Be sensitive: Indian sportspersons back Naomi Osaka
Covid-19 has shown how important it is to focus on one’s mental health. And many voices have been heard on the issue in the last one year, but none so powerful as Naomi Osaka’s, who opted to pull out of the French Open last week rather than participate in the customary post-match press meets. In a statement, she said she experiences “huge waves of anxiety” before speaking to the media. Now, the four-time Grand Slam champion and world number 2, has pulled out of the Berlin WTA 5000 tournament, also placing her appearance at Wimbledon, which begins on June 28, in doubt. While the Tokyo Olympics is slated to start soon, there is no confirmation as to when the Japanese player will return to the court.
The tennis star has since won support from fans, her corporate sponsors including Nike, Sweetgreen and Mastercard, and above all from sportspersons such as Coco Gauff, Billie Jean King and Serena Williams. Former Indian cricketer Mohammad Kaif too tweeted: “It’s high time we acknowledge the issue of mental health in sports. More so in individual sports… Let’s be sensitive, players in their weak moments should be allowed to avoid media.”
Echoing the sentiment, Indian professional boxer Vijender Singh feels one shouldn’t be “punished” for choosing themselves. “I believe Osaka did the right thing by valuing her mental well-being above all else. When you are on a pedestal in your career, money doesn’t matter, you do. We need more focus on mental health. Even in my sport, we have a dedicated physiotherapist but there are no resources for our mental wellbeing.”
On why public figures face such anxiety, Dr Priyanka Trivedi, a psychologist, says, “Fame brings with it both benefits and drawbacks… The main problem of being a famous person is excessive public attention. Celebrities are normal people like everyone else and they cannot be perfect at all times.”
Sharing his experience, Indian cricketer Harbhajan Singh says, “During the 2011 ICC World Cup, wherever we went, from airport to hotel lobby, everyone was like ‘Sir jeetna hai, is baar to cup jeetna hai’. Itna zyada pressure tha ki hum kuch nahin kar paa rahe they. You try not reading the newspaper or the stuff on social media and not watching the TV, but you can’t ignore the fact that there’s pressure. And if you fail, there are lakhs of opinions about you.”
The cricketer emphasises that “one can judge a sportsperson on their performance, but the decision to play or not play is the player’s own”. “Last year, I opted out of the Indian Premier League because I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. My family is my priority, especially during the Covid scenario. I wouldn’t have been in the right mental space to show my best game had I left my family at such a time to go play. We have to make the decision based on what’s important for us, and maybe Osaka doesn’t see tennis as her priority for the time being. People need to respect it,” he adds.
Indian race walker, Priyanka Goswami, however, feels that athletes at this level are “answerable to the public”. She says, “Whenever I appear for an interview, I always speak from my heart. If we think too much, our mind may go into overdrive. We are answerable to the people because of the place we are in.” Yet, she is quick to point that “Osaka knows her struggles best” and says, “Each person processes stress in their own way and I can’t comment on, or judge her action. What if she would have appeared before the press and later her performance would have suffered due to the anxiety that she faced? But media isn’t all bad either, it is due to the coverage we get that people know about us.”
On how she manages the spotlight on her performance, Goswami shares, “I consult a counsellor regularly. I have always got full support from the Sports Authority of India and the ministry. Instead of losing against themselves, players should seek help from sports psychologists and counsellors.”
The need for proper guidance and understanding is what Harbhajan also feels is the need of the hour. “You develop your game over the years, and it takes even double the time to get that mental strength. If you aren’t there mentally, you can’t win anything. You need to know how to deal with failures and highs. All Osaka needed was a bit of support; a friendly hand to hold her’s and say, ‘We are with you, no matter what. We don’t love you for the kind of tennis you play but for the human being you are’. You need loved ones around to give you love and guidance,” he believes, and adds, “In the case of Osaka, it’s a singles game. When you are on the court, you are on your own. What goes in her mind when she plays is something only she knows.”
Talking about how each person’s struggle is unique and what’s perceived as stress could differ from person to person, psychologist Kamna Chhiber says, “One’s personality traits — being shy or introverted —affect how they approach stress. It has multiple components, defined by biopsychosocial (biological, psychological and social) aspects. There’s a person’s biological predisposition or vulnerability to developing an illness. Also, social factors such as your support system, relationships, routine and career play their role in impacting your ability to cope with a situation.”
Suggesting ways to deal with issues of the mind, Dr Trivedi adds, “Some deep relaxation such as clinical hypnotherapy can be very helpful in preparing one to deal with situations and overcome the consciousness of facing the crowd. Psychotherapy such as cognitive behaviour therapy, relaxation and mindfulness techniques can help overcome anxiety.”