How to stay sane in high performance/ high stake sports

Mental Health has been on top of everyone’s mind since Naomi Osaka pulled out of Roland Garros citing mental health. Opinions were quite divided, but since then athletes like Simone Biles and Ben Stokes have retreated from their respective sports stating similar mental health reasons.

The older generation would mumble about ‘snowflakes’ and how in sport one just has to have an unassailable mind. As otherwise one should not engage in professional sports at all. But this is clearly not the case. The ‘mind of steel’ needs some TLC too and can’t always be so steely, because we humans are simply not robots.

From Naomi Osaka to Simone Biles, the relationship between mental health and high pressured sports has been widely discussed. What can we learn from these world class sportswomen? How can they stop when they are on top of their game? And when is it really time to say ‘enough’?

Ranked number one worldwide by the Women’s Tennis Association, Naomi Osaka’s skill is undeniable. She is known for her blazing forehand on the court, and her social activism off it, having been a loud supporter of the BLM movement last year. Osaka’s reputation is so amazing that she has a Barbie doll modelled after her and was asked to ‘light the cauldron’ of the Tokyo Olympics, an honour not many of us can even dream of. But, despite this unbridled talent, Osaka’s has struggled openly with mental health issues for a while now.

After winning the first round of the French Open this year, Osaka declined to give a press conference due to poor mental health, and the young star was fined $15,000 by the organisers, instead of being supported. Tweeting that “anger is a lack of understanding. Change makes people uncomfortable”, Osaka’s frustration with the anger she faced for not ‘doing’ her press conferences is clear. For Osaka, sitting in press conferences can conjure up doubts about her own ability, and she finds she is often asked the same questions by the media over and over again, which – she says - damage her mental health, as they often focus on the negative rather than the positive. So, Osaka’s obvious answer was to quit conferences altogether and avoid these prying questions.

This decision that did not win her fans among the press corps but was strongly supported by her sponsors as well as by her fans on her own platform. Possibly, this is anyhow the way of the future, where athletes control their own media feeds via their own social media accounts rather than relying on the press as we know it.

The overriding pressure of being a nation’s hero and worldwide champion at the age of only 23 has been enough to throw Osaka off recently, and she sadly lost out early on in the current Olympics. But perhaps we should all learn from her and realise that sometimes it is better not to do what society is pressurising us to do (in her case, press conferences) in order to protect our own mental health.

Simone Biles is another example of a young athlete whose mental health has become crippled by the pressure of it all, and from her too we can learn the power of saying no. Having stepped down from performing at the current Olympics, Simone cited her mental health as the reason she won’t continue. She said that she feels “the weight of the world on her shoulders” and given that, in gymnastics, any doubt during routines can lead to serious injury, this decision seems the right one, although a very difficult one too. In gymnastics, more than any other sport, one has to be all ‘there’ or not. So not being able to be ‘there’, Simone Biles pulled out.

A strong mind is as import as a trained body. We can’t expect athletes to give it their all at all times without having a temporary break from the high performance/high stake environment they operate in.

Despite the fact that a part of the press was highly critical of Osaka, Biles and Stokes – who recently pulled out of Cricket to prioritise his mental health –the overall message from these top athletes here seems to be a very powerful one: respect your mental health above all else, and if you think that stepping back or taking a break will help you, do it, no matter how high the stakes may seem.

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