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Naomi Osaka: Mental Health Journey

Since withdrawing from the French Open in 2021 due to mental health reasons, professional tennis player Naomi Osaka has become an icon in the fight for raising awareness of mental health issues in the professional sports world.

In the 2018 US Open, Osaka defeated Serena Williams, a top American professional tennis player, and won her first slam title. Osaka has stated that she suffered bouts of depression since the win and talking to the media triggered her social anxiety. Because she skipped the press conference after her first-round victory, the tennis star was fined $15.000 and was threatened with tournament suspension. In response, Osaka tweeted that “anger is a lack of understanding [and] change makes people uncomfortable.”

However, athletes have continuously shown their support for Osaka and her mental health journey. Back in 2021, Czech and American former professional tennis player and coach, Martina Navratilova, tweeted in response to Osaka’s withdrawal, stating that athletes are taught to take care of their bodies and “the mental and emotional aspect gets short shrift”.

In May 2022, Osaka decided to speak up about her mental health journey and shared with FOX Business that “after speaking up, [her] view on expressing the need for a break or space or help really changed”. She described the feeling as freeing, that it provided a “sense of relief”, and “the outpouring from others about their own struggles made [her] feel less alone”.

A new partnership with Modern Health, a global mental health benefit solution, has given Osaka the platform and reach to assist in the battle of removing the stigma surrounding mental health and increase the availability and accessibility of mental health services.

“Together, we seek to support people on their journeys through a world in constant flux.” – Modern Health Community

Osaka has expressed that, anyone struggling with mental health, should find resources and ask for help; “you won’t ever regret it“.

The Vice President of Mental Health and Wellness for the Women’s Tennis Association, Becky Ahlgren Bedics, said, “Anytime an athlete shares their vulnerability and their authenticity, it’s going to affect other athletes in that sport. There’s a relatability.” She stated that she wasn’t sure if it could be attributed to one particular person or event, but it certainly “makes other folks sit up and notice”.

“I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m gonna celebrate myself and my accomplishment more. I think we all should.” – Naomi Osaka

Mental Health: Is the Narrative Changing?

Committed athletes dedicate years to their sport, overcoming challenges and unexpected obstacles with a delicate finesse and perseverance that can easily take a toll on their mental health, pushing them beyond their mental fitness. Michael Phelps, an American former competitive Swimmer, has publicly stated several times that mental health absolutely needs to be prioritised in the world of sports.

Phelps has openly discussed his struggles with mental health: “I can’t expect to have every answer today, but I also have to give myself forgiveness because I’m still learning and at times that is hard.”

Having goals is important because it gives us direction, a purpose to fight for, but it is just as (if not more) important to remind ourselves that growth takes time, that mistakes happen, and that we need to take the time to rest and recover amidst the intense training.

“I’m constantly learning. I’m constantly growing.” – Michael Phelps

Simone Biles, an American artistic gymnast, withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics team finals because she was concerned about her mental health. Biles highlighted the importance of mental health and openly stated that “we’re human too” and that “we also have to focus on ourselves”.

When Phelps heard Bile’s announcement of withdrawal from the event, he said that it “broke [his] heart” and he hopes that it will be an “eye-opening” experience and an opportunity to “blow this mental health thing even more wide open” because “it’s bigger than we can ever imagine”.

This bravery to speak out sparked a global discussion on mental health among athletes and has led to some significant movement in the area. It is slowly becoming more accepted that, while athletes focus largely on their physical capabilities, they must also be mentally and emotionally fit. It is this balance that leads to peak performance.

“Before I would only focus on the gym. But me being happy outside the gym is just as important as me being happy and doing well in the gym. Now it’s like everything’s coming together.” – Simone Biles

Without a doubt, social media plays a significant role in the mental health struggles of athletes due to its great reach and fast-paced nature. However, it also provides athletes like Phelps and Biles a platform to spread awareness and share their stories.

Mental health awareness in sports is gradually increasing thanks to athletes like Michael Phelps and Simone Biles. In fact, just recently, Phelps and Biles organised a meet-up to discuss mental health. It is this confident, completely vulnerable, honest and open communication we need to take the next intimidating steps in normalising mental health struggles and providing athletes the time and space they need to rest, heal, and recover.

“Don’t put a limit on anything. The more you dream, the further you get.” – Michael Phelps

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