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Why Naomi Osaka’s Decision to Withdraw Deserves More Interest

Breaking down the stigma of mental health in sports

Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Images

Naomi Osaka has opened the door for athletes to talk about how they really feel.

Two weeks ago, Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open due to concerns about her mental health opened eyes across the sporting universe. It came just one day after she was fined $15K for her decision to avoid mandatory press conferences, even though she had made this decision public a week earlier — this punishment was paired with the Grand Slam Committee’s threats to expel her from the Roland-Garros tournament..

Osaka took it upon herself to drop out of the tournament, an action which was debated by some and applauded by many, from the Japanese Tennis Association’s executive director Toshihisa Tsuchihashi, who wished her the “earliest possibly recovery”, to fellow tennis player Misaki Doi admitting her “surprise” to Osaka’s withdrawal.

On a wider scale, however, Osaka citing concerns of her mental health echoes a notion that has floated around sports for years without ever really being talked about. In reality, athletes from all sports have touched on mental health, but a star’s decision to withdraw points to the elephant in the room which many sports committees have been seemingly reluctant to confront.

In her social media posts that announced her withdrawal, Osaka mentioned the social anxiety that she faces when around reporters, explaining it to be the reason why she is often seen wearing her headphones. Indeed, the pressure of media interaction is prominent in all major sports, and after a loss, the expectation is even higher. Journalists are at the edge of their seats, eager to hear what athletes have to say about their loss — some even come equipped with eyebrow-raising questions to push the performer’s buttons. The disappointment garnered from a loss is cumbersome by itself, let alone facing the media afterwards.

Anxiety affects all types of people worldwide — estimates suggest that 1 in 13 people suffer from it globally. It is an unfortunate truth that this mental disorder is sometimes glossed over by authorities in every sector of society.

Some describe the feeling as being tied down, with people around being unable to intervene despite cries for help. Unlike a torn ACL or a bad cold, the causes of anxiety are uncertain among health professionals, revolving between stress, upbringing, trauma, or a mixture of all three. These causes are different for each person, and although both non-medicinal and medicinal treatments are available, the stigma that has clutched onto mental health often turns people away. The debilitating feeling that anxiety brings can be translated into common circumstances, such as job interviews and performances, and the latter encompasses every type of athlete. Although they may seem invincible, they are just as human as the rest of us.

No matter how indestructible we look like we are, we’re all human at the end of the day.

DeMar DeRozan opening up about his struggles with depression

Sports performers may look untouchable — from Michael Jordan’s domination of the ’90s to Muhammad Ali’s steely confidence — but it can be a very different story behind the scenes. In recent years, athletes from multiple sports, including football legend Rio Ferdinand and NBA champion Kevin Love, have opened up about their inner struggles, challenging the stereotype of a stoic, mentally impenetrable athlete. Money and fame are not the paths to happiness, contrary to the common misconception held by many.

The media are partly to blame for this illusion; fans mirror the media’s tendencies to place athletes on a pedestal. An example of this is Jeremy Lin’s historic ‘Linsanity’ run, which saw Lin praised worldwide, yet it was only an injury that sent him crashing into media irrelevancy. During these periods of player domination, players are perceivably “unstoppable”, both physically and mentally. For some this may be true — however, for an increasing number of athletes, their elite level of play is the cork for their bottle of struggle.

For mental health to lose its stigma, sports institutions must work with each athlete constructively and productively. The Grand Slam’s Committee’s statement after Osaka’s decision to pass on media interactions was laced with a malicious, thoughtless undertone. Despite insisting that the mental health of their players is of “utmost importance”, they still fined her $15K and reminded her of her “obligations”, continuing to threaten her with further punishments if she “continued to ignore her media obligations”.

The Committee hastily changed its tone days later, writing a new statement once figures across all sports came to her defense, but the first statement had revealed its worryingly uncaring reaction. Effectively, she had been punished for looking out for her mental wellbeing. Her choice to withdraw shows the need for sports authorities to communicate with their players more empathetically.

Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement.

— Andre Agassi, Open

USA TODAY / via Reuters

It may be surprising, but the rewards that athletes receive upon succeeding can be an indirect influence on their mental health. Each Grand Slam champion receives upwards of $1.5 million in prize money, along with the money which they earn from sponsorships. UEFA Champions League winners Chelsea included a bonus in each player’s contract, securing all of them €250,000 after the final whistle blew for their win. Trophies, medals, rings — performers’ success is often tied to physical memorabilia too. Some are kept for life, like NBA Finals rings, while others are simply on loan, like the English FA Cup — regardless of ownership status, having earned rewards such as these are markers for a successful career.

Once athletes are successful enough to win whole leagues and tournaments, be it by themselves or in a team, they immortalize themselves in sports history. This preservation brings an air of invincibility, not least on back-to-back runs. Fans love this like no other, and give praise where praise is due to these winners.

That is, until they lose.

Sports fans are ruthless, to the point where they will boo their own teams for not playing well enough. It’s not uncommon for a performer to feel some sort of stress while playing — athletes usually have their own ways of dealing with nerves — but pressure from fans, coaches and the media all combines to form one dangerous mixture of emotions. Expectation from all around can push players into a state of loneliness, with athletes feeling that everywhere they go, something is expected of them. This feeling is even deeper with individual athletes, with a study by the Technical University of Munich discovering that individual athletes are more likely to blame themselves than performers in team sports.

This is understandable — in a team, the self-blame is less intense. The disappointment is still there, but players in teams can “share” the blame between them, and often find companionship in this. Individual athletes, on the other hand, cannot share this feeling with any team members at all, because there are none. That crushing feeling after a loss is multitudes more painful when there is nobody to share it with.

The dangerous stigma that surrounds mental health in sport has to be tackled immediately. People can have mental toughness and live with mental health issues — until, and only until, this is worked on, athletes will face the same fears. Even outside of sports, many fear speaking to anyone about their feelings, due to the subconscious societal belief that those living with mental health issues are somehow different.

Sport has successfully been used as a platform to influence society; Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign saw 1.6 million women start exercising within just a year. Similarly to how such a successful drive to inspire women to exercise took place, sports governing bodies have the power to direct society in a positive direction to remove the misrepresentations around mental health.

Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the French Open may be the final push needed to open up more conversations about mental health. This move from one of the top individual athletes in the world is monumental, and with time, one can hope that more athletes feel compelled to express how they truly feel, without judgement, punishment or isolation.

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Sedem Anyiri

Sedem Anyiri

Avid Sixers fan and sports journalism fanatic.

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