Athletes in today’s world are our heroes, our role models. We expect them to perform match after match, even as millions watch on. We expect them to be strong, resilient, and pushing the boundaries of human potential every single day. In the midst of our expectations, both the adulation and the criticism, we sometimes lose sight of the person behind the player.
Naomi Osaka’s decision to quit the French Open and subsequent revelations about her struggles with depression and anxiety have brought the world’s attention to a reality that we don’t often talk about. Even as over 600 million people in the world continue to suffer from depression and anxiety, mental health is a topic that remains conspicuously missing from conversations.
These figures aren’t very different for elite athletes. Illnesses such as depression and anxiety are just as common amongst players as their counterparts.
In fact, the International Olympic Commission, in its latest consensus statement on athlete mental health, has pegged the prevalence of social anxiety to be 14.7 percent. That’s close to one out of every seven athletes, and that’s the condition Osaka spoke up about as well.
Anxiety is a normal human experience. For some, it can be have a detrimental impact on their performance, while others can channelise it to perform even better. At the same time, excessive or pervasive anxiety can also become a mental health disorder, when it impacts our day-to-day functioning. When talking about mental health concerns, we need to remember that there’s no one specific factor that’s at play. Our mental well-being is a culmination of biological, psychological and social influences.
We cannot deny that being an elite athlete comes with its unique pressures and challenges. In a culture of winning at all costs, victory becomes the only marker of success and stepping back onto the court after losing a match doesn’t come easy.
With the 24x7 nature of electronic media, every success and failure gets magnified, being relived over and over. Players spend a large part of the year in a competitive environment, living out of a suitcase, and away from their friends and family. And then there’s the anxiety that comes with the uncertainty of sports, which has perhaps best been highlighted by the situation as it’s unfolded with the pandemic this past year.
There’s no denying that there’s a lot that goes into the creating of the sporting ecosystem, and administrative, financial and contractual aspects matter. The media, too, plays an instrumental role in an athlete’s success story. The idea here is not to point fingers or pick sides.
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Learnings from the Osaka Incident
There are three key takeaways from what has unfolded over the last few days after Naomi Osaka’s announcement on social media last Wednesday, learnings that we hope can bring about a change in the interface between mental health and sport.
First and foremost, mental health is a health issue. To put it in perspective, it needs to be accorded the same importance as any other physical illness or injury that an athlete may experience through their career.
The second aspect is the acknowledgement of the role that all stakeholders need to play – be it players themselves, their friends and family, team members, coaches, the medical team, sports organisations and federations, media houses – to come together and look for collaborative solutions where health and well-being are prioritised.
And the third, is to appreciate the courage of one of the top most athletes in the world, to be able to shed the veil of invulnerability, and speak up about a cause that so many people in the world suffer from, but such few open up about.
Hundreds of millions in the world continue to suffer from mental health problems. With a dearth of dialogue in this area, there’s both a lack of awareness and a lack of resources to deal with these conditions. Help seeking is looked down upon as a sign of weakness and people continue to suffer in silence for fear of being stigmatised. This isn’t the first time a leading athlete has spoken up about mental health, and this hopefully will not be the last time either.
As role models to budding athletes and sports fans all over the world, every time an Osaka, a Phelps, or a Tendulkar talks about mental health, they aren’t only standing up for themselves, they’re also normalising the experience for so many more, encouraging millions of others to speak up and reach out for help.
(Divya Jain is a Sport and Counselling Psychologist and the Head of Psychological Services for the Fortis National Mental Health Program. She is a member of the Medical Commission of the Indian Olympic Association.)
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