where you WILL be the smartest person there AND that will land you at the top of that profession in terms of compensation and other rewards.

So it looked like Richard Williams figured his athletic African-American daughters would have less athletic African-American competition at the country club tennis court than on the school-yard basketball court. Correct thinking.

Also, I would note that tennis, which is generally a one-person team, lends itself more to stage-father coaching and development than five-person-team basketball.

I think the basic thesis of the story and film is wrong. That thesis is that the Williams sisters succeeded because their father came up with an unorthodox 78-page plan before his daughters were born, stuck to it in spite of all resistance, and it worked.

That contains two logic fallacies that I described in my book How to Spot Dishonest Arguments and keep your own thinking straight. 

How to Spot Dishonest Arguments book

1. Post hoc ergo hoc logic fallacy. That means “after which therefore because of which.” In other words, the fact that the Williams sisters became such superstars does not mean that every thing Richard Williams did to bring it about was correct.

2. Decisions must be judged on what the decision maker knew at the time he made the decision, not by the results of the decisions.

Make no mistake, no Richard, no Venus and Serena tennis superstars. What I am saying is if another 1,000 fathers mimic what Williams did, I do not think his kid(s) will become superstars in any field. Much of what he did was correct. But he probably succeeded IN SPITE OF the other stuff he did.

And I must note that what Richard did could have blown up in his face.

Remember Todd Marinovich? Here is what Wikipedia said about his parents:

“His father, Marv Marinovich, had been a lineman and a captain for the USC Trojans during the 1962 national championship season and played in the 1963 Rose Bowl. Marinovich's mother, Trudi, was a high school swimmer who dropped out of USC to marry Marv. Her brother Craig was a star USC quarterback at this time.”

And here is how Wikipedia summed up Todd’s athletic career:

“Marinovich is known for the well-documented, intense focus of his training as a young athlete and for his brief career upon reaching the professional leagues that was cut short primarily because of his addiction to drugs.”

Marinovich was so famous for his father’s maniacal training of him that opposing schools mocked him at high school football games. Every second of his childhood was getting ready to play pro quarterback with his father controlling all.

Wikipedia: “Marv later opened his own athletic research center and applied the techniques to his young son, introducing athletic training before Marinovich could leave the crib and continuing it throughout his childhood and adolescence.”

I surmise, but do not know, that Todd getting involved with drugs was a reaction to too much fatherly control in childhood.

Our three sons’ swimming coach when they were toddlers had been an Olympic swimming hopeful growing up. Eight hours a day of swimming. Finally, in 8th grade or thereabouts, she totally quit one day, angry about not having a childhood.

Our oldest son was a league champion swimmer and set a team record that lasted 17 years. But there came a point where he was asked to move up to an American Swimming Association traveling team.

We said no. It required daily practice, before-school, outdoor swimming year round. We live near San Francisco, but it gets into the 30ºs that time of day in the winter.

And it sounded like his toddler swim coach’s parents too-much-swimming mistake. Also, when your kids competes on a traveling athletic team, your life is consumed by parent traveling to support the child athlete.

Our feeling was we would only do that if our son wanted it and we simply would not trust a kid to tell us the truth about that. I think we did the right thing.

I note that that son has an 11-year old and a 6-year old and although they had early drown-proofing, he never let them swim competitively even in the recreation leagues like he and his brothers were in.

The American Medical Association recommends against 12 and unders playing one sport year-round. I agree and I think it should be 18 and under not 12 and under.

The AMA was concerned about burn out. Exactly. And they were also concerned about OVER-USE injuries. Back in the child-labor era, many such child laborers were maimed for life because doing the same motion over and over damaged the growth plates on the ends of their bones.

When child labor ended, so did those injuries. But then they came back in the 1970s. Did child labor come back? Yes, but in the form of one-sport, year-round athletics in one-person sports, namely: figure skating, gymnastics, tennis, and swimming.

The young body cannot tell the difference between child labor in a factory and child labor on the tennis court or balance beam or in the pool or at the ice rink. Growing children must NOT engage in the same motion too many times, regardless of whether the purpose is manufacturing or sports.

The Williams sisters would not have had their success without Richard doing much of what he did. But they also would not have had that success if THEY had not wanted it and worked as hard as they did. They sort of matched his incredible ambition, work ethic, and obsessive-compulsive behavior.

I’m glad it worked out for the Williams family, but don’t try this at home.

Great acting by everyone in the movie.

I cannot recommend the story. They were sticking to the truth and the truth is Richard was too controlling and too often overruled expert advice with little or no basis as far as I could tell. That was not a fictional script which could have been more praiseworthy. The Wiliams sisters story was too much of father Richard working out his own insecurities and ghetto past and self-esteem needs through his daughters.

They lived and practiced in a really bad neighborhood. Richard got beat up repeatedly and almost got killed once when he went alone to a public tennis court in the bad neighborhood late at night hitting balls by himself and ended up beat up and with a gun to his head. He also took his own gun to go kill that guy and changed his mind at the last second. His committing murder likely would have ended the sisters’ success story.

I grew up poor with a drunk father and a high school grad mom who made sure we lived in a good neighborhood with good schools. We had to rent a two-bedroom apartment above a beauty shop on main street.

Others might have insisted on a house and had to live in a bad neighborhood to get it. My mom knew what was important. Richard and his wife needed to get themselves and their family to such an apartment in a better neighborhood if not a better house. The Williams family lived in a detached house in a bad neighborhood and practiced initially on public tennis courts there. Compton, CA

I am a real estate expert. My mom was, too, albeit from a mortgage-lending perspective. Both of us know that you can finesse real estate more than most people realize.

Richard was not a single dad. He had a wife and they both worked. As a real estate expert, I can tell you he did not have to live in that neighborhood in the 1980s. My mom could also have told him how to get out. You don’t need a nationally-known expert.

The ghetto and African-American experience is a big part of the story. I think the parents generally correctly got the girls to focus on good values and habits and ignore the soft prejudice of low expectations and all that. I did not have to deal with that.

But as I said, this was to a very large extent a real estate problem. If Richard had spent a tiny fraction of the time he spent on tennis fixing the bad location, their lives could have been far less dominated and distracted by skin-color issues.

I also simply did not understand why Richard got beat up so much. Even living in that neighborhood, he did not need to be out at night and he did not need to confront every African-American hood talking trash, but he did.

Do I recommend the movie? Well, I just described it. If that sounds interesting, or the Williams’ sisters’ story does, go see it.

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