Paris – Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the French Open after revealing her battle with depression has brought attention to the issue of mental health in sports, with one expert even accusing the media of “voyeurism.”
The 23-year-old Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam winner who is currently ranked No. 2 in the world, said she will take a break from tennis, putting her participation at Wimbledon in question.
The four Grand Slams said they will look at changes to their tournaments in the light of the situation.
“We intend to work alongside the players, the tours, the media and the broader tennis community to create meaningful improvements,” read a statement by the Australian Open, the French Open, the U.S. Open and Wimbledon.
Osaka was fined $15,000 and threatened with disqualification from Roland Garros after she refused to honor mandatory media commitments.
She claims they are detrimental to her mental health and likened the traditional postmatch news conference to “kicking people when they’re down.”
“There’s a sense of voyeurism around how it presently works,” Peter Terry, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia wrote on theconversation.com on Tuesday.
“Perhaps some want to see athletes crumble and break down into tears, having put them on a pedestal.
“Osaka is a young, introverted, anxious person. We should by now understand that sports stars are not super human, that they have the same doubts and mental health issues as everyone else.”
Terry worked with the WTA for over a decade and sat on a commission which drew up guidelines to help players avoid burnout and deal with pressure when in their teens.
One of the outcomes was limiting how many tournaments a player could enter before a certain age.
Osaka said her mental health struggles began in 2018, when she won the U.S. Open, the first of her four majors, in a controversial final against Serena Williams.
“The truth is I have suffered bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” Osaka said in a social media post to announce her withdrawal from the French Open.
“In Paris, I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences.”
Williams, a veteran of news conferences, believes all players should have access to counseling.
“I think that’s so important, to have a sounding board, whether it’s someone at the WTA or whether it’s someone in your life,” the American star said.
Terry insists Osaka is right to avoid the spotlight when she is suffering from depression.
He said a family support group is key and also, if needed, professional help.
“The media don’t meet those criteria. So trying to deal with serious mental health issues in the glare of publicity is next to impossible,” he wrote.
“There are considerable forces pushing her toward even greater levels of anxiety. Could you imagine the level of expectations on her at the Tokyo Olympics?”
Venus Williams, playing at her 24th French Open, said she developed her own defense mechanism when dealing with the media.
“For me personally how I deal with it was that I know every single person asking me a question can’t play as well as I can and never will,” the seven-time major winner said.
Osaka’s battle with depression echoes similar struggles of other athletes in recent years.
Olympic swimming star Michael Phelps, Spanish soccer player Andres Iniesta and England cricketer Marcus Trescothick are just some who have documented their struggles.
German goalkeeper Robert Enke and American world track cycling champion Kelly Catlin took their own lives.
“Depression is a word which has a pejorative connotation and is poorly understood by the population,” professor Philippe Godin, a sports psychologist at the University of Louvain in Belgium, said.
“In sport, you have to show that you are strong, almost invincible. It is not compatible with weakness.”
In France, care for the mental health of athletes has evolved over the past 20 years.
The National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance has expanded its team of psychologists.
“We have more and more requests for support from athletes in terms of psychological and performance support,” Anaelle Malberbe, one of the five psychologists at Insep, said in December.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.