Most athletes feel comfortable talking about injuries, as long as they can point to a bruise, bandage, cast, or spot on an X-ray. Some will even dare to guess how long it may take them to heal. Their mental health is another story.
Or at least before Naomi Osaka ended a noxious confrontation with senior tennis officials by retiring from the French Open earlier this week, citing concerns about her well-being.
For the first time, a big star walked away from a big tournament without a visible injury. Judging by the reaction, Osaka seems to have landed on the third rail of the sport.
Other athletes, notably Olympian Michael Phelps, have spoken out about mental health issues before. Some, like the great Jerry West of the Los Angeles Lakers, describe their struggles in detail in books only after their gaming days are long over. Others struggled with this tormented secret for life.
None of them provoked such a wide conversation, in large part because of what was set, and a lot of public progress that took place on social media. How much more oxygen he pulls forward probably depends on Osaka, who is already a four-time grand champion at the age of 23; whether more athletes follow her will; and if so, how do the fans and the sports venue react.
“When someone breaks an ACL, it’s 6-8 months, we know the time frame. And as with everything else in life, we want a finite number. But mental health doesn’t work that way, “said Dr. Wendy Borlaby, a Chicago-based performance psychologist who works with professional, Olympic and college athletes.
“People are different, we experience things differently, but we all want the process to say, ‘This is what you’re doing to improve.’ … It is not that simple. There is no one for everyone, “she continued. “But the more we talk about mental health outdoors, the more we put stigma behind us, especially in sports. This is a great opportunity. “
There is a long list of athletes who could take the chance. Some still can. In recent years, NBA players Kevin Love and Demar DeRosan and Aja Wilson of the WNBA have spoken very publicly about their bouts of depression, sharing both successes and failures.
Baseball fans of a certain age remember the late Jimmy Pearsol, portrayed in the course “Fear Disappears” and whose 17-year career in the major leagues was filled with well-publicized fist fights, abrasions and stunts – all while he was battling bipolar. disorder.
Piersall turned his relative fame into a second career in broadcasting and scouts, suggesting that some of the stunts he pulled out were just that – stunts – to fulfill the public perception of him.
“Perhaps the best thing that has happened to me is to go crazy,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Who heard of Jimmy Piersall until that happened?”
Mental health professionals who work in sports remind others that the visibility given to athletes is both a blessing and a curse. There is precious little confidentiality, and any medical note that seeks a break is considered a tax return. Imagine a bad day’s work and then sit in front of a dozen microphones to explain in detail how and why it happened, over and over again.
That is why these same specialists note that while the athlete is playing, the injury has already occurred.
“This is the challenge with mental health in sports,” said Dr. Ross Flowers, a San Diego-based sports psychologist whose client list also includes Olympians and several professional and college teams.
“Athletes attract attention precisely because they are above average and sometimes it is easy to forget that they are people first. “They are supposed to be dominant and not vulnerable, but in most cases we do not learn that they are fighting until it appears in their behavior,” he added.
That’s why what Naomi did was brave. She was proactive. She recognized that something was holding her back and said, “I want to be in my best shape and I can’t be that way right now.”
Whether the example of Osaka and the growing public awareness of mental health issues encourage athletes who face such problems to speak louder, people who do sports would do well.
While most of Osaka’s contemporaries defended the requirement for players to engage with the media to help develop the game, no more than a handful actually enjoy the dynamics of giving and taking.
And just in time came additional evidence that media obligations can harm a player’s health. Number 11 Petra Kvitova, a two-time grand champion, announced that she also withdrew from the tournament after falling and twisting her ankle on the way back from – what else? – “my press requirements after the match.”