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Naomi Osaka's mental health a watershed moment for athletes

Tennis - French Open - Roland Garros, Paris, France - May 30, 2021 Japan's Naomi Osaka in action during her first round match against Romania's Patricia Maria Tig REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Tennis - French Open - Roland Garros, Paris, France - May 30, 2021 Japan's Naomi Osaka in action during her first round match against Romania's Patricia Maria Tig REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Published Jun 6, 2021


REGARDLESS of where you stand on the Naomi Osaka issue, her withdrawal from the French Open tennis tournament this week, because she dislikes being interviewed, highlighted the fact sports heroes also face mental health challenges. At least, that is what the experts say.

Some people believe that, thanks to Osaka revealing the issues that plague her mind, other sports stars might be encouraged to speak about their own mental-health challenges instead of suffering in silence.

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Ranked world number 2 by the Women’s Tennis Association, Osaka pulled out of the grand slam event on Monday after refusing to do a mandatory media interview.

It was supposed to happen after her first round win in the competition on Sunday.

Osaka’s non-compliance landed her a R210 000 fine and she responded by withdrawing from the tournament.

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Before the event, Osaka stated she would not do interviews as she wanted to preserve her mental health. The organisers duly threatened censure to Osaka, who is the highest earning female athlete of 2020 with R470 million.

Osaka said she had been suffering with long bouts of depression since the 2018 US Open and has struggled to cope since.

In a recent tweet, she admitted to being introverted and saying that she wore headphones at tournaments to act as a buffer from her social anxiety issues.

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Although she won the 2018 US Open final - her first of four grand slam title wins - Osaka was booed by fans during the prize giving ceremony. At the event, fans had sided with her opponent, Serena Williams, who argued with the umpire over a call he made during the match.

Osaka announced on Monday that it was best for her to withdraw so that the focus would shift back to tennis at Roland Garros in Paris.

“I never wanted to become a distraction and admit my timing was not ideal… More importantly, I would never trivialise mental health or use the term lightly.

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“I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media,” Osaka said in her tweet.

Toni Gaddie, a Joburg-based clinical and sports psychologist and founder of the Champion Sports Academy, said Osaka’s reaction was a watershed moment.

“Sports people have the tendency to look like they have it all together. They are successful, they get to put on the game face and show they are in control, even when they are doubting.”

Gaddie said that usually, the challenges of super-fit athletes only emerge later, but when someone like Osaka publicly admits her off-the-court struggles, other athletes, too, will face up to their mental health challenges.

She went on to say that in order to be a success at a professional level, sports stars are required to work on their weaknesses off the field.

“She (Osaka) definitely needs to invest in her mental strength. Maybe she is already working with a sports psychologist.

“Being successful and having just won the Laureus Sportswoman of the year award, Osaka will be inundated with lots of responsibility and being in the spotlight constantly.

“That takes skill in itself, which needs to be learnt and supported by a professional person.

“The positive thing about this is that she spoke about self-care. Perhaps now she will do something about it and return with the fortitude to deal with the media off the court and express her potential even more on the court,” she said.

Gaddie found that when she worked with athletes they usually achieved brilliantly on the field.

“Osaka might have underestimated the need to deal with personal stuff off the court. Perhaps, if she worked through what happened in 2018, she would not have found herself in the position that she was in,” Gaddie suggested.

Rakhi Beekrum, a Durban-based counselling psychologist, also admired Osaka for speaking out and said it was a “myth” that successful people are never depressed or anxious.

“Osaka should be an example to young and old alike to take mental health seriously,” she said.

Beekrum said athletes work hard behind the scenes to achieve success, but “social anxiety could lead someone to doubt themselves even in the midst of their success”.

“Mental health challenges such as depression and social anxiety have strong cognitive components - with irrational thoughts being common,” she said.

Beekrum said examples of such cognitive distortions might be someone paying more attention to the negative aspects of a situation than the positives, attributing success to external factors like being lucky instead of saying, ’I earned this’, or internalising negative comments that were untrue.

“With the necessary intervention and application of skills from therapy, one is able to make progress and compete again - if that is what they wish to do,” said Beekrum.

Kevin Curren, a former tennis professional who enjoyed much success on the men’s circuit during the 1980’s, said he was cognisant of why Osaka withdrew, but believes it was handled “very poorly and it backfired on her”.

“She was very naive to think the tournament would change the rules just for her. It puts the organisers in a difficult position by forcing them to respond. Players have to abide by the rules and it must be applied fairly to everyone.

“I think she received really bad advice from her management. If she had lingering issues, they should have been dealt with privately and not in a prominent global media space,” he said.

Curren suggested that Osaka should have said she needed to take six months off, and have used that time to deal with her issues, whatever they were.

“One must understand in professional sport, where you earn big money, it comes with certain protocols.

“Media is part of it. It helps the sport to grow, attract commercial sponsorship and that’s how players earn endorsements.

“It is part and parcel of your job at the top levels,” he said.

Disappointing for Curren was that the French Open as well as other major championships heads did try to engage with her about her problems, and find a solution, in advance of the event.

“It wasn't like it was left after the fact and she declined to have any dialogue with them. She obviously took a stance.”

Curren said athletes know when they are doing well, they have to give up part of their private life and that “a part of the responsibility is to give insight into who you are”.

“That responsibility has always been there with all the players before her. To grow the sport and make it attractive, is to uphold the role model image when you are a leader. Players like Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Serena Williams, Chris-Evert Lloyd and Billie Jean King have all been great ambassadors who added great value to growing the sport.”

