It’s a warm summer's day in Paris, France. The spirit of victory is potent and engulfs even the least festive of participants. Cheering fans scream from different venues; athletes cry; news stations film; and parents are overwhelmed with blazing feelings of pride and joy. What event could possibly evoke such an anomaly of feelings? Well, it’s the 2021 French Open.
People from far and wide come to celebrate the sportsmen and women that represent their respective nations to the best of their mental and physical ability.
Amidst the happiness lies an ever-present cheermeister weighing down on the athletes: mental health.
In the modern day, mental health is an obstacle many face and hardly hesitate to discuss. Celebrities will devote documentaries and specials to the exploration and overcoming of their mental health challenges. But many may turn a blind eye to these victims solely because they are celebrities, and, by definition, are made to entertain and influence. But what happens when the people who epitomize peak physical shape declare a state of vulnerability amidst ongoing mental challenges? How is it that these specimens, who are the personification of physical perfection, suffer from the internal strife of the bodies they rely on to amaze millions?
Naomi Osaka is at the ripe age of 24 (I’m being incredibly sarcastic). She’s young, she’s spry, and she’s thriving. She started a skin care brand, became an activist for social causes, and has somehow managed to snatch up tennis trophies and titles like it was no more than a pastime or a hobby. Like many successful members of young Hollywood, though, she has faced her fair share of critics. According to Osaka, the treatment she has endured as both an athlete and a media personality often feels like being “[kicked] while [she is] down.” This feeling of hopelessness and failure has come into question with her recent pullout from the French Open. Any sympathetic person would understand that this is a cry for help and a demand for consideration in the midst of a psychological crisis. However, many perceive this to be a complaint and an ungrateful waste of a platform. While controversy continues to ensue, many are delving deeper into this persisting issue.
Naomi has become increasingly more transparent about her continual social anxiety and introverted tendencies. Allowing room for vulnerability in a profession that often mocks those who partake in such has always been a priority for Osaka. Many critics, though, deem her an “uppity princess” who is ruining the name of tennis and the prestige it has long upheld. There has long been a tug-of-war between the public’s perception of athletes and the athletes themselves. Think of it like this: People love watching cartoons. Cartoons are fictional drawings manipulated to perform the way many wish for them to for pleasurable gain. This is not the same for athletics, though. An athlete isn’t a character or an entity. In rare cases, an athlete may perhaps embody a brand, but it isn’t the same as the cartoon characters humans worship and praise. Furthermore, fandom culture has been exacerbated to a point of no return, where we as viewers create an obsessive culture around those we wish to become. This, in turn, creates an unhealthy shift in power where viewers deem themselves superior and their televised counterparts inferior. In the case of Naomi Osaka, this obsessive culture has overstepped its boundaries to the point where we expect her to excel; we expect her to perform; and we expect her to go above and beyond when she is just as prone to incidents and faults as the rest of the creatures living on this earth.
According to the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, participation in athletics has been associated with a “greater risk [of] depression” and “anxiety,” both of which “may impede performance.” Every day, these athletes receive external pressure from their parents and coaches, and they suffer from the internal struggle to reach peak perfectionism. This internal motivation manifests itself into a monster of self-doubt and fear of failure. This feeling of self-doubt is especially amplified in times of trauma and/or stress, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, stress from school, and stress from one’s household. It hardly helps, though, that the same people who suffer from this ailment are the ones that must not only face their own demons but, also, the demons in the form of naysayers and critics.
Walk in Another’s (Tennis) Shoes
Society and the judgmental eyes of those who inhabit it continue to impose on the privacy of those they deem superior or supernatural. Whenever members of the “supernatural” community take the time out of their day to be up-front about their struggles and everyday challenges, it is often received poorly. While it is impossible to address every commentator and onlooker partaking in the viewing of the majestic event that is professional sports as a human being, it is important to consider a few things.
First, it is important to realize that the people we praise are just as fragile and capable of enduring roadblocks just as much as we are. No matter the size of their muscles or how many followers they have on social media platforms, they still have a family; they still have dreams; and they still feel stress, anxiety, and grief.
Second, mental illness is not a physical sickness that can be prevented by working out and eating healthily. Too many people have it engrained in their minds that mental illness can only be apprehended by those who are physically struggling. Depression and anxiety most often take the form of sadness and a lack of motivation, and it’s very important to notice those signs early and share them with a trusted friend or adult.
And finally, Osaka is one of many. The people we love and care for, while appearing physically fit, can struggle as well. You don’t have to be an influencer to openly discuss your mental health challenges. Creating a safe community and space for the exploration of mental stability is a great way to come together and destigmatize this topic that will continue to impact various people across the world if not properly addressed, treated, and considered.