Naomi Osaka Shows Us That Top Athletes Are Human, Too

Naomi Osaka puts mental health front and center:

Tennis phenomenon Naomi Osaka is the biggest name in sports these days, and it’s not just because of her prodigious talent.

According to an article on Mashable, when Ms. Osaka decided to skip a post-match press conference during the recent French Open Tournament, she was fined $15,000, despite the fact that she cited mental health reasons for opting out.

Ms. Osaka posted on Twitter that “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes [sic] mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one.”

In announcing her departure from the tournament, she shared that she had “suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.”

Osaka met with threats for her attempts at self-care:

The French Tennis Federation (FFT) was slammed as “hypocritical” for responding to Ms. Osaka’s withdrawal from the tournament with, “we remain very committed to all athletes’ well-being and to continually improving every aspect of players’ experience in our Tournament, including with the Media, like we have always strived to do.”

According to the article in Mashable, this was in “stark contrast to Sunday’s lengthy, justification-filled missive threatening Osaka’s career,” that included the following passage:

“We have advised Naomi Osaka that should she continue to ignore her media obligations during the tournament, she would be exposing herself to possible further Code of Conduct infringement consequences… and the trigger of a major offence investigation that could lead to more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions.” (my italics)

It appears that it was this response that led to Ms. Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the tournament completely.

In a year when a global pandemic has threatened the mental health of millions of people, and when the Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate movements are front and center, Ms. Osaka — who is both Black and Asian and a person who suffers from depression — was hit on every possible front.

In choosing not to attend the press conference, she was simply trying to engage in some basic self-care, which is a behaviour that I have repeatedly encouraged in my patients.

Osaka’s actions could very well save lives:

Sean Gregory, writing for Time.com, posted an article saying that Ms. Osaka’s actions will be life-saving to other athletes who have been suffering from mental health issues.

The article quoted Olympic champion, Michael Phelps, as saying that “I felt very happy after reading her message because she’s showing that vulnerability, she’s showing a side of her that we haven’t seen before, and that’s so powerful… It’s definitely going to be a game-changer in mental health moving forward.”

The Time article described how lately, athletes like Phelps have been trying to shed light on the problem of mental illness and have been more open about their personal struggles.

Gregory quoted therapist, Lisa Bonta Sumii, who found it “groundbreaking” that Ms Osaka “has prioritized her mental health. And has said so,” and Ms. Sumii called Osaka’s decision to speak out, “a great example.”

The problem, as I see it, is that the world has little compassion for elite athletes who suffer from mental health problems. The expectation is that mastery, wealth and fame should preclude anxiety or depression, but of course, this is far from the truth.

Michael Phelps struggled with depression:

Phelps, himself has dealt with severe depression and thoughts of suicide, even after winning his pile of gold medals. This is only one example of how mental illness can’t be staved off by external success. In fact, the pressures of being a sports celebrity could even increase one’s susceptibility to mental health issues.

In a recent New York Times article, Alan Blinder discussed how until very recently, it hasn’t been safe for athletes to come forward and discuss their mental health issues.

Blinder quoted Matthew Smith, a professor of health history at the University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow, who stated that, “historically, athletes have been reluctant to talk about their mental health, not least because it could be used against them.”

Ms. Osaka’s bravery in sharing her own mental health issues has the potential to help other athletes who are suffering. It can empower them to acknowledge, both to themselves and to the world, that they too are struggling.

Elite athletes are put on pedestals by their fans across the world. They’re seen as perfect physical specimens, impervious to the problems that we inferior beings might face. But in many ways, for all their seeming superiority, these athletes are often treated like objects by their trainers and sports organizations.

They’re often pushed to their limits and beyond, and always expected to perform at peak level despite injury, ill health, or psychological distress.

Athletes aren’t allowed to be vulnerable:

As a psychiatrist in practice for over twenty years, I find it terribly sad that these extremely hard-working athletes who sacrifice so much to perform so brilliantly are rarely permitted to have moments of fear, vulnerability or weakness.

I promote a philosophy “Ruthless Compassion.” The compassion piece enables us to acknowledge the truth about our struggles, while the ruthless piece empowers us to stand up for ourselves and take care of ourselves, even when others pressure us not to do so.

Top athletes are human, too. They might be more physically talented and they might be willing to work harder than many of us, but that doesn’t make them super-human.

As Naomi Osaka clearly demonstrated just the other day, they can sometimes be fragile, and these are the times when they most need our understanding and support.

Top athletes shouldn’t be condemned or punished for choosing to prioritize their mental well-being. In fact, this type of behaviour should be celebrated and emulated, both by athletes and by non-athletes, alike.

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Writer, speaker, MD, and author of the Short & Sweet Guides to Life book series