He accepted that everyone had different coping mechanisms and feelings about engaging the media, but added, “I don't think it is an extraordinary task. One learns to deal with it. Its part and parcel of being paid an immense amount of money”.

Kevin Curren was comfortable with firing back responses to the media in his playing days

KEVIN Curren had numerous successes during his 14 years of playing tennis professionally, including winning various A-listed titles.

He is best remembered for reaching the final of the 1985 Wimbledon tournament, having beaten Stefan Edberg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors along the way.

Boris Becker won the match in four sets and at age 17 became the youngest grand slam winner at the time.

Curren recalled the media hype that built around Becker after he won the Queen’s tournament, which is also played on grass and a well-known warm-up event to Wimbledon.

“He (Becker) was the new kid on the block and became a media darling because of his court presence, unique style and he was charismatic.”

“The majority of the crowd was behind him. I was 27, he was 17. I accepted what I was up against.

“We are all individuals and we all deal with things differently. It didn’t affect me badly. My focus was on winning the match.”

Shaun Pollock

Former Proteas captain Shaun Pollock is part of the ICC Cricket Committee. Photo: Mike Hutchings, Reuters

Former Proteas cricket team captain Shaun Pollock understands the challenges 23-year-old Naomi Osaka faced, more so that she plays as an individual.

“When you are part of a team, the captain or the person who did well in the match attends the press conference afterwards, but when the team doesn’t perform the captain usually takes the responsibility, but she’s (Osaka) on her own.”

Pollock agrees that press conferences can be intimidating especially for the young and inexperienced players who have to sometimes face senior people asking difficult questions.

“I also understand that people have to come up with different angles for stories. So, it influences the questions they have to think up.

“But people like Rafa Nadal said he wouldn't be as popular if it hadn't been for the media, and guys like Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer are old hat at handling the media.

“I won’t mention names but there were guys in my days who were afraid of facing the media. They always asked if they could avoid having to go,” he said.

Pollock said Osaka was one of the best players, and hoped common ground could be reached.

“I'm sure the authorities were concerned about setting a precedent.

“But mental health is not something tangible that you can place a cast or a bandage on. It is a difficult one to understand, especially the battle the individual is fighting, which might not resonate with the people asking the questions in the press conference,” he said.

Pollock said social media also placed players under mental pressure because once a match is over people can tell you directly what they thought about your performance.

“Joe Soap, who has never played sports or even got off the couch, can sit there and have an opinion in a very public space.”

Benni McCarthy

980228Benni McCarthy on the ball during the 1998 Afcon Final in Burkina Faso ©Pic: Gavin Barker/Touchline Photo

BENNI McCarthy is easily regarded as one of the finest footballers the country has ever produced, and has played in some of the top football leagues in the world.

His highest accolade was winning the UEFA Champions League in the 2003/04 season with Portuguese side Porto and is still Bafana Bafana’s all-time leading goalscorer with 31 goals.

These days as the coach of PSL team AmaZulu, McCarthy has steered them to a place in next season’s African Champions League competition, a first for the club.

McCarthy said in the occupation he chose, “pressure was a privilege”.

“To succeed I need pressure, I need brilliant opponents to bring out the best in me.

“It works for me, but maybe not for others,” he said.

McCarthy explained that everyone is different and dealt with their demons in different ways.

“You can be an unbelievable athlete, but if you have mental health issues, no matter how brilliant you are, those demons will haunt you.

“If you are in the spotlight because you are brilliant at something, you will have to deal with the attention,” he said.

McCarthy said when he does something, he wants to do the best, and be the best.

“I work extremely hard with my technical team to ensure we get the best out of everyone. That’s how we cope with the pressure.”

In his playing days, McCarthy said he always had a routine of doing the same things each time, which included keeping calm, focused and enjoying the moment and experience, instead of letting it get the better of him.

McCarthy regards Osaka as one of the most incredible players presently.

“It is a tough world out there. If athletes aren't well prepared, the media world can swallow you alive. It is a shame what has happened because it deprives the world of one of the best tennis prospects.”

Mark Andrews

Mark Andrews, a former Sharks and Springbok rugby forward

STANDING more than two metres tall, Mark Andrews was a mountain of a rugby player, ideally suited for his favoured lock position. As a part of the winning 1995 Springbok rugby team that beat the All Blacks in the final, Andrews played as the 8th man in the semi-final and final.

Andrews said he had many high intensity moments to handle during his playing days, which includes more than 160 games for the Sharks.

One such moment came in the 1995 World Cup final.

“We had a line-out, two metres from our tryline. In those days, you took a line-out exactly where the ball went out.

“They put Ian Jones against me. I had to get the ball.

“I didn’t get it very successfully. I half tapped it to Joost van der Westhuizen and Joel Stransky, and we scrambled out of it.’

Andrews said if he stopped and thought about the pressure of missing the line-out and the All Blacks scoring a try, his team would have lost because of him.

“In high pressure situations you go into auto-pilot. If you overthink and analyse it, you will only get yourself in a knot,” he said.

Similarly, Andrews believes if players over thought public perception, it could become daunting.

“I was given some great advice early on in my life. If you don't like bad publicity, don't read the good stuff either. It is what I tried to do. My coach and I were the only ones to judge my performance,” he said.

Andrews said the big difference between people like him playing team sport and Naomi Osaka was that he had his team mates to rely on.

“It is a shared experience when you have been through trauma as a team, and easier to talk to people who have been through the same experience, they will rally around you.

“For individuals like golfers and tennis players, when you start taking media and social media flak, who do you reach out to?

“You have your management team. But they can't really relate to it because often they haven't gone through the same thing,” Andrews said.


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