Recently, Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka sensationally dropped out of the French Open.  As part of Grand Slam regulations, athletes are obliged to attend press conferences and engage with the media, regardless of the outcome of a match. On this occasion, Osaka chose not to participate in a post-match press conference, explaining that “facing media questions can be harmful for athletes’ mental health”.  She has faced backlash from this decision and ultimately chose to withdraw from the French Open.

Osaka has since shared that she has suffered “long bouts of depression” since 2018 and that she has struggled to cope.

There continues to be stigma around behavioral health, and this is particularly true when it comes to professional athletics, who face pressure to appear physically and mentally ‘strong’. Osaka bravely took steps to prioritize her mental health despite the professional consequences and the expectation that athletes should not show any ‘weakness’.

As a world class tennis player, Osaka’s willingness to speak openly about her mental health sends a powerful message to other athletes that it is ok to open up and seek support. She joins other notable sports stars such as Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who has spoken about his experiences with depression and anxiety, and Seattle Mariners catcher Mike Marjama, who has discussed his struggles with an Eating Disorder.

Athletes Treated Differently for Mental vs. Physical Health

Despite this, there are major differences in how the sporting world treats an athlete’s mental health compared to their physical health. For example, fellow tennis star Roger Federer also recently withdrew from the French Open, in an effort to “listen to my body and make sure I don’t push myself too quickly on my road to recovery”, following two knee operations in 2020. Federer’s withdrawal from the championship was classed as an “official medical reason” and as a result he was not being fined by the organization. Compare this to Osaka, who was not only fined $15,000 but has also been described as a ‘diva’ and ‘petulant’ for her decision to withdraw.

Osaka’s story and experience highlights the need for more conversations to be had around mental health in the sporting community, especially given the high amount of pressure and expectations athletes typically face. There is a clear need to prioritize behavioral health by providing support, education and resources around mental health for athletes.