Friday, June 4, 2021

Naomi Osaka's exit and mental health

This is a long post. If you are familiar with the issue of top-ranking tennis star Naomi Osaka pulling out of the French Open this week citing mental health issues, you may skip the first part and scroll down.

Source: Yahoo Sport

Naomi Osaka is a 23-year-old Japanese tennis player. Her first big win came when she was 16 -- when she beat Samantha Stosur, a former US Open champion, in the Stanford Classic in 2014. 

She burst into the limelight less than three years ago, with a sensational victory over Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open. (I blogged about that match that became controversial for other reasons.)

Ever since that she has been doing extremely well in the game and is now among the top-ranked players in the world.

On May 27, in the runup to the ongoing French Open, she said she would not be taking questions from the media after her matches. 

That's one of the contractual obligations players sign into.

Her reason: Many of the reporters are insensitive. When a player has a lost a match they keep asking questions about that match which is akin to being kicked when one has fallen down. 

In a nutshell, she wasn't in a frame of mind to talk to the media.

Her decision was seen more like a refusal to play by the rules and a move to impose her personal views on the system.

On the opening day of the French Open on Sunday, May 30, Osaka got off to a winning start defeating unseeded Patricia Maria Tig of Romania, who has WTA singles ranking of 56, in straight sets: 6-4, 7-6.

But, Osaka boycotted the obligatory post-match media conference. She was fined $15,000 and was threatened with expulsion from the tournament and other Grand Slam matches if she continued to boycott the media interactions.

The very next day, she made the disclosure -- which stunned the tennis world -- that she was pulling out the French Open. She prefaced it with references to how she has been suffering from depression for the last three years.

WHAT WE KNOW

Naomi Osaka is known to be introverted, and nervous about facing crowds. 

During the 2018 US Open, which she won when she was just 20, she was loudly booed by the crowd, forcing her to tears.

That year she spoke about depression. "I am feeling depressed. I don't know why."

The next year, she said the media's focus on her and their questions were her biggest problems.

Every highly performing player -- who willy-nilly gets a celebrity status -- is under intense media glare. That's not easy to handle. 

The pressure to perform and win every match, especially when one is at the pinnacle, can be excruciating.

Players, especially as they climb up the ladder, have a battery of advisors and counsellors to guide and help them.

Big tennis organisations have their own facilities to address players mental issues.

It's the job of the media to ask questions, even if uncomfortable. One can request them to be sensitive and phrase them more appropriately. But it wouldn't be right to tell them not to ask questions.

Having said that, it's true media can be very insensitive. We have seen so many examples of how celebrities have been tormented by paparazzi.   

WHAT WE DON'T KNOW

Though Osaka has spoken about her mental pressures, it's not known if she had officially communicated it to the organisers. 

It's also not known if tennis organisations had taken note of her public statements and reached out to her with assistance.

Also, one doesn't know if the specific issue of "questioning by media" has been raised with the media themselves and organisations and discussed. 

WHEN IS FEELING LOW ACTUALLY DEPRESSION

One doesn't know. That's the whole problem.

There is no point in saying, why Osaka didn't talk about it earlier? We didn't know. That's true. But that's not her fault.

I don't think there is any person who hasn't felt low, down in the dumps, who has struggled to get up and get on with one's life ... 

When is that really a problem?

I have read articles, books and spoken to people who handle mental health issues. This is what I have understood.

Depression is an emotional issue. It's not a physical issue. Others can't see it. Others can't feel it.

The feeling of depression -- which is very common -- normally doesn't last too long. We are able to distract ourselves soon and carry on with our normal routine.

A rule of thumb is that if something unusual is so persistent as to disrupt the normal routine consistently, then it's an issue that needs attention.

That rule applies to the feeling of not being emotionally or mentally well. We don't really know, probably not even Osaka, when the issue has begun to affect her in a detrimental manner. 

OSAKA NEEDS SUPPORT

A mental scar is not like a physical scar. Unfortunately.

Players, when physically injured, pull out of matches. Just yesterday another top-ranking player Australia's Ashley Barti pulled out of the tournament because of a physical injury.

So in the same vein, if they aren't mentally well, or depressed, is it okay for them to pull out of matches or not fulfil contractual obligations?

Are sports tournaments more about matches or about talking to the media?

