Naomi Osaka, world number two tennis player, is the latest in a long line of elite athletes to open up about their mental health struggles.
After dropping out of the French Open, Osaka indicated in a statement that her decision not to participate in press conferences during the tournament was to protect herself from the detrimental impact that facing media scrutiny had on her mental health.
Unsurprisingly, her decision has led to significant public debate, seeing criticism and support in equal measure. But many have seen her decision as a reminder of the unfair treatment elite athletes face – especially regarding their mental health – and the changes needed to protect more athletes moving forward.
In many elite sports, athletes are obligated to speak to the media following a game or match, or else they may be fined. In Osaka’s case, her decision not to speak to media after her win at Roland Garros resulted in a US$15,000 fine (about £10,500) – ultimately sparking her decision to leave the tournament.
But many don’t think about how difficult it is to face the press after a performance. Imagine feeling hopeless, emotionally and physically drained, but having to hold it together to answer questions about the minutiae of your performance, knowing it will be watched by millions.
Speaking to the press is just one of the many pressures elite athletes face in their work. Once at the elite level, new demands emerge such as chasing team selection, securing and maintaining funding, sustaining performance and developing appropriate support networks to help you rise and stay at the top.
Given many elite sports organisations are driven by profit, the pressure to succeed is enormous – meaning developing good mental health and wellbeing aren’t prioritised for athletes. This is known as the “sport ethic”, a culturally-reinforced perception that athletes should sacrifice for their sport, seek distinction, take risks and challenge limits.
Osaka’s experience also highlights the performance narrative of elite sport – meaning an athlete’s only job is winning. If they embody this narrative, athletes may be at risk of developing identities solely based on athletic success. So when things happen that don’t fit this narrative (such as an injury, or retiring), athletes may feel lost or worthless.
Elite sport also applauds physical and mental strength. Athletes are expected to be able to cope with the pressures of elite sport and carry on regardless of how they may feel. Osaka’s decision to remove herself from the tournament for mental health reasons doesn’t conform with what many think an ideal athlete is.
An athlete’s skill is still often measured by how mentally tough they are when faced with adversity, alongside their resilience. The public also enjoy stories of athletes on the edge who expose their emotions in both elation and despair. It’s part of the entertainment sports consumers demand, demonstrating the all-consuming love that an athlete has for their sport.
Many people assume successful athletes like Osaka must possess a super-human ability to deal with not only the pressure of elite sports, but with the press and media attention that comes alongside it. But this emphasis on mental toughness and performance is often at odds with an athlete’s mental health and wellbeing.
While much would have to change for the industry to be wholly nourishing of an athlete’s mental health, there are still things that can be done to better support athlete mental health, including:
Loosening press conference regulations
We know media scrutiny can negatively affect athlete mental health. For example, last year ex-cricketer Freddie Flintoff opened up about how media fat shaming led him to develop an eating disorder.
Is it really essential players engage in intense press interviews within 30 minutes of a match? Allowing athletes more time to reflect on their performances and know what types of questions journalists may wish to ask can allow athletes more control over this element of their career.
Athletes should also be offered support during particularly vulnerable points in their careers, such as a licensed sport or clinical psychologist before and after press obligations.
Listen to athletes
Life comes with stress and pressure, but this is intensified when these pressures are played out in full view of the world. Accept that athletes may struggle, listen to them and try to help them in a way that suits their unique experiences and personality. This should be an essential concern for all those involved in a sports organisation.
Prioritise the person over the athlete
People have strengths and weaknesses, emotions and baggage. As such, it is important we don’t see athletes as mere commodities or even superheroes. Doing so is bound to perpetuate unrealistic expectations, leading to mental health problems.
It is also important to recognise that Osaka is only 23 – so she may not yet have developed a method for dealing with media pressures that more experienced players may have. While rigorous media and PR training may allow her to develop better coping mechanisms, it is still important to recognise that Osaka – and all elite athletes – need an opportunity to vent and deal with their emotions.
Too many times we have seen athletes disregard their mental wellbeing in the name of upholding the character we’re told sports fans want to see. And in some cases, the pressure of this has ended in tragedy. It’s hoped that the discussions Osaka has inspired will lead to greater awareness of the importance of nurturing mental health in elite sport.
The article was originally published on The Conversation on 4 June, 2021.
Andrea Scott-Bell, Senior Lecturer Sociology of Sport/Sport Development, Northumbria University, Newcastle
Isobelle Kennedy, PhD Researcher, Northumbria University, Newcastle
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