By Constantinos Massonos, Contributor
Winner of 28 Olympic medals, swimmer Michael Phelps is one of a number of star athletes who has publicly discussed in recent years his struggle with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. NBA star basketball player DeMar DeRozan has also talked about the importance of addressing mental health issues, as all athletes are first of all humans. Gymnast Aly Raisman has described her efforts to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder after being the victim of sexual abuse.
The message was more strongly conveyed though when tennis player Naomi Osaka, the highest-paid female athlete in the world, decided it was better for her mental health to withdraw from the French Open. Osaka had released a statement before entering the French Open, stating her intention to not participate in any media obligations during Roland Garros because of the effects of her interactions with the press on her mental health. Despite her statement the organizers fined her with $15,000 because of her refusal to talk to the press.
It was the first time a professional tennis star of the significance of Naomi Osaka, withdraws in the middle of an event as big as the French Open without suffering a physical injury. In her withdrawal statement, Osaka revealed that she has suffered from “long bouts of depression” since the 2018 US Open final, where she did not only face Serena Williams, but also an energetic crowd which was clearly supporting her opponent.
Naomi Osaka’s stance and statement shows that wealthy and successful individuals are not immune to mental health struggles. Mental health is a real thing that also exists in the athletics realm and steps need to be taken by sports stakeholders in order to create a positive environment where all athletes will be able to get help when facing mental health issues.
All athletes face a number of stressors and their well-being and mental health is impacted by their situation, on and off the field. Athletes are treated as sport performers, whose on-field athletic performance can be enhanced by following an appropriate physical and mental training regime. Athletes are rarely treated as who they fundamentally are; human beings whose well-being relies on their holistic health, physical, mental and social.
Human engagement in sport, professional or not, can positively contribute to all aspects of holistic health and can boost a person’s well-being and much ink has been spilled to describe the numerous benefits that derive from participation in sports. But can engagement in sports also sometimes detract from the development of a person’s well-being? Maybe not so much at an amateur level, but professional athletes are more prone to face situations that could prove harmful: injuries and overtraining negatively affect their physical health, while pressure and expectations can bring them to the verge of a mental burnout; abuse and harassment, both in real life and online, can lead them to develop psychological symptoms and disorders.
These negative aspects of sport participation are usually downplayed by mass media and fans, who prefer to focus on athletes’ luxurious lifestyles. But sport always had the power to drive important issues to the spotlight. A number of voices, coming directly from high-status athletes who chose to disclose their struggles with mental issues and the power of social media to amplify their message, has forced not only the sports community but also the public at large, to acknowledge that sport participation can also contribute to illness. After the recent Naomi Osaka incident, the mental health of athletes has been brought to the forefront along with the need of a holistic approach towards the well-being of athletes. The mental pressure that comes with competing at a high level is a reality in the lives of elite athletes and supporting them to manage this pressure is the responsibility of all sports stakeholders.
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