How Naomi Osaka is Changing the Way We See Mental Health In Sports

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Photo courtesy of aljazeera.com

Just days ago, Naomi Osaka shocked the tennis world with her sudden withdrawal from the French Open in an effort to protect her mental health and take care of herself. 

She is the highest-paid female athlete, one of the top-seeded professional tennis players, extremely talented, and arguably one of the most exciting women on the tour. Yet, despite all signs pointing to someone on top of her game (literally and figuratively), Naomi struggled beneath the surface. 

Her mental health was suffering despite success on the court, and in that moment of courage, she decided to take off her mask and do whatever was necessary to stand up for her mental health. It’s a move that shook competitors, sponsors, fellow athletes, and fans to their core — and a move that many are applauding as a necessary catalyst in the conversation about mental health and professional athletes.

Giving Visibility to a Global Problem

Naomi Osaka is not the first professional athlete to battle mental health issues. Unfortunately, she will also not be the last. In fact, research shows that among professional athletes, “up to 35% of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis which may manifest as stress, eating disorders, burnout, or depression and anxiety.” 

Considering the competitive pressure, public scrutiny, intense training schedules, and hardcore physical toll, it should be no surprise that professional athletes endure a lot. 

So, while Naomi might not be alone in this, she is, however, one of a small handful of pro sports stars in recent history to speak out on the subject and to remove herself from a competitive environment that posed a risk to her mental health. 

After announcing that she would not be participating in a post-match press conference during the French Open just the other week, Osaka was fined $15,000 for sitting out on her first press event. She was also warned that should she continue to miss any other press or media events at this tournament or any other Grand Slam event, she would continue to be fined or be subjected to harsher punishment, including disqualification or suspension from the tournament. In response, after making it through the first round of the tournament in a straight-set victory, Osaka withdrew from the tournament, posting a statement on her social media pages. 

“I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players, and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris,” she said. 

She confessed to suffering from mental health issues for years. “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018, and I have had a really hard time coping with that. Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety,” she explained. As it turns out, speaking with the press, even when the press was being kind, caused Osaka to experience “huge waves of anxiety.” 

In an effort to practice self-care, Naomi decided it was best to first avoid exposure to the media, and ultimately, she decided to step away from the court. “But when the time is right,” she said, “I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press, and fans.”

The Athlete Community Comes Out in Support

It was a raw, honest announcement that caused shock for many, but more importantly, garnered a huge amount of praise and support from fans, sponsors, and fellow athletes. 

Serena Williams offered praise for her brave decision to expose her struggles and take care of her health, above all else. She noted that she has been in that situation before and that “you just have to let her handle it the way she wants to, in the best way she thinks she can…I think she’s doing the best she can.” 

Kyrie Irving called her a queen and reminded her to “just Be You. That will always be enough.” Tennis star Sloane Stephens said, “we’re behind you, babygirl, take the time you need!” NBA superstar DeMar DeRozan offered support after admitting to his own struggles with depression and anxiety back in 2018. “It’s one of them things that no matter how indestructible we look like we are, we’re all human at the end of the day,” DeRozan said. “We all got feelings…all of that. Sometimes… It gets the best of you, where times everything in the whole world’s on top of you,” he said in an interview for the Toronto Star. 

The vast majority of those responses from celebrities, influencers, and fans was positive, and it can be argued that the more important outcome of her temporary departure from the court is that the world is now engaging in a meaningful conversation about professional athletes and their mental health. 

After all, why was it such a shock for a professional athlete to admit suffering? Why should pro athletes (or celebrities or public figures) have to hide their internal struggles?

However, it was not only her colleagues who offered support to Osaka. Sweetgreen, the company with which the athlete had collaborated as an ambassador, was among the few to maintain its support and contract after Osaka’s exit from the tournament.

“Our partnership with Naomi Osaka is rooted in wellness in all its forms,” Sweetgreen tweeted earlier this week, the same day Osaka left the Open. “We support her in furthering the conversation around mental health and are proud to have her part of the Sweetgreen team.”

Breaking the Paradigm 

Osaka’s admission and very public battle just might lead to not only the tennis star receiving help but professional athletes and future generations of athletes feeling like they can be honest with their own mental health issues. Down the road, sports stars can prioritize their well-being without damaging their success as an athlete. This kind of progress and this open discussion is long overdue. 

Just six years ago, Michael Phelps — the most decorated Olympian of all time — entered treatment for depression, addiction, and other mental health issues. He has been very vocal about his struggles and the struggles experienced by so many professional athletes and Olympians. He even produced and narrated an HBO documentary, “The Weight of Gold,” to start a conversation about the anxiety and depression so many Olympians deal with. He now is on a mission to teach future generations that it’s okay to not be okay and reminding kids to be kind to themselves. “Treat yourselves like a good friend,” he said at a Boys & Girls Clubs event. 

“The thing is — and people who live with mental health issues all know this — it never goes away. You have good days and bad. But there’s never a finish line,” he told ESPN. “But here’s the reality: I won’t ever be “cured.” This will never go away. It’s something where I’ve had to accept it, learn to deal with it, and make it a priority in my life.” 

So, where does that leave Naomi Osaka and other professional athletes who are currently struggling with their mental health? 

It seems the solution is not simple, and it’s not an overnight fix. The answer here will most likely not be found before the French Open wraps. It involves work from individuals and organizations at all levels of the game. 

First, athletes themselves need to protect their mental health and prioritize their own well-being. Just as they work hard to train physically and stay in top shape to perform well on the court/field/track, these athletes also need to exercise their mental muscles and work to protect their emotional health. At the same time, we as a society must destigmatize mental health treatment in sports at all levels for student-athletes and professional athletes alike. 

In Psychology Today, Jonathan Stevens, M.D., M.P.H., suggests that “if idolized professional athletes receive a less-than-positive response after engaging in mental health treatment, other athletes (or non-athletes) in need of care may fear being judged if they seek their own treatment.”

Coaches, trainers, teams, and fellow athletes all need to be educated on what mental health problems really are like, how they can be triggered, how they can be treated, and how debilitating mental health issues can be for athletes or anyone struggling internally. 

In addition, resources, opportunities, and support must be available from the top where professional sports are concerned. Athletes need to know they have access to the tools and treatments they need to be the healthiest, best versions of themselves, including their mental health. 

As players do receive treatment, they need to recognize that as role models, their ability to overcome mental health struggles can and will inspire others. After all, we’re all human, and if professional athletes are able to be open and honest about the obstacles they overcome, personally and competitively, then hopefully, other people who are in need of help and future generations of athletes will follow in their footsteps.  

Naomi Osaka’s exit from the French Open is certainly a loss for tennis fans around the world — the No. 2 singles player in the world is undeniably one of the most exciting players to watch. But there is hope for a bigger win than a Grand Slam trophy. 

Hopefully, Osaka’s step off the court and temporary break from the spotlight will encourage conversation, increase empathy, and drive acceptance for people struggling with mental health illnesses. Because only when mental illness is normalized will people be able to get the help they need and deserve. In that regard, Naomi Osaka’s recent announcement will serve a greater good as she dared to stand up for her mental health, and hopefully, her brave choice will cause a ripple effect of positivity for years to come.