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It's Time to Champion Mental Health and Performance

Most of you would have heard the story about tennis player Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the French Open this past week. In case you did not, here's a quick recap: Prior to the Open, Osaka announced her intentions to skip speaking to the media after her matches, citing mental health reasons. She subsequently made good on that intention after her first-round appearance. Tournament organisers fined her $15,000USD, citing tournament rules requiring post-match media appearances. As a result, Osaka announced she would withdraw from the tournament altogether, sparking a mixed response from fellow athletes.

NBA star Steven Curry was unequivocal in his support: You shouldn’t even have to make a decision like this - but so damn impressive taking the high road when the powers that be don’t protect their own. Major respect @naomiosaka.

Others such as 13-time French Open Champion Raphael Nadal, were more business-like: Without the press … probably we will not be the athletes that we are today “We [aren’t] going to have the recognition that we have around the world, and we will not be that popular, no?

Former tennis stars Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Chris Evert, on the other hand, were initially less forgiving (though all tempered their responses after receiving criticism). Navratilova, in a Tennis Channel interview earlier in the week, went as far as to suggest that Osaka’s issue was less of a “mental health” one, more of a “mental” one and that she should “woman up.” Serena Williams, offered her support but at the same time pondered the ability of younger players (like Osaka?) to weather the media’s tough questions.

There is a telling thread in some of these responses that reflects our society’s ongoing ambivalence about mental health. On the one hand, elite sport has begun paying greater attention to and offering support for, athlete mental health as more athletes are opening up to their mental health realities, and sport investigations reveal “win at all cost” cultures and mental health abuses. This trend has only accelerated as a result of the global upheaval and subsequent spike in poor mental health brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash On the other hand, the fact that some of us are still equating mental health issues with being “soft” or “thin-skinned” or a way to play the “victim” card shows just how far we have yet to go. Go to any online news site where this story has been reported, scroll down to the public content section, and things get worse. Osaka is portrayed as a whiner who doesn’t mind raking in her winnings but crumbles under the pressure of media questions. Conveniently skating the truth that this is an athlete who has withstood and triumphed over the pressure of Grand Slam play.

I was reminded of a comment a coach made during a mental health presentation I facilitated at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS): Can you tell me where I can put the crazy people so I can just get on with doing my job? There persists the idea that mental health problems are for “other people.” Not me. And that people who suffer must be weak, and not to be mixed in with the rest of us.

In contrast, we don’t typically think of athletes who get physically injured as being “soft,” “weak,” or “thin-skinned.” Because, in part, physical injuries tend to be observable. Understandable. We might ding an athlete for repeated injuries if we think they are not taking suitable care of themselves and leaving themselves open to something preventable, but usually, we are sympathetic and do not question the character of an athlete who is suffering physically.

Interestingly, the 2020 Official Grand Slam (TM) Rule Book states the media-requirement rule Osaka was held accountable to this way (text bolded for emphasis):

Unless injured and physically unable to appear, a player or team must attend the post-match media conference(s) organised immediately or within thirty (30) minutes after the conclusion of each match, including walkovers, whether the player or team was the winner or loser, unless such time is extended or otherwise modified by the Referee for good cause.

Once again, the false inequivalence between physical and mental injury rears its head. Had Naomi Osaka been physically injured or sick, she would not have been called out, fined, and could be still be playing. Her contention, that facing questions, particularly after losses, could exacerbate her symptoms was not even acknowledged by tournament organizers as something to consider, much less supported.

While I was at the AIS, our Performance Psychology team facilitated an education program called (appropriately enough) Mental Health in Sport (MHS). This program sought to help sport coaches and staff to understand what mental health was, how to identify signs and symptoms of poor mental health, and how to support those in mental distress.

Here’s what participants found to be the most powerful takeaways: (1) mental health is a spectrum from good to poor, not just the distress associated with poor mental health, (2) everyone, not just those diagnosed with a mental health illness, deals with mental-health ups and downs all the time, and (3) by understanding and valuing the equivalencies between mental and physical health, openness to the idea of mental health increased while stigma decreased.

Remember the coach who had initially asked about how to corral his “crazy” athletes? After attending MHS, he became a mental health convert and advocated for the importance of mental health awareness across the Australian sport system. It was exceptionally rewarding to see the impact of this program play out, changing attitudes for even some of our more baked-in sport system skeptics.

Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash

  • If you are not already versed in the basics of mental health, it’s time to learn. There are readily available education programs including the excellent (and Australian-made) Mental Health First Aid that are excellent resources.

  • Recognize the importance of your own mental health maintenance for performance, and prioritise those self-care practices that buffer you from stress and challenges.

  • Whenever possible, advocate for the importance of mental health. Don’t let myths such as those that have been propagated in response to Naomi Osaka’s situation stand unchallenged

  • Adopt a holistic view of health that includes both mental and well as physical aspects

If you aren't sure what to do or how to do it, contact me. I can help. :) Let's all get behind Naomi Osaka’s efforts:

[My] stance is against the system requiring athletes to be forced to do press on occasions when they are suffering from [poor] mental health, Osaka wrote, via Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim. I believe it is archaic and in need of reform. After this tournament, I want to work with the Tours and governing bodies to figure out how we best compromise to change the system.

It’s about time.


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