Tennis star Naomi Osaka made headlines this week by withdrawing from the French Open after being fined for refusing to meet with the press. She has cited depression and mental anguish as her reasons for wishing to avoid press conferences, which exacerbate her levels of stress and depression.
This would have been unheard-of years ago. Athletes are supposed to be tough and strong, and mental illness of any type has generally been viewed as a sign of weakness and therefore something to be concealed. It doesn't go with the image of the tough athlete.
Lately, however, athletes have been speaking out about their mental struggles. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has been outspoken about his own depression and he publicly advocates for seeking psychological help. The curtain has been pulled back on the secrets of the sports world -- anxiety, depression, fear, suicide, abuse. Perhaps all that has made this the moment for Osaka to take a stand for protecting her mental health.
Of course, there are naysayers. Press conferences are part of what is expected of players as it helps promote the sport. If everyone else goes along with that expectation, why shouldn't she? How dare she turn her back on that part of the sport?
That is the key. She dared. She dared to say NO loud and clear. She dared to protect her mental health and avoid something that exacerbates her levels of stress and depression. She prioritized her mental health.
Fortunately, others in the tennis world have expressed sympathy and good wishes for Osaka. There seems to be a hesitancy to say anything more. They all know that people suffer silently and put on a brave front, and I am sure these other athletes know that the openness of one of them will be good for all of them.
The recent publication of my prequel The Whale Surfaces fits perfectly with this news story. I wrote the prequel in response to questions from readers of my first book, Escaping the Whale, about the background and upbringing of my protagonist, Marcia Gold. Readers wanted to know how Marcia grew up and what in her childhood brought on her debilitating fears and delusions. By providing glimpses of some of Marcia's childhood experiences, I hoped to demonstrate how her problems developed gradually. I tried to show that she was always super-sensitive and super-aware of things that had happened in the past and were happening around her. I never blamed anyone or any aspect of her childhood for her mental illness. I tried to show that she came from a loving family and a safe home. I wanted to show that these factors do not guarantee happiness as there are so many pieces of a life that contribute to mental health.
In articles about Osaka's decision, there is often speculation about what provoked her depression. Is it her mixed-race heritage? Is it her status as a racial minority in a predominantly white sport? Is it the pressure of always striving to win? Is it the sometimes nasty edge to reporters' questions?
I find these questions irritating. It could be none of these things or all of them. What is important is that Osaka openly acknowledged how these press conferences make her feel and how they interfere with her method of protecting her frame of mind. Just as my protagonist Marcia must learn to separate herself from toxic relationships and toxic situations, Osaka is separating herself from a situation that increases her anxiety and therefore threatens not only her ability to play well but her ability to protect her mental health.
I believe Osaka's action -- saying NO loud and clear to a world that demands she perform a particular rite -- will resonate with many people, in many fields, for many, many years. It may just inspire self-reflection, honesty, and healing -- for top-ranked athletes who suffer silently as well as for the rest of us. Osaka has become a role model now for something other than athletic skill, something more important. And Serena Williams, who was always a role model in the field of tennis, is now a heroine in another sense as well, for she has issued the most beautiful, simple statement -- that she wishes she could give Osaka a big hug.
Compassion and understanding - that is truly heroic. These two women, Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams, will hopefully come to represent a new aspect of the sport in which they excel -- care for the inner person.
Visit www.RuthsWhale.com to download and read the first chapter now.