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The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.
Venus Williams remains one of the biggest names in tennis since going professional at the age of 14, winning countless accolades in the sport. And as stars of the next generation, namely Naomi Osaka, are being credited for bringing mental health awareness to the forefront, Williams says that prioritizing her mental state and overall well-being is what's allowed her to stay at the top of her game for nearly three decades.
"Wellness means everything to me. My whole career and my whole life is wellness. Without that, I would have never been able to achieve what I've achieved on the floor and more than anything, just be able to pursue something that I love," she tells Yahoo Life. "Also on an even more personal standpoint, wellness is extremely important to me since I live with a chronic autoimmune disease. So it's important for me to even take that to another level."
It wasn't until later in her career that Williams received a diagnosis of Sjögren’s syndrome — an autoimmune condition that led her to suffer with joint pain, hand swelling, numbness, fatigue, dry eyes and dry mouth. Now, it just plays a part in her motivation to live a holistic lifestyle, learning to nurture both her mental and physical health for the sake of her game.
Here she shares how early conversations about mental health with her family have evolved into lifelong wellness practices.
How did your approach to wellness change when you received that diagnosis?
When you first receive a diagnosis, that's just the starting point, but it's not where you end, hopefully. I was fortunate enough to be able to learn more about wellness and all the things that go with it, so that way it would give me an opportunity to be able to do what I love. I think one of those shifts for me was being plant-based and all the things that come with it. Gluten-free plant-based I find are very helpful with treating inflammation, which is the base of many diseases.
You've long been outspoken about mental health. How did you prepare yourself to start speaking publicly about your personal struggles with it?
It's something that, of course, you want to come to terms with hopefully before you start speaking publicly. You want to have a coherent thought. And I think it's a long road to acceptance, especially for an athlete, because you're not used to accepting everything. You always do everything on your own terms. So for me, it was a long road to acceptance and ultimately with sharing, the motivation was to help others because there's a lot of people going through these issues more and more and letting them know that there are options to help hopefully make your life easier.
Athletes are still working to normalize making mental health a priority and taking breaks from the sport. How have you allowed yourself to take the time that you need to maintain your wellbeing?
I've always normalized that, and I got that from my parents as they watched generations of players before me who had experienced burnout and just a complete meltdown, or whatever it may have been, and lost a career because of not being able to pace themselves. So we always paced ourselves from the very beginning and created schedules that were realistic and that promoted rejuvenation physically and mentally, and it's something I've always practiced. I think it's something that you see the best players do as well because it also promotes longevity of something that you love. It's impacted me in the most positive way because it also gave me the tools to be able to understand what it takes to plan a schedule that is achievable and that I can hopefully win at and be able to replicate.
How might fans get a better understanding of the important conversations that you had with your parents about your sport and your well-being through the movie King Richard?
Our family was definitely not typical one, but in a good way. So it's really impossible to describe it unless you've been there and now people get to see it. So they in a sense get a chance to be there, and it's just a really inspiring film. It's interesting too, because it's very sentimental in the sense that it's just a snapshot in my life of when I was really a child. So it's kind of seeing a version of yourself that doesn't exist anymore, and it hasn't existed in a long time, so it's just super-sentimental.
You've mentioned incorporating the Bible into your nightly routine. What role does faith play in keeping yourself mentally strong throughout your career?
Faith is extremely important to me and my family and that's been the basis. It also takes a lot of pressure off because when you realize it's just a tennis match, then you're able to let go of some of the bigger disappointments or whatever it is, you know, the pressures or any expectations you have or someone else might have, and it just literally becomes a tennis match that you've prepared for for like 90 years. It's a wonderful thing to have faith because it gives you hope and without hope it's hard to keep moving forward. So it's been everything in my life and I'm so grateful to have it.
What are your hopes for the future of mental health awareness and programs for athletes?
I hope that in athletic programs mental health becomes proactive. So if you're able to meditate and visualize what you want to accomplish, how you want to perceive the world, how you want to handle pressure situations, you've also done that practice too, just as you've done the reps on the court or in the field. So being able to be proactive about that and also have access to sports psychologists. Those kinds of things should be and are slowly becoming a part of every athlete's routine. I think it's starting now at an elite level where athletes are now making mental health professionals a part of their team that they're using on a weekly basis. But I'm looking forward to it trickling down to every level, sooner than later.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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