A Different Perspective on The Naomi Withdrawal

Naomi Osaka recently withdrew from the 2021 French Open for mental health reasons.

What Is The Naomi Withdrawal?

On the off chance that you have been trekking in the Himalayas without Wi-Fi for the past four weeks let me quickly bring you up to speed on what I mean by The Naomi Withdrawal. Naomi Osaka, currently ranked as the second-best female tennis player in the world, decided to pull out of the French Open. Why? The reason was that she originally wanted to take part in the tournament but didn’t want to do the post-match press conferences. The reason she gave is that these press conferences have a negative impact on her mental health. As these media opportunities are compulsory she was told she’d be fined if she boycotted them. So she withdrew from the tournament completely. Here is her actual statement from Instagram account:

Taken from https://www.instagram.com/naomiosaka/

Before getting into the nitty-gritty it’s probably worth mentioning that I cannot remember the last time in which a single story produced so many opinions. Maybe it’s because my LinkedIn feed is full of comments from people who are interested in mental health and/or the mental aspects of sport but it’s been almost wall-to-wall opinions about The Naomi Withdrawal since it took place in late May. Almost all of them have had the same basic message. Well done Naomi for doing what’s best for your mental health. I agree with this part entirely. You should never put your working obligations ahead of your health and wellbeing, however … (I will come back to this ‘however’ later).

I am also professionally thankful for the boost in awareness around mental health in elite sport that both the decision and subsequent commentaries have produced. 

However … 

I can not speak for all sport psychologists, not even the ones who work for Condor Performance but I am trained to see difficult situations as either practice opportunities or ways to improve training (or both).

Let me explain by using a completely different type of mental challenge common in sport. Making big mistakes at crucial moments. This could be a dropped catch in cricket or baseball or missing an open goal in the final moments of a close soccer match. If this happens to an athlete repeatedly then this data can be used as part of a feedback loop.

First of all, it’s a great chance to practice how to respond to such an occurrence. Most people know the best way to respond. