Naomi Osaka brings mental health to the forefront!

By Constantinos Massonos, APC Sports Consulting, Nicosia, Cyprus

Winner of 28 Olympic medals, swimmer Michael Phelps is one of a number of star athletes who has publicly discussed in recent years his struggle with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

NBA star basketball player, DeMar DeRozan, has also talked about the importance of addressing mental health issues, as all athletes are first of all humans.

Gymnast Aly Raisman has described her efforts to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder after being the victim of sexual abuse.

The message, however, was more strongly conveyed when tennis player Naomi Osaka, the highest-paid female athlete in the world, who earned US$55.2 million over the last twelve months, decided it was better for her mental health to withdraw from the 2021 French Open. Osaka released a statement, before entering the competition, announcing her intention not to give any post-match media interviews during Roland Garros, because of the effects of her interactions with the press on her mental health. Despite her statement, the organizers fined her US$15,000 because of her refusal, which was in breach of the rules of participation in the competition.

This was the first time a professional tennis star of the calibre of Naomi Osaka, withdrew in the middle of an event as major as the French Open, without suffering any physical injury. In her withdrawal statement, Osaka revealed that she has suffered from “long bouts of depression” since the 2018 US Open final, where she not only faced Serena Williams, but also an energetic crowd which was clearly supporting her opponent.

Naomi Osaka also withdrew from the 2021 Wimbledon Tennis Championships “in order to spend more time with friends and family”.

Naomi Osaka’s stance and statement show that wealthy and successful individuals are not immune to mental health struggles. Mental health is a real thing that also exists in the realm of athletics and steps need to be taken by sports stakeholders, in order to create a positive environment in which all athletes will be able to get help when facing mental health issues.

All athletes face a number of stressors and their well-being and mental health is impacted by their situation – both on and off the field.  Athletes are treated as sport performers, whose on-field athletic performances can be enhanced by following an appropriate physical and mental training regime. Athletes are rarely treated as who they fundamentally are: human beings whose well-being relies on their holistic health, physical, mental and social.

Human engagement in sport, professional or not, can positively contribute to all aspects of holistic health and can boost a person’s well-being and much ink has been spilled to describe the numerous benefits that derive from participation in sports.

But can engagement in sports also sometimes detract from the development of a person’s well-being? Maybe not so much at an amateur level, but professional athletes are more prone to face situations that could prove harmful: injuries and overtraining negatively affect their physical health, while pressures and expectations can bring them to the verge of a mental burnout. Abuse and harassment, both in real life and online, can lead them to develop psychological symptoms and disorders.

These negative aspects of participation in elite sport are usually downplayed by the mass media and fans, who prefer to focus on athletes’ luxurious lifestyles. But sport has always had the power to drive important issues to the spotlight. A number of voices, coming directly from high-status athletes, who choose to disclose their struggles with mental issues and the power of social media to amplify their messages, has forced not only the sports community, but also the public at large, to acknowledge that participation in sport can also contribute to illness. 

Following the recent Naomi Osaka affair, the mental health of athletes has been brought to the forefront, together with the need for a holistic approach towards the well-being of athletes.  The mental pressure that comes with competing at a high level is a reality in the lives of elite athletes and supporting them to manage this pressure is the responsibility of all sports’ stakeholders.

For more information on athletes’ mental health and how it can be managed, log onto ‘www.apc-sport.com’.