Is the ability to handle the media also a part of the celebrity package?

Surely there are issues, and something seems to be broken.

It's quite possible that so many players have felt like Osaka has, but they, for whatever reasons, never took a tough stand like she did. 

It's unfortunate that her feelings couldn't be addressed earlier in a more conciliatory manner.

WAITING FOR OSAKA TO BE BACK

It's never too late. She has expressed willingness to talk over the issues and sort things out.

Not just tennis, but other sports federations too must look at these contractual obligations and see if they are all fair to players, especially if there are aspects that are tied to mental health.

What matters most is on-court performance.

Noami Osaka is a gifted player. 

Tennis needs her. 

I hope she will be back on the courts soon. 

On the green lawns of Wimbledon.

Here's wishing her well.

26 comments:

  1. Hari Om
    (Let me preface by saying I have a background in counselling and have every sympathy for the various mental health issues that arise in life...)

    Ashleigh Barty also has a history of 'media stress' and depression. Where is the difference between the two girls? First, everyone is an individual and will always have different coping mechanisms - this includes even when they need outside help and support. Ash has ensured a balance in all things and took time out from tennis to recover. When she withdrew, it was in advance of any competition and without a fuss - also worth noting that there was not the financial investment in her to the same level. With regard to her retiral from physical injury - she went through all the correct procedures during that match, created minimum fuss and still maintained her contractual duty of taking post-retirment media call.

    NO carries the weight of being so highly invested in, as well as the pressure of winning matches. It appears those around her did not counsel her well enough to negotiate with authorities around the matter of media BEFORE causing what she must surely have known would be a ****storm. Announcing publicly and side-winding the organisers like that was not the way to go about things - however valid her need. (This is not to say the return handling by the ATP was particularly worthy...) Naomi must surely have been preparing to drop her bomb well ahead of time - and ought instead to have dealt with this behind the curtains and saved herself even further stress from the manner in which this all unfolded.

    One has great sorrow for any who are crumbling mentally - and it is very true that there will always be a part of the story about which we can know little or nothing. However, when in the public eye and contracts have been signed, obligations exist. NO does need time out and really needs to assess which holds greater sway in her life. Tennis or avoiding the press. I hope that she can benefit in the way that AB did. YAM xx

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    1. Hi Yamini - Thank you for this lovely insightful comment.

      I like Ashleigh Barty. Like many others, she too has her own set of problems. But she comes across as someone who manages to figure her way out of them. And her body language exudes a lot of positivity. Also, thanks for sharing the Guardian story.

      But having said that, the fact is just because some players are able to handle the "toxic" media well, that doesn't automatically mean that every other player is able to. The problem one faces is always the heaviest cross s/he carries. It might be just nothing for others.

      All players go through intense stress. A lot of them do acknowledge that in post-match interviews. There might quite possibly many things of this issue we aren't aware of. Quite possible that Naomi hasn't been counselled and guided well. There could surely have been a better way handling this. I wonder why this "toxic" clause (regarding media interaction) wasn't brought up earlier and sorted out with match organisers.

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  2. It's ridiculous to fine players for not speaking to the media, especially that amount of money. They're athletes, not public speakers, and so much pressure is put on them to win, no wonder they need a break if they lose.

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  3. It is alright to ask even uncomfortable questions. But at many instances reporters behave like A.Holes. This is not just asking questions to sports people but every where. Even in politics. At the same time, they throw soft ball to their favorite persons or if they are afraid of them. For example, reporters will never ask any uncomfortable question to people like Jayalalithaa.

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    1. I agree with you. Like I mentioned many people have been unfairly hounded by journalists.  Ideally, journalists should be a bridge between the people on one side, and governments and public institutions on the other.

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  4. This blew up on Twitter. I don't see what the big deal is. If she didn't want to talk to the press, she shouldn't have to. Fining her and forcing her to withdraw doesn't help her nor does it help tennis.

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  5. In cases where players are uncomfortable talking to the media, the federation could allow their coaches or adn interpreter to talk to the media by their side. No?

    Destination Infinity

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    1. Hi Rajesh - That is a good solution the organisers should consider.

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  6. A very balanced article and you have raised many valid questions that organisers and players body, if any, should deliberate upon. Essentially players join tournaments to exhibit their playing skills and the audience expects only that. from them.

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    1. Hi KP - Yes. Post-match press conference is not the only occasions when media gets an insight into the way a player has played. There are ways in which this issue can be worked around.

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  7. Well spoken. I read every word in your blog, and the replies as well. I did not know there was a way to do things in professional sports; and the consequences if one did not follow the imposed "rules".

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    1. Hi Katie - O, yes. These show-biz sporting events are not just about sport, it is a lot about other things like TV coverage, advertisements, revenue etc etc.

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  8. Hi Pradeep - thanks for the post and the comments - all interesting. I don't think anyone has mentioned the fact she's female, or what really set the whole thing off ... was Naomi beating Serena - so I don't think she's being treated fairly, but rules are part of the contractual arrangement for playing in a tournament. It must have been a real challenge for her ... only 20, without any build up to the major wins ... Ash Barty had experienced many sports - and is obviously very good at them all.
    Speaking in public, having opinions - which can be challenged from any which way ... I just wish we'd embraced her more sensitively ... some have.
    I hope she's strong enough to overcome all this ... as she's a great role model - many could learn from her ... and I hope journalists can be fair in judging her.
    Thanks for this - great post - cheers Hilary

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    1. Hi Hilary -- The fact that she came into the limelight with that controversial and harrowing match against Serena in 2018 when she was just 20 would surely have played its part.

      Plus her own personality.

      As they say, there are two factors that combine to make who we are - nature and nurture.

      I guess, her problem is not with all the journalists. Must be just a few. Unfortunately, she hasn't been able to get around them in a proper way.

      I also doubt if she has been properly educated about the paraphernalia that comes along with the global celebrity status, and getting around the many irritants.

      And, I am sure there are many personal issues that also would have contributed.

      She surely needs to take time off. And I am sure she will be back soon energised and better prepared.

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  9. Everywhere we see three kinds of people- 1.selfish and self-centred, attributing no value to the feelings of a person 2. moderate and everything balanced and 3.so good that they even forget their 'selves'. I think media people also are seldom behind these things. But those who want to exhibit their skill should give some concern over the persons, they handle. May this girl get normal fast.

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    1. Hi Sarala - Indeed, there would be multiple factors that would have contributed to the present sad impasse. I am sure she will recover and will be back energised and better prepared.

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  10. Mental health is a serious issue.
    Hope she recovers and gets back in action soon.

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  11. May she get the help she needs and deserves for a full and happy life.

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    1. Hi Darla - Yes. I am sure she will be back before long.

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  12. I’ve long felt the press go way too far in harassing public figures with harsh intrusive questions that would have the rest of us baulking. I don’t quite understand why a tennis star should be better equipped to deal with this than anyone else. I hope Osaka’s decision brings some regulation to the way the media approach their questioning, but I’m afraid it won’t. We all expected Princess Diana’s demise to bring about improvements in that area, but it didn’t. There have been other cases of high profile people committing suicide as a result of the way the press treated them, but nothing seems to change. Awful. Osaka has my sympathy.

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    1. Hi Vallypee - Yes, Princess Diana's case was the most famous tragic example. Hope some corrective measures are taken and Osaka recoups her energy.

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  13. I don't follow the tennis circuit so I know nothing of her prowess in that regard, but it seems that we expect these "superstars" to be imbued with qualities that render them immune from issues such as depression and other manifestations of mental illness; they are perceived to be strong and above such trivial problems! Clearly they are as fragile and as vulnerable as the rest of us, and at times need help equally. I hope she receives the treatment she needs to become whole again and I wish her well for the rest of her life. May it be tranquil.

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    1. Hi David - Thanks for the comments. Actually the celebrity status makes them more vulnerable than others, I guess.

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  14. I don't follow tennis so this entire post was an eye-opener. The point you've made about mental health being treated differently from physical ailments is spot on.
    The press obligations attached to the players' contracts are all feeding the industry of sports on which so many rely for their livelihoods.
    The question of morality arises when the lines blur--how much is too much when it comes to media frenzy/news reporting etc.
    Thank you for this lucid post Pradeep.
    You brought me up to speed with current affairs:)

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    1. Hi Arti - Indeed there is a lot of commercial interests attached to sporting events.

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