Preserve and Protect

Taking mental health more seriously in sports and beyond

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The outpouring of support for Naomi Osaka in the hours and days after she pulled out of the 2021 French Open has been both heart-warming and heart-wrenching. It clearly shows that she is not the only athlete who has experienced mental health issues, at the professional or any other level of competition.

Why then, are there no rules or policies in place to address mental health conditions, just as there are physical health conditions?

For instance, if a player has a physical injury on court, the International Tennis Association rule book states that a player can take a medical time-out (MTO) during a changeover or between sets, unless a trainer is convinced that immediate treatment is required. The rules do not limit how many timeouts a player can take, but there can be just one MTO for “each distinct treatable medical condition,” which can be up to 15 minutes each. In addition, players withdraw from matches and tournaments early or skip them altogether to take care of physical injuries. This is out in the open and happens all the time. That’s understandable given the toll most sports take on the body.

But what about the toll they take on the mind?

Osaka won her first major title, the US Open, at the age of 20 and has won four Grand Slam titles in the last four consecutive years. In 2019, after winning her first two majors, she abruptly split with her coach, Sascha Bajin, to the surprise of many. She released a statement saying: “If I’m not waking up every day happy to practice and happy to be around the people I’m around, this is my life. I’m not going to sacrifice that just to keep a person around. I have to be happy with where I am in my life.” She went on to win two more major titles, is currently ranked No. 2 in the world, and was the highest-earning female athlete of all time in 2020. Yet she is still struggling.

Why? Because our traditional definitions of achievement and success do not make us impervious to mental health issues. In fact, they often exacerbate them. Naomi has been well aware of this for years and has tried to make her mental health a priority. But when she announced that she would not be talking to the media at the French Open, she found no protection in the rule book or understanding from the tournament. Rather, she was fined $15,000 and threatened by other Grand Slam tournaments with harsher sanctions if she continued to refuse.

There is no question that the press is a big part of the success of these tournaments. If all players chose not to talk, there would be no publicity, therefore no sponsors, and therefore no tournament at all. However, players do take advantage of MTOs throughout matches. These, regardless of their intent, slow down play, and can shift the momentum and delay the next match start time—all to prioritize and protect their body. Yet this one request was not afforded to one of the best players in the world, who was trying to prioritize and protect her mind.

Physical strength, agility, speed, etc. are all part of being an elite athlete, and when an ACL tears, we don’t fine the player and threaten tougher sanctions if they don’t play their next match. Extra time and attention are given to protect and prioritize the player’s knee.

But mental toughness and handling high-pressure situations are also parts of being an elite athlete. We need to look beyond the physical well-being of our players and consider their mental well-being just as much.

It wasn’t until Osaka released a public statement about suffering bouts of depression since winning the US Open that we took notice. I can’t help but wonder—did no one at the tournament know the reason she wasn’t talking to the press? Or was it a tug-of-war to see who would fall first? Bravo to Osaka for not engaging, letting go of the rope when she knew it was up to her to save herself.

We can do better.     

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