We got used to expecting from athletes what we cannot expect from ourselves. Strength, intelligence, resilience, tremendous endurance and nerves of steel are the qualities we want to ascribe to all successful athletes. And that is what inspires us and fuels our drive not to give up. The thing is that in sports, as in any other field, mental health has often been sidelined. Now we see how ignorance of athletes’ mental health is changing the agenda.
Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka, one of the best tennis female players globally, four-time Grand Slam singles champion and reigning champion at the US Open and the Australian Open, gave up the opportunity to win another Grand Slam this year while competing at the French Open in May 2021. She boycotted press conferences, saying that she wanted to preserve her mental health, which eventually led to her withdrawing from the prestigious tournament.
Four-time Olympic gold medalist, Simone Biles, often labelled as the best gymnast in the world, pulled out from the USA gymnastic team and individual events during the Olympic Games hosted in Tokyo in 2021 for similar reasons.
While this feels unprecedented, and plenty of critics have accused Simone and Naomi of lack of sportsmanship, selfishness and victim complex, there are previous examples of several high performing individuals prioritising their emotional well being.
Does Michael Jordan ring a bell? He was kind of a big deal. To most people, he is the greatest ever basketball player, and to the youngest one, he is a brand icon that keeps selling shoes and sporting goods at the pace of 4.7 billion dollars a year. Back in the 90s, before we had a collective name for mental health awareness, Jordan also decided to retire from the NBA after his father was murdered, leading to a loss of ability to focus on his professional obligations.
Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka Speak Up About Stress
Answering her fan’s question on her Instagram, Simone explained her decision. Suddenly, she’s started having” twisties”, which means she lost her sense of space and dimension, causing her to land flat on her back. “It’s honestly petrifying trying to do a skill but not having your mind [and] body in sync. Literally cannot tell up from down. It’s the craziest feeling ever, not having an inch of control over your body.”
After the gymnastics team all around, Simone admitted that she could not stand the pressure: “Physically, I feel good. Emotionally, it varies on the time and moment. Coming to the Olympics and being head star isn’t an easy feat.”
As Biles said, her decision to pull out was paved by Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from French Open early in the year. In May, two days before the tournament’s start, Naomi Osaka refused to participate in the post-match press conferences citing mental health concerns. According to the athletes’ contracts, communication with the media immediately after matches is mandatory at Grand Slam tournaments. Naomi refused to speak to reporters, declaring post-match interviews were akin to “kicking people when they’re down” and was also heftily fined for not engaging with the press.
Reactions from several people were simply shameful. Many of them had solid financial interests in her continuity in the tournament and even in the press conferences. She was often humiliated and quickly became the most talked-about topic.
The tennis player later announced her stance on Instagram: “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.”
Osaka revealed that she has been suffering from depression since 2018, since the US Open final when she defeated Serena Williams. Naomi admitted that it is challenging for her to talk with the press. “I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can”, she said.
On May 30, the French Tennis Federation announced that Osaka was fined $15,000. The Grand Slam committee issued a joint statement warning that she would expose herself to more significant consequences if further infringements, including future suspensions.
The tennis player received a barrage of criticism from the media. As some of her opponents put it, she violated generally accepted rules — while other athletes have to agree to abide by them — and was claimed to be an entitled sportswoman with no respect for fellow players and fans.
Some of the fellows supported Naomi, including her rival Serena Williams, who said she would give a hug to Naomi: “You just have to let her handle it the way she wants to, in the best way she thinks she can, and that’s the only thing I can say. I think she’s doing the best she can.” Many of Naomi’s sponsors stood in solidarity with her; Nike, Tag Heuer, MasterCard and Nissan supported the champion not only in times of triumph but also through emotional setbacks.
Why We Should Pay Attention to Athletes’ Mental Health
The Biles’ and Osaka’s cases are not unique. According to the non-profit Athletes for Hope, 35% of elite athletes suffer from mental problems that manifest themselves in anxiety, insomnia, burnout, eating disorders and panic attacks.
In elite sport, mental health affects not only athletic performance but also the quality of life. During important competitions, athletes experience intense physical and psychological stress. They must perform well under the scrutiny of millions of spectators around the world. Any mistake or breakdown is perceived as weakness and a lack of competitive spirit. Even a victory causes a strong emotional shock, followed by frequent bouts of apathy, feelings of emptiness, self-doubt, thoughts of quitting a sport.
Athletes keep a tight schedule. They deny themselves simple pleasures that we take for granted. Their basic needs such as belonging and love needs, esteem, communication with family and friends are regulated by strictly routines. They pay a high price for their success, having to undergo chronic stress. Female athletes such as Biles and Osaka have opposed a shared ethos of seeing athletes as superhumans instil optimism that mental health issues will receive a fair share of attention. Sport is not a competition between robots but people. We see ankle sprains and dislocations, but we forget that those are not the only injuries that happen. Outwardly, an athlete with a major depressive disorder is no different from an athlete without one.
Someone would object that emotional regulation is an indicator of great sportsmanship, and therefore becomes a part of the competition. However, a poor mental state can be a severe obstacle to performance. An unstable psychological condition is fraught with physical risks which can pose a threat to life. If an athlete feels that an exercise poses a danger to their health, it’s their right to opt out of the competition. They might decide to decline to speak with the press when they are not ready for another round of verbal onslaught because they have just literally given it everything physically and mentally. Opting out should not be perceived as a betrayal of the country or a whim and should be treated equally as an absence from a physical injury.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been spearheading the debate on mental health for several years. In 2018, the IOC Medical and Scientific Commission established a Consensus Group of 20 experts, including leading psychiatrists, psychologists, athlete representatives and sports medicine professionals. In May 2019, a Consensus Paper was published targeting mental health and performance professionals who work with elite athletes.
A survey by IOC in May 2020 found that taking care of mental health and nutrition, and diet were the biggest challenges faced by athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
These events’ transcendency has led many to label recent events as the beginning of a new era in mental health awareness. Simone and Naomi wanted to compete and have the chance to win more than anyone else, so they understood the implications to do so and took informed decisions. While they could not win in the courts this time, their victory outside the court field might have a broader impact in the years to come, as people’s stigma to mental health keeps eroding. And for that, they should be applauded.
Article by Lydia Zhigmitova