Most athletes are comfortable talking about injuries, as long as they can pinpoint the injury, bandage, cast, or spot on the X-ray. Some people even make an educated guess as to how long it might take for them to recover. His mental health is a different story.
Other athletes, most notably Olympian Michael Phelps, have previously spoken openly about mental-health issues. Some, like Los Angeles Lakers great Jerry West, described their struggles in the books only after their playing days were over. Still others wrestled with that tyrannical mystery for a lifetime.
None of them had such an extensive conversation, in small part what was at stake and a very public back-and-forth going back and forth on social media. Depends on Osaka Osaka is already a four-time major champion at age 23; Do more athletes follow his lead; And if so, how fans and sports establishments react.
“When someone tears an ACL, it’s 6-8 months, we know the time frame. And like everything in life, we want a finite number. But that’s not how mental health works, Wendy Borlaby, a performance psychologist based in Chicago who works with pro, Olympic and college athletes.
“People are different, we experience things differently, but we all like to say to the process, ‘This is what you do to get better.’ … it’s not that easy. There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all,'” she continued. “But the more we talk about mental health out in the open, the more we put a stigma behind us, especially in sports. It’s a huge opportunity.”
There is a long list of athletes who could have benefited from the opportunity. Some may still happen.
In recent years, NBA players Kevin Love and Demar DeRozan and the WNBA’s Aja Wilson have spoken very publicly about their bouts with depression, sharing both successes and failures. Baseball fans of a certain age remember the late Jimmy Pearsall, who was featured in “Fear Strikes Out,” and whose 17-year major league career was filled with well-publicized fistfights, scrapes, and stunts—when he Was battling bipolar disorder.
Pearsall praised his relative fame in his second career in broadcasting and scouting, suggesting that some of the stunts he pulled were just that – stunts – to fuel public perception of him.
He wrote in his autobiography, “Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was going crazy.” “Who heard about Jimmy Pearsall until that happened?”
Mental-health experts who work in sports remind the rest of us that visibility to athletes is both a blessing and a curse. There is very little secrecy, and every doctor’s note is scrutinized like a tax return. Imagine having a bad day at work and then sitting in front of a dozen microphones explaining how and why it happened, over and over again.
That’s why those same experts note that by the time an athlete is acting, the injury has already happened.
This is the challenge with mental health in sport, said Dr. Ross Flowers, a San Diego-based sports psychologist, whose client list includes Olympians and many pro and college teams.
“Athletes get attention precisely because they are above average, and sometimes it is easy to forget that they are human first. They must be dominant and not show vulnerability, yet in most cases we do not learn that. They are struggling till it shows in their behavior,” he said.
“So what Naomi did was brave. She was proactive. She recognized that something was holding her back and she said, “I want to do my best and I can’t be like that at the moment.”
Should Osaka’s example and growing public awareness of mental health issues encourage athletes facing similar problems to speak out more strongly, those running the sport would do well to prepare. While most of Osaka’s contemporaries defended the requirement that players engage with the media to help develop the game, no more than a handful actually enjoy the dynamics of transactions.
And at the right time came further evidence that media compulsion can be detrimental to a player’s health. 11 seed Petra Kvitova, herself a two-time major champion, announced that she, too, had pulled out of the tournament after falling and twisting her ankle – what else? – “My post-match press requirements.”
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