Naomi Osaka highlights performing well doesn't necessarily indicate mental health

Naomi Osaka highlights performing well doesn't necessarily indicate mental health
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When Naomi Osaka stunned the sports world by refusing to participate in press conferences citing concerns about her mental health, controversy ensued.

Some supported her courage and vulnerability in being open about her long-term mental health struggles and for taking a stand against the rules in order to protect herself. Others commented on how media appearances are part of her contract, and one shouldn’t shirk these job responsibilities or be granted exceptions in order for equity to be maintained amongst all competitors. Supposedly, all players should be exposed to additional stress, inquisition and scrutiny by the media — so, therefore, no one has an unfair advantage.   

Initially, the French Open posted a derisive tweet which they quickly deleted and issued a statement  threatening fines and expulsion for missing media obligations. Then on Tuesday, along with the heads of Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australia Open, reversed course and issued a strong statement in support of Osaka’s mental health, as well as a pledge to provide more support for players.

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It is jarring that the initial response of tournament officials was to uphold these rules and regulations with disregard to her mental health. The response is also surprising given that there has been a wave of organizations and professional leagues openly encouraging athletes who share their struggles with mental health.

Additionally, the creation and hiring of recent positions within professional organizations demonstrates a shift in dedication to prioritizing mental well-being and creating a culture in which being open and vulnerable is more the norm.

For many athletes, revealing mental illness is synonymous with showing weakness. Asking for help and admitting that one cannot push through and do it all on one’s own is arguably the hardest step to take in the healing process. We can only hope that when one chooses to do so they have accessibility to services and receive the same support from those profiting from their success.

Unfortunately, mental health resources for athletes still pale in comparison to the various other forms of support they receive in order to facilitate optimal performance. Athletes have routine access to sport dietitians, strength and conditioning coaches, massage therapists, physical therapists and athletic trainers. In collegiate sport, top strength and conditioning coaches have an annual salary ranging from $400,000 to upwards of $800,000.  Comparatively, advertisements for a licensed mental health professional within athletics list an annual salary range of $68,700 to $114,500. 

What message does this send other than physical health and performance is valued well above one’s mental health and mental performance? While many coaches, administrators and league managers will say that the mind plays a critical role in performance, when it comes to psychological well-being there are not only relatively fewer resources available for athletes, but relatively less emphasis placed on how to create a culture of care that addresses the complexity of mental health for a high-level athlete.   

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As Kevin Love an NBA star who has been very open about his panic attacks and anxiety stated, “In the NBA, you have trained professionals to fine-tune your life in so many areas. Coaches, trainers, nutritionists have had a presence in my life for years. But none of those people could help me in the way I needed when I was lying on the floor struggling to breathe.”   

Naomi Osaka, Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan, Michael Phelps, Abby Wombach, Rhonda Rousey and Brandon Marshall — the list of athletes speaking up about their mental health continues to grow. Destigmatizing mental health is a buzz term. What is important to remember if we really want to move this cause forward is that there is still a resounding presumption of health with good performance.

Just because someone is successful and performing well does not necessarily mean they are mentally healthy. To solely focus on performance as a barometer of health neglects athletes as human beings and minimizes the importance of taking actions that protect mental health. Until athletes are afforded the option to prioritize mental health without penalty, it will continue to be challenging for them to get the care they deserve.

The NBA is one organization that should be applauded for its recent efforts with the development of Mind Health as a response to NBA players, such as Love, opening up about mental health challenges. Its website states, “NBA Mind Health is guided by the central idea of humanizing mental health. Our mission is to engage, educate, and serve the NBA community and to position mental health as an essential element of wellness & excellence – both on and off the court.”  The key phrase here is “humanizing mental health” — and that should be a priority for all organizations moving forward.

Further, there is a neglect to change the rules governing athletes that allows for adjustments to individual differences.  Surely, there must be flexibility so that athletes can share personal struggles — and find a way to uphold obligations without repercussion. Can those in power think about ways in which they can make media appearances less demanding on players knowing that it can be challenging or even paralyzing for some? Can they put themselves in the shoes of the athletes and see them as people first, rather than endorsement deals and financial pawns?  Are they able to understand in the wake of this social media driven world that athletes are under intense scrutiny on the court and then subjected to intense scrutiny off the court by the press and anyone else with access to the internet or a mobile device? 

If the rules were written in such a way that considered mental health and well-being then perhaps there would have been a way for Osaka to feel that she could have reached some common ground with tournament administrators. While it is promising that there has been an outpouring of support for Osaka it is also a sign that the sports world still has a lot of work to do around the way it protects, responds and treats athletes in regard to mental health.

Jen Farrell is an assistant professor, licensed clinical social worker and certified mental performance consultant at the University of North Carolina Greensboro (UNCG). Farrell specializes in the treatment of mental health and mental performance concerns in athletes and performers. Follow her on Twitter: @JFarrellUNCG