Naomi Osaka, making the right moves, mentally!

Author: Farzana Suri, Victory Coach

              Farzana Suri

(Asian Independent)- When you think of an elite athlete what comes to your mind? Superbeings with indomitable willpower? Tremendous strength and resilience? Highly functional skills and abilities? All of it is true. It is unthinkable that some athletes can struggle with mental health issues, like lesser mortals.

The gruelling nature of professional sports involves intense physical training, vulnerability to injury, the pressure to perform, be the epitome of calm and focus adds to the psychological challenges. If that’s not all, the struggle to balance interpersonal relationships, personal trauma, intrusiveness of the media and the insatiable appetite of fans, and contractual agreements add to the stressors. Some can handle it; some pretend to manage it and some, like Naomi Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam winner, the second-ranked player in the world succumb under the weight of expectations.

May was Mental Health month. And, it seems uncanny, Naomi announced her decision to not participate in any press conferences during the French Open. Her reason – to protect her mental health. In her post, dated May 31, Osaka writes, “I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that… I get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media. I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can.”

Amidst the boos during her first Grand Slam win over Serena Williams, in the US Open in 2018, Naomi has been in the centre of media attention and pressure. Mari Osaka, Naomi’s sister, stated that every time her sister plays in a clay court tournament, the press asks her about her poor record on the surface, which adds to the already negative swirl of thoughts in her head.

She has made a bold move in the fight for self-preservation and self-care. And, it has resulted in her ouster from the French Open and penalty for breaching her professional commitment.

Most top-notch performers tend to struggle bearing the pressure of responsibilities that come with the crown of glory. In Naomi’s case, it was the media interviews and for others in the workplace scenario, it is the travail of tight deadlines, heavy workload, harassment, over supervision, discrimination, job insecurity, autonomy and more.

Over the past decade, mental and emotional health issues have increased significantly. While the pandemic has negatively impacted mental wellness, it is important to note that mental health issues have skyrocketed in these unique times. Paying more attention to employee mental health is becoming a bigger part of the conversation in today’s workplace.

The challenge for most people to accept it speak about it openly, is due to the following reasons:

  • the lack of understanding about mental health
  • attitudes around mental illness are reinforced in our culture and media
  • the perception of mental health issues as a sign of weakness
  • being seen as someone who is not a team player
  • being thought as less dedicated
  • the fear of being excluded from the team or coveted projects

The pressure to please exists in society in general. You sacrifice so much of yourself to fulfil the needs of others; constantly walking on eggshells to live up to exacting standards expected of you. And, it takes extraordinary strength to own up to your failures, in public and do what’s best for YOU and choose YOU.

With it the realisation that for your own peace, you can’t pour into people’s lives without taking care of your own. The clarity of knowing how much you are willing or unwilling to take on, or what relationships you are willing or not willing to establish with co-workers.

Workplace boundaries are needed to clarify your responsibility, protect you from uncomfortable situations, to help you safeguard your mental wellness and own happiness at work. Defining boundaries at work is imperative for a healthy life-work balance else you might start to feel overwhelmed, frustrated, disconnected, underappreciated, disrespected or worse. Setting boundaries is opening yourself to self-love.

  1. Prioritise your values by making time for the things that are important to you.
  2. Be open and honest about your boundaries and communicate it with your co-workers.
  3. Elucidate and share upfront what’s non-negotiable so that those with whom you work understand your hard-nos.
  4. Take the time off that’s been given to you. You need it for your mental health, if not your physical health.
  5. Be mindful that you do not overdo the overtime and tire yourself out.
  6. Stay committed to your idea of a life-work balance.
  7. Speak out when a boundary gets violated.
  8. Be ready for boundary breaches. There’s going to be pushback as not everyone is going to understand your boundaries or agree with them.
  9. Be intentional and only say yes to the things that really matter.
  10. Let your boundaries liberate you.

Organisations on their part can recognise that stress related to work is a genuine health issue and be more supportive in creating an environment where people feel safe.

  • Create a safe space for people to share their grievances
  • Devise a stress management policy in consultation with the employees
  • Encourage an environment where people have more say over their duties and career growth prospects
  • Factor their personal lives and understand that the demands of home prevail over work

Importantly, they can make decisions that protect their health and well-being without any implied consequences.

As for the French Open – Naomi incident, it could be a catalyst for mental health and perhaps someday be treated at the same level and understanding as physical injuries and illnesses in the sports world. To quote, Martina Navratilova, “As athletes we are taught to take care of our body, and perhaps the mental & emotional aspect gets short shrift. This is about more than doing or not doing a press conference.”

Farzana Suri is a Victory Coach, and coaches people on life, relationships, business and career.  She can be reached on farzana@farzanasuri.com or www.farzanasuri.com