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Supporting Naomi Osaka

osakaI would not consider myself a tennis fan. I know how to play and score tennis. I understand the rules. 

But today, I am a Naomi Osaka fan.

Naomi is a Japanese professional tennis player. She is a four-time Grand Slam singles champion. She is also the reigning champion of the US Open and Australian Open. And most impressively, she is only 23 years old.

I watched a news story today about Naomi Osaka; her story touched my heart. I think her story from this week is an example of what millions of people around the world are struggling with. I hope that her bravery inspires others to acknowledge their struggles and find help.

The backstory. This past week, on May 26, Naomi tweeted: “Hey everyone- Hope you’re all doing well, I’m writing this to say I’m not going to do any press during Roland Garros [tennis tournament]. I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one. We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring double into our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me. I’ve watched many clips of athletes breaking down after a loss in the press room and I know you have as well. I believe that whole situation is kicking a person while they’re down and I don’t understand the reasoning behind it. Me not doing press is nothing personal to the tournament and a couple journalists have interviewed me since I was young so I have a friendly relationship with most of them. HOwever, if the organizations think that they can just keep saying, “do press or you’re gonna be fined”, and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh. Anyways, I hope the considerable amount that I get fined for this will go towards a mental health charity. Xoxo”

The tournament responded by announcing that they are fining Osaka $15,000.

Naomi responded first on May 30 on Twitter: “anger is a lack of understanding. Change makes people uncomfortable.”

But, her formal response was Tweeted on May 31: “Hey everyone, this isn’t a situation I ever imagined or intended when I posted a few days ago. I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my wellbeing is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris. I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer. More importantly, I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly. The truth is I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that. Anyone that knows me knows I am introverted, and anyone that has seen me at tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety. Though the tennis press has always been kind to me (and I wanna apologize to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt), I am not a natural public speaker and 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. So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences. I announced it preemptively because I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that. I wrote privately to the tournament apologizing and saying that I would be more than happy to speak with them after the tournament as the Slams are intense. I’m gonna take some time away from the court now, but when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans. Anyways hope you are all doing well and staying safe, love you guys I’ll see you when I see you.”

My first thought when hearing her story and reading her complete statement was: Wow. For a self-proclaimed introvert, you have tremendous courage. Her words are strong, but her actions are even more powerful. She has shown the world an example of taking care of herself. Naomi is withdrawing from a tournament that she is expected to play well in, with most sports analysts expecting her to win several rounds and advance to the finals. She is losing an opportunity to win millions of dollars in the tournament. She is also putting her millions of dollars of sponsorships at risk. She knows all of this. She has been advised, and she has chosen.

Every day, people are bullied into making choices that often benefit a group or organization rather than themselves. Then, when they stand up for themselves, they are called weak or soft. Especially when mental health is a factor, many people cannot handle the bullying and name calling. The result is often anxiety or depression and can even lead to suicide or homicide. 

Let us take an example from this young woman. We can encourage people who are struggling from mental health challenges to take a stand and seek help and treatment. We can help others to find their own strength to improve their lives. Every person who suffers from a mental health struggle has a family and friends who struggle alongside them--worrying about them and searching for ways to help them cope. Finding solutions for mental health struggles are not only good for the person but for the entire community supporting them.

Let’s support strong role models who set positive examples. 

Bravo, Naomi Osaka, and be well.

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