Champion tennis player Naomi Osaka announced her decision last week, to withdraw from the French Open, rather than face the obligatory post-match press conferences. Having suffered from depression for almost three years, she was not willing to risk her mental well-being to the pressure-cooker environment of these press events, she explained. This incident has put the spotlight on a very serious issue in the sports industry: Mental health Sports teach us many important life lessons. From the outside, athletes seem tough, strong and confident. This pressure to be perfect can very often take a mental toll.
Even young athletes just starting out can feel a lot of pressure to perform both on the field and in school. According to a recent study, 1 in 5 teens suffers from clinical depression. If they aren’t the “champion athlete” or an all-A+ student, they start feeling inadequate.
With unreal expectations from themselves or their families and the increasing FoMo created by social media, anxiety and depression among young athletes has become increasingly alarming. As parents/ guardians it is not only important to identify the red flags early, and also to offer unconditional support.
While Naomi Osaka’s decision was openly supported by many of her fellow athletes, the journey towards a safer place for these athletes is a long one.
Here are a few lessons aspiring athletes can learn from Naomi Osaka’s French Open withdrawal:
1. Healthy Boundaries
There’s a lot more to self-care than just eating healthy and working out. Treating yourself with self-respect and being confident in your decision-making is also a form of self-care. It is important for athletes to maintain healthy boundaries when it comes to managing unrealistic expectations from their coaches, friends, families, social networks etc.
Healthy boundaries help young athletes better manage their actions and interactions with others without feeling overwhelmed, or burnt out.
2. Building A Support System
Mental health resources are extremely underutilized in the sports industry and the current approach to mental illness is fraught with stigmatisation. Because many athletes feel that they have to be tough and strong, acknowledging mental health issues could mean being perceived as “weak”.
Educating athletes about positive mental health habits, allows them to seek help when they feel emotionally fatigued. Parents should work on building a support system where their children feel safe to express their emotions, even when they do not understand it themselves. It is important to help young athletes understand and validate their emotions.
3. It’s Okay to Be Clueless
Athletes often feel pressured with the question, ‘What’s next?’ They are expected to have a vision for the future and work towards achieving it. This could feel extremely overwhelming. Not knowing the answer to the question can be frustrating and cause anxiety.
Remember, it is also okay to be clueless sometimes. Seeking help from a sports psychologist can help reduce the anxiety of not having all the answers.
4. Taking A Break
No matter how good a player is, or how much their team needs them, sometimes it is important to take time off. There is a lot of stress around taking time off too, but encouraging athletes to use the down-time to rest and recharge can help them create a whole new version of themselves.