Naomi Osaka: Focus on Mental Health of Athletes

Naomi Osaka

BEVERLY HILLS, June 06, (THEWILL) – In the week that marked the start of the French Open, one significant discussion held sway and threatened to detract from the glamour of the clay court Grand Slam to the dismay of the organisers and governing bodies of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP).

It began on the eve of the competition when Japanese female tennis player, Naomi Osaka, made public her decision to skip press conferences at Roland Garros. The four-time Grand Slam winner shared this decision across social media platforms from her official accounts and made it clear that the reason was personal as she wanted to focus on her mental health, above all else.

She wrote, “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one. We’ve often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m not just going to subject myself to people that doubt me.”

The 23-year-old was not comfortable with the practice of athletes breaking down in front of the media after a loss and she believed the practice of requiring athletes to talk about their losses after a game was like “kicking a person while they’re down” which she wanted to avoid following a struggle she has had to endure in previous events, with adverse effects on her mental health.

Osaka’s very public honesty of her vulnerability and admission of her personal circumstances were greeted with mixed reactions. There were sportsmen and women who identified with her experience and empathetically praised her bravery while a few voices stressed how important the media was to the sport, without which there was no prize money and zero visibility.

Therefore, when last Sunday, after her opening match victory over Romanian Patricia Tig, Osaka stuck to her decision to skip the mandatory press conferences at Roland Garros, she was immediately slammed with a $15,000 fine and issued a formal warning that came as a joint statement from all four Slams. The Japanese was warned that she could face a default from the competition, as a whole, if she continued to shun her media obligations.

In fact, the Slams made it clear that Osaka risked yet stiffer repercussions if her boycott persisted any further: “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.

“As might be expected, repeat violations attract tougher sanctions including default from the tournament (Code of Conduct article III T.) and the trigger of a major offence investigation that could lead to more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions (Code of Conduct article IV A.3.).”

On Monday, the very next day, Osaka withdrew from the 2021 French Open and released a statement on her Twitter feed that explained her premature withdrawal to be based on the reasoning that she “never wanted to be a distraction” from the other players participating in the event and believed removing herself from the situation was the best for everyone and for the competition.

She posted: “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. I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer.

“More importantly I would never trivialise mental health or use the term lightly. 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.”

Although the initial tough stance of the Slams was softer in their reaction to Osaka’s withdrawal, what the bravery of the 23-year-old wrought was to return global attention to the very significant conversation that needs to be had around the high-pressured nature of competitive sports, the mental balance of the sportsmen and women who partake in them and their relationship with the media.

Mental health was not always a concern in the same way that physical health was prioritised by every aspect of the sporting world. Extra measures were put in place to regularise efficient management of the physical well-being of sportsmen and women but mental issues were relegated to the background until recent shifts in perspectives and Sports science began to cater for a more holistic view of the individuals engaged in professional sports.

For athletes fortunate enough to be in United States leagues, the attention to mental health has gone hands-on. In May 2019, the National Football League (NFL) and NFL Players Association ensured that each team hired a clinician focused on supporting players’ emotional health and well-being, who is available on-site for at least eight hours a week. Teams were also required to create a mental-health emergency action plan.

Basketball teams are required to have a plan for mental-health emergencies, and to make mental-health professionals available to players. The same applies in Major League Baseball and clubs have a mental-skills coach to help players with all mental aspects of the game, and an Employee Assistance Professional (EAP), a licensed clinician who helps players with on- or off-the-field issues.

If there was anything of the sort to help sportsmen and women in Nigeria, it could have made a difference in the life of a football legend like Rashidi Yekini. Although the exact medical details of the player in the time before his unfortunate demise are not available for scrutiny, the conventional media coverage blamed his death on a combination of mental and physical deterioration. An intentional monitoring of his mental health had the potential to sustain his productive years for longer.

He is but one example of the many athletes and patriots who have dedicated their youths to the high-pressure of competitive sports for the sake of representing themselves and the country without due regard for the mental balance only to suffer the consequences down the line and die off prematurely, alone and abandoned by the sports they participated in and the country they represented.

The global discussion that Osaka has engendered with her prioritisation of her mental health over the fines and threats, the media and conferences must bear fruit in the domestic front with a localisation of the issues at stake. The Federal Ministry of Sports and Youth Development ought to have a recognisable programme that addresses the unblemished mental health concerns of Nigerian athletes, whether subsumed directly under the Ministry or a restructured National Sports Commission.

The queries about the mental health conditions of athletes will not go away. If anything, Osaka’s bravery will give it enough Oxygen to sustain it in global discourse for the foreseeable future and, if others come forward with similar issues, there will be no dodging the need for a conversation about how important it is to competitive men and women sports. The best time to get a handle on it in Nigeria was long ago. Today is another chance. It must not be wasted again for the sake of the physical and mental balance of our sportsmen and women.