Tennis Pro Naomi Osaka Elevates the Conversation on Athletes and Mental Health

Tennis Pro Naomi Osaka Elevates the Conversation on Athletes and Mental Health

June 10, 20212 min read

Though Naomi Osaka's announcement of her dropping out of the French Open and German Open tournaments came as a surprise to many of her followers, there has been plenty of support from fans and corporations for the 23-year-old tennis pro who chose to take time off because of mental health concerns.

One company, the Calm App, offered to pay fines for tennis players skipping press briefings. And Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton—who, when he was 22 years old, found it difficult to deal with media commitments—offered encouragement to Osaka. "When you’re young and you're thrown into the limelight, it weighs heavily, and most of us are not prepared," Hamilton told The New York Times.

Guy Weissinger, PhD, an assistant professor in Villanova's M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing whose research focuses on mental health, says, "Elite athletes are people. They have mental health struggles—good days and bad days—and it's important that we recognize that mental health is complicated, not just 'doing well' or 'not doing well.'  One may be capable of doing one thing (i.e., playing tennis) but not other things (i.e., being peppered by reporters with questions). It saddens me that she needed to withdraw from the tournament rather than the tournament organizers reaching out to find ways to accommodate her mental health needs."

He noted that the 23-year-old Osaka is an amazing athlete who rose to global prominence beating Serena Williams in a match that got a lot of negative attention. "While no one was saying that she did not deserve her victory, the conversation was mostly focused on Serena, and Osaka was a teenager caught in a media firestorm. I could see how that would create a high level of baseline anxiety around the Opens and media interactions for her, in addition to the already stressful situation of participating at that elite level of sports. Combine that with the high level of stress that everyone has been experiencing over the last year and a half, with COVID, I'm surprised that she isn't the only person who has said that they would be unable to do media appearances."

He says this is a great opportunity for discussion of mental health and how it's a concern for everybody. "Too often, we think of people that are successful as being immune to mental health struggles, but we have to acknowledge that people can be both successful and struggling. Sometimes they will be able to manage (as Naomi has in many circumstances), but sometimes even their best coping mechanisms are not enough."

Weissinger hopes that we can find ways for people to 'tap out' of the things that overwhelm their ability to cope. "It's not fair or ethical to only wait until people are not just struggling but completely drowning before trying to support or accommodate them. Like with physical health, prevention before things get bad is better for everyone than trying to fix things when they get really bad."

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