"I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes mental health… I’ve watched many clips of athletes breakdown after a loss in the press room… that whole situation is kicking a person when they’re down and I don’t understand the reasoning behind it."
Naomi Osaka, Twitter, 26 May 2021
“I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018… I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media… I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences.”
Naomi Osaka, Twitter, 31 May 2021
Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the 2021 French Open tennis championships came after several days of pressure from Grand Slam organisers. They disagreed with her decision not to participate in post-match press conferences, in the face of contractual obligations, and threatened to expel her from the tournament.
After her withdrawal, president of the French Tennis Federation Gilles Moretton said, "As all the Grand Slams, the WTA, the ATP and the ITF, we remain very committed to all athletes' wellbeing and to continually improving every aspect of players' experience in our tournament, including with the media, like we have always strived to do."
Many people have publicly supported Osaka’s decision, including high profile players such as Serena Williams, Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King. But others have been less so, citing athletes’ responsibilities off as well as on the sports fields. However, some of the criticism of her actions suggest that stigma about mental health is a contributing factor. Not just in terms of public perception of sport, but how admission of having a mental health condition can have a negative impact on careers.
The heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson is quoted on the BBC News website as saying, “She's so brave to speak out and protect her well-being. Mental health, especially in sport, is such a risky topic to be open about. Hopefully change will come off the back of her withdrawal and it will open up conversations around depression in sport to break down the stigma."
Osaka’s case isn’t the first example of a high-profile professional sports person who has spoken publicly about their mental health issues. Frank Bruno, Freddie Flintoff, Dame Kelly Holmes and Clarke Carlisle are just a few.
So, while there is a very strong link between physical exercise and good mental health, it should not be forgotten that activity is not necessarily a cure-all. Support needs to be in place, and stigma should continue to be addressed – for the benefit of all.
Freddie Flintoff is a former international cricketer, who faced an eating disorder for 20 years in secret. You can watch an hour-long documentary about his journey, and the challenge to tackle stigma about the condition in men here: Mental health - BBC News
Mind's research into the links between elite sport and mental health can be downloaded below.