Naomi Osaka Is a Role Model

Golf is a game of inches, said Arnold Palmer, one of the sport’s greatest players. He added: “The most important are the six inches between your ears.” 

The same is true of tennis, and indeed almost any sport, not to mention the rest of life. Athletes may spend most of their time cultivating their bodies. But the wise ones know that what matters most is the mind.

That’s why I’m cheering and rooting for Naomi Osaka, the 23-year-old tennis prodigy who’s just pulled out of the French Open. What she realized was that her mind had become a dark place that she needed to take care of. Many of us should be that honest — and follow her example.

The details of Osaka’s withdrawal are more complex, of course. She hated having to “do the press” after matches, as stars are contractually obliged. So she informed the tournament’s organizers that she wouldn’t. Rather high-handedly, they fined her a packet and threatened to boot her. She decided not to play their game.

The backstory, as she described it in a very personal post on social media, is about mental health, and her struggles with it. Since defeating Serena Williams in the dramatic final of the 2018 U.S. Open, Osaka’s been suffering bouts of depression. A self-diagnosed introvert, she also said she feels anxiety in social situations. To block out the negativity, she wears headphones.

But in those post-game pressers, she’s exposed to the pack of hounds known as journalists. Almost any polite question you can ask in a sports presser is banal, so some hacks go negative and needle players who may have just had their dreams shattered or are trying to get their confidence back. Why can’t you win on clay? What’s wrong with your serve? Will you find your groove?

Naomi Osaka Is a Role Model

Now put yourself into the mind of the athlete. It’s easy to do, even for us amateurs. I also play tennis, and I’ve spent decades interrogating my mind, besides discussing it with coaches. There’s a lot going on in there. And when you’re trying to get into your game head, the last thing you want is to hang out in a press conference.

Take, for instance, the following paradox in tennis. The only stroke over which the opponent has no direct influence is the serve. So it should be the easiest. To initiate it, all you have to do is toss the ball above your head. 

But a lot of players will tell you that’s the hardest part. The reason is that for a split second you’re all alone with your mind. When you’re returning a stroke, a ball is coming toward you and you have no choice but to focus. When you’re tossing it in the air, it’s all you. And that’s when things go wrong. Doubt creeps in. You hold your breath, one finger tenses, the toss spins the wrong way, the rest is embarrassing.

Incidentally, the worst thing to say to athletes who struggle with doubt is “think positive.” Sure, there’s a long tradition, at least since the “positive psychology” movement that started in the 1990s, of pretending we can overwrite all our mental negativity with deliberate optimism expressed in “affirmations.” Research has shown that this canned positivity works reliably only for people who are already upbeat.

People who are pessimistic, by contrast, can tell themselves how great they are, but part of their minds won’t believe it, which makes them even more anxious. Worse, they may end up blaming themselves for their negativity, because they failed to reprogram themselves.

This is also common in Buddhist and Yogic meditation, especially for competitive Westerners. I was once told to sit in Lotus and make my mind still by not thinking. A few seconds in, the thoughts gushed in. I was bad at this, I realized. If I was at the outset only my usual cranky self, I was furious by the time I unwrapped my legs.

The solution — as many Yogis and, increasingly, psychologists agree — is not to try to think positive, but simply to observe the thoughts and label them. The same is true when our backhand keeps going into the net: Simply observe, and keep an open mind. The late psychologist Christopher Peterson called this “realistic optimism.”

For most athletes, all this can take place on the court and during the game, or in the locker room just before. Osaka, however, had obviously crossed into a darker mental landscape. And in this respect, she’s like the huge and growing numbers of young adults who, especially in this pandemic, are much more at risk of depression and anxiety than older people.

What should our message to these youngsters be? Suck it up, go back out on the court and then to the press conference? That’s a great way to make things worse. No, far better for them to label their suffering, as Osaka did. We want them to take the time and accept the help they need, before it gets too bad.

The goal, in sports and life, is always the same: a balanced mind. Osaka didn’t have that, and realized she wasn’t going to get it while being part of this circus. Good for her.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He's the author of "Hannibal and Me."

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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