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Naomi Osaka is raising awareness of mental health issues in professional sports

Naomi Osaka is raising awareness of mental health issues in professional sports
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Naomi Osaka’s recent decision to withdraw from the French Open rather than talk with the press is shocking. Osaka earned more than $55 million last year. For her, the $15,000 fine that the French Open imposed for failing to talk with the press is practically pocket change. It’s not shocking that Osaka could afford to skip the press conference — what is shocking is that a tennis superstar athlete hasn’t opted out of press conferences for mental health reasons before.

Osaka’s actions have helped us to take a hard look at the media engagement with and experiences of professional athletes. Serena Williams says that she is thick-skinned and therefore is less affected by dealing with the press than others, although she acknowledges not every player can cope in the way that she does. Tennis champion Billie Jean King famously said that “pressure is a privilege,” boldly embracing the pressure, while also highlighting the pressure she experienced.

It is easy to understand why professional tennis players with mental health concerns hesitate to seek help when you consider what happened to Osaka. After Osaka indicated that she would not be participating in French Open press conferences due to her mental health concerns, she was fined and publicly rebuked.

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Additionally, the French Open Twitter feed posted a photo of other tennis players talking to the press alongside the snarky comment: "They understood the assignment." Rather than shaming a struggling champion, perhaps it is time to better prepare and support players so that they can successfully complete the “assignment.”

In 2018, the NBA Players Association (NBPA) took on mental health challenges in their league, hiring sport psychologist Dr. William D. Parham to develop a mental health and wellness program for their professional basketball members. Parham and his staff provide educational programming focused on mental health and wellness, resources such as a mental health hotline and a network of licensed mental health professionals in every city that hosts an NBA team for players to talk with.

This comprehensive mental health and wellness approach follows the enhancement, support and counseling tenets of Life Development Intervention models.

Enhancement programs

Enhancement strategies build on athletes’ personal strengths and skills to help them prepare for future experiences. An enhancement program for professional tennis players might include discussing the challenges associated with working with the media, practicing the skills necessary for public speaking and press interactions and applying the media interaction skills. Practicing and applying skills builds confidence, increases a sense of control and self-efficacy, and lowers stress. Social support also lessens the impact of stress and helps people to mobilize coping resources. 

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Support

Support interventions in professional tennis could include allowing players to have their coaches present at press conferences and/or allowing players to join press conferences remotely via Zoom or other technologies from environments where they feel safe and supported.

Counseling

Finally, counseling can be offered to help athletes to cope with personal issues and grow through life transitions. From a Life Development Intervention perspective, many of the problems that athletes face, including substance abuse, eating disorders, and suicide attempts, reflect efforts to cope with transitions that then become the problem, independent of the original issue. When enhancement, support, and counseling are available, many problems can be prevented and/or addressed before they become mental health crises.

By refusing to talk with the press at the 2021 French Open, Naomi Osaka raised awareness of mental health issues in professional sport and of specific concerns related to press conferences. She has given us a window into a system in need of an upgrade. Let’s use this shocking moment as an opportunity to support athletes and provide them with the tools they need to be successful in a manner that is respectful of their dignity, privacy and rights.

Judy L. Van Raalte, Ph.D., CMPC has coached tennis at the NCAA Division II and Division III levels. She is professor of psychology and distinguished professor of humanics at Springfield College, visiting scholar at Wuhan Sports University in Wuhan, China and is listed in the United States Olympic Committee Sport Psychology Registry.