Naomi Osaka’s case puts spotlight on uneasy relationship some elite athletes have with success

·7-min read

Abhinav Bindra revealed earlier this year he was "depressed and lost" after winning India's first€"and to date the country's only€"individual gold medal at the Beijing Olympics. "I did not know what to do with my life. That was probably the toughest moment of my life," he said recently in a YouTube interview.

Michael Phelps€"the winningest Olympian of all time with 23 gold, three silver and two bronze medals€"has said that he would experience a "major state of depression" after every Olympics he competed and won medals at, starting from Athens 2004 when he was just 19. Phelps, whose struggle with success and mental health is part of a documentary released last year called The Weight of Gold, admitted to having suicidal thoughts after the London Olympics, where he won four golds and two silvers.

It's been a couple of days since Naomi Osaka announced that she was withdrawing from the French Open after the hue and cry over her refusal to attend press conferences due to the strain it put on her mental well-being.

While all of the focus in the aftermath of Osaka's initial refusal to attend a press conference has oscillated between the role the media plays and the obligation of athletes to attend press conferences, one tiny detail has slipped in the background: the revelation that she started suffering bouts of depression since the 2018 US Open, where she won her breakthrough Grand Slam title.

Over the past few years, athletes have started to open up about their mental health struggles like never before. With the coronavirus-induced pandemic halting all competitive activity for nearly a year in some sports, the focus on athlete mental well-being has only grown, with the International Olympic Committee releasing the IOC Mental Health in Elite Athletes Toolkit in May this year.

This is not to imply that Osaka's mental health battles arise solely out of her winning a Grand Slam or to assert that the cases of Phelps, Bindra and Osaka are the same. But Osaka's case brings the focus on a less talked-about aspect of athlete mental health: their uneasy relationship with success, rather than the lack of it. In the high-stakes world of elite sport, success, just like failure, comes with its own set of challenges, particularly when it arrives too early in an athlete's career.

The cost of success

Athletes are used to pressure. Some even thrive on it. Hand them defeat after demoralising defeat and they will find a way to use those as fuel to come back stronger. But what does success do to a mind that has been hardwired for years€"even decades€"to move on from defeat and zealously chase victory? And what can be done to prevent other athletes€"particularly the younger ones€"from falling in the same trap?

Both questions become even more relevant with the Tokyo Olympics just over 50 days away, particularly because of the many 20-something, first-time Olympians that are in the Indian contingent and expected to win medals.

"Athletes are extremely good at bouncing back. Extremely good at resilience. Extremely good at handling adversity," Mugdha Bavare, a sports psychologist, told journalists in May 2021 at a virtual sports psychology seminar organised by the Sports Authority of India. A former top-level swimmer, Bavare is the founder of Mumbai-based MindSports and is currently working with many Indian athletes headed to Tokyo for the Olympics.

But the problem arises€"as sports psychologist Sanjana Kiran said at the virtual sports psychology seminar in May 2021€"when "young athletes are looked at as medal-winning machines, and not humans." Sanjana has been working for nearly half a year with multiple Indian shooters headed for Tokyo. The Singapore-based athlete mental health expert, in collaboration with the Abhinav Bindra Foundation, has also curated an athlete mental wellness programme.

Bindra, who is part of the IOC Athletes Commission and the IOC Mental Health Working Group, was one of the many brains behind the IOC's mental health toolkit for elite athletes. The rifle shooter, who won the Beijing 2008 gold at the age of 25, has spoken of the void in his life after Olympic glory.

"If you ask why Abhinav (Bindra) felt empty (after winning gold at Beijing), there could be many reasons for it. But the main reason was that his identity was primarily that of an athlete and he had already achieved what he had set out to. And now the question was 'what next?'" said Sanjana.

Identity

Athletes from a young age put the rest of their lives on hold (to the extent that when the Tokyo Olympics were deferred by another year, many Games-bound Indian athletes tied the knot which they were supposed to do after the Games) as they chase after sporting glory. The result is an athlete who feels lost when the sporting career ends or when the medal is won.

"We have to remind young athletes that sport is not everything. They need to have a Plan B ready," said Bavare.

The average age of elite athletes is decreasing. Sanjana said that the Olympians she worked with 10 years ago were in the age range of 23 to 35. "In the last few years, the age of an Olympian has become younger. I'm working with 28 Olympians from nine nations, 16 of them are 20 and below," she said.

"At the early age, it is very important that athletes are told that being an athlete is just one part of their life. Unfortunately, what happens in the sports ecosystem€"not just in India, even the top 5 Olympic medal-winning countries€"is that most athletes are fed the narrative that they need to put in a lot of effort into succeeding in sport. Essentially, they're told to put all of their eggs in the same basket, that of being an athlete," Sanjana said.

"If an athlete's only identity is that of an athlete, then there will be a struggle of managing success. If we can encourage young athletes to have a life around being an athlete€¦ it's important that they get their education right. It's very important that they have hobbies and social life. It's impossible for Olympic athletes to live normal lives, but some parts of their life must be normal."

Bavare added that as sports psychologists, they needed to change perceptions at the grassroots level, and manage expectations particularly of parents of young athletes.

"One of the things that we see when working with grassroots athletes in India is that sports is a synonym for success. We have to groom parents and coaches towards excellence-centred approach rather than winning-centred approach," she said.

'What next?'

The modern-day athlete lives a highly-regimented life, all painstakingly put together with one goal: Success. Any activity that doesn't fit into this carefully curated daily bucket list becomes a cause for guilt.

"Athletes live such scheduled lives. Right from the time they go to bed, they already know what happens next the following day," said Sanjana, who added, "My struggle right now, with the Olympians I work with, is helping them understand that mental well-being should be the focus as well. To make them understand that every day it is possible for them to remove some time for themselves. And when they do, they should not feel guilty about it. Helping them understand that it's okay to wake up and feel like they don't want to train. They understand it, but they struggle to accept and apply it because for many years their focus has been on scheduled lives. They feel guilty doing something fun, while spending time away from sport."

Also See: French Open 2021: Naomi Osaka withdraws after media boycott row; reveals battle with depression since 2018

French Open 2021: Novak Djokovic sees off Tennys Sandgren in straight sets; Venus Williams crashes out

French Open 2021: Naomi Osaka and the double-edged swords that are press conferences

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