What Osaka's avoidance of the media teaches us about athletes’ mental health

Naomi Osaka practicing on Court Suzanne Lenglen in preparation for the 2021 French Open Source: Getty

Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open might have stunned tennis fans, but it’s also provided a much-needed opportunity to discuss how mental health is treated at an elite sports level, according to one expert.

Four-time Grand Slam champion, Naomi Osaka, has sparked debate in the tennis world after refusing to speak with the media and later, withdrawing entirely from the French Open.

After skipping a post-match news conference during Roland Garros, Osaka was fined $US 15,000.

The world No.2 announced on social media she would be quitting the French Open and revealed she has suffered from anxiety and depression since the US Open in 2018.

Naomi Osaka of Japan speaks after winning the Quarter Final Gippsland Trophy - WTA 500 match against Irina Begu in Melbourne, 5 February 2021.
Naomi Osaka of Japan speaks after winning the Quarter Final Gippsland Trophy - WTA 500 match against Irina Begu in Melbourne, 5 February 2021.

Osaka said she had skipped the press conference in Paris as she had already felt “vulnerable and anxious”.

Citing the “huge waves of anxiety” she gets when speaking to journalists, Osaka said the rules obliging tennis stars to engage with the media were “outdated.” 

“Anyone that knows me knows I'm introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I'm often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety," Osaka wrote.

Osaka’s statement won praise from high profile athletes like tennis great, Martina Navratilova, and US football quarterback, Russell Wilson.

“I am so sad about Naomi Osaka. I truly hope she will be ok,” Navratilova tweeted. 

"As athletes, we are taught to take care of our body, and perhaps the mental & emotional aspect gets short shrift,” she continued. 

“We are with you @naomiosaka. #Courage,” Wilson added.

Naomi Osaka during a practice match against Ashleigh Barty in preparation for the 2021 French Open.
Naomi Osaka seen during a practice match against Ashleigh Barty in preparation for the 2021 French Open.
Professor Rosemary Purcell, a researcher in mental health in elite sports, believes sporting associations should rethink post-match press conferences.

“We just need a bit more of a nuanced approach rather than a one size fits all,” Professor Purcell told The Feed.

“There’ll be times when some athletes just don’t feel like they’re capable of it,” she said.

“[Post-match press conference] may be an additional burden and pressure, that shouldn't be asked of athletes across the board.”

One survey from last September showed athletes are often more vulnerable to experiencing mental health symptoms when compared with the general population.

“That's got to do with things like performing in a high-pressure context [where athletes are] scrutinised on their results, and you're only as good as your last performance,” Professor Purcell said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, research has shown that some athletes have exhibited higher rates of anxiety and depression. 

In a sport like tennis, where many people are dependent on an athlete’s performance and earnings, sportspeople can feel extra “pressure to perform”, according to Professor Purcell.

Tennis pros also face the additional challenge of travelling for many months of the year and being separated from loved ones and your support network, she added.

Tennis commentator and Rally4ever founder, Louise Pleming, coaching refugees with player Matt Reid.
Rally4ever/ Damien Pleming
Another burden on athletes is coping with how they are treated both on social media and by news publications.  

Louise Pleming, former tennis player and commentator and founder of RALLY4EVER, told The Feed today’s athletes face higher scrutiny than ever before. 

“Social media has created so much more pressure and athletes are scrutinised for everything they say through these platforms,” Pleming said.

“This, I have found, has created so much more anxiety within young players.”

Louise Pleming's tennis career peaked at no.87 in doubles.

Pleming, who played in 11 championships between 1991 and 2001, considers herself “lucky” that she didn’t struggle with her mental health while competing. 

“I loved playing tennis and did not have the parental pressures that so many athletes do,” she told The Feed.

Pleming said that players competing during COVID are much more isolated and “don't really get to connect as much with the other players when travelling and at tournaments.”

RALLY4EVER is a charity organisation committed to improving the mental wellbeing of communities through tennis.

“The last 12 months has created a lot more anxiety in the game, the players are living in a bubble week to week and there is a lot more protocols and rules to follow on top of them playing tennis.”

For players who are unable to commit to media interviews, there may be bigger questions outside the tournament at play, Pleming said.

“I would think it time to assess things with their team and reach out and get some help,” Pleming said.

“Media is part of the job as a professional athlete and while it’s not always something they might want to do… through these interviews, they are able to connect with their fans, grow their profile and earn money through sponsorships.”

If you or someone you know requires assistance with issues of mental health, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636