In May, the women’s tennis world no.2, Naomi Osaka, withdrew from the French Open, citing mental health as a reason. Since then, Europe has had the excitement of the Euros 2020 and now we are nearing the end of the Tokyo Olympics 2020. Both tournaments have had their brushes with sports players and athletes speaking out about mental health – what does this discussion say about how our expectations and treatment of sports players must change?
Mental health has taken centre stage alongside the Covid-19 pandemic for the past 15 months, so it’s no wonder that some of the biggest sports stages in the world have felt the affect of this new and important way we are discussing mental health, mental illness and general wellbeing.
The timeline: starting with Naomi Osaka
After Osaka cited her mental health, particularly anxiety, as being a driving force in refusing a post-match press conference at the French Open (which then led to her withdrawal from the competition), a large percentage of the response from reporters and public alike, wasn’t very sympathetic.
Many of the responses alluded to the fact that sports players and athletes have ‘always’ coped with the pressure and requirements of competition before, so what’s any different? Connotations of weakness and a lack of mental resilience were rife.
A perspective on this conversation many did not consider however, was that this has always been a problem for sports players and athletes. The key difference now, since this culture-wide discussion around mental health awareness opened up is that people are being given the language, space and permission to not only speak up about mental health – but prioritise it too.
The environment surrounding the Euros and the Olympics this year is a unique one. After a year of life as we know it literally coming to a standstill, events such as this have garnered extra attention as people all over the world look to sports to provide much needed distraction and a reason to come together.
The sports players and athletes involved are sure to be feeling the pressure after a year in isolation, not able to train in the ways they normally would, and having to prepare for competition in an entirely alien way to meet Covid restrictions, compounded with this is the fact that the Euros and the Olympics are two huge sporting events in which players and athletes not only represent themselves: but their countries.
Along with the ability to speak about this pressure and its affects in a way not seen before, comes the fact that sports players and athletes now face a kind of pressure that even five to ten years ago was not as prevalent as it is now: social media.
The constant 24/7 news cycle, on top of the constant stream of judgement, pressure and often ridicule sports players and athletes can be exposed to on social media is at a height in 2021 that has developed so rapidly, it’s as though we have barely had time to adjust, react and respond to it appropriately when it comes to safeguarding.
The Euros and the particular pressure felt by Black players on the England team
Last week, England player Tyrone Mings opened up about how he struggled with his mental health during Euros 2020. He stated that even after working hard with a sports psychologist, his mental health took a knock: “I think I’m a lot more hardened to outside influences now, but my mental health did plummet. And I have no shame in admitting that because there were so many unknowns about me going to that game.”
Mings specifically mentioned that the knowledge that “90-95% of your country are having doubts over you” made it “very difficult to stop this intruding on your own thoughts”. This comment is undoubtedly tied to the persistent commentary present on social media platforms such as Twitter, during the Euros.
On the topic of social media, it is also important to acknowledge the damaging and traumatic affect that the racist abuse aimed at Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, who is only 19 will inevitably have. Saka especially, who unfortunately didn’t make the final and intensely pressured penalty kick, had his social media inboxes and comment threads on his posts filled with racist comments, emojis and attacks.
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This was, unfortunately as many admitted, a seeming inevitability. No one was surprised that this happened after the England loss, which begs the question: if that was the case – does more need to be done to safeguard vulnerable sports players in the spotlight from this kind of online abuse?
Simone Biles and how speaking up can pave the way
In the Tokyo Olympics, focus has been on American gymnast, Simone Biles who was reported to be withdrawing from the majority of the competition due to medical reasons, but who later clarified that she had decided to take a step back for her mental health.
Biles, who is performing at the very top of her sport, is setting a president here: even on the biggest world stage for elite sport you can still choose to prioritise your mental health.
Jessica Bartley, director of mental health services for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee spoke to the Washington Post on Biles’ decision to withdraw for her mental health: “I feel like society is shifting in a way, and I would actually give credit to athletes — and celebrities, too — anybody who has a platform…This is going to be helping any 8-year-old gymnast who might be struggling, any up-and-coming track and field athlete to be able to say: ‘Something doesn’t feel right. They got help. They went to somebody. Is that okay?’”
Professor Markus Raab from top German sports university in Cologne was recently asked about if the pressure today is greater than it was ten years ago for athletes: “For Biles for example, a lot of media attention, very high expectations…And the environment, Covid, the social distancing, the pre-routines you normally do as an athlete are gone. We are not sure if this is a stress symptom, a burnout, maybe symptoms of depression."
"But if an athlete stops a competition at this high stage like the Olympics, I do believe this is a call for help."
Prof. Raab was also questioned about the role of media and social media: “So many press conferences, so many social media demands. Its maybe different to let’s say 20 years ago, we may need to give them some break, to relax and prepare. That is certainly a request for our society and media as well as the sports federations to regulate this.”
There is no question that the pressure on sports players and athletes now is vastly different than it was even ten years ago. The important part of this conversation that brave people in the spotlight such as Osaka, Biles and Mings have started is that we don’t allow it to disappear. This can’t only be reactive, something that appears in the aftermath of a Euros, Olympics, or a Grand Slam season, it must continue beyond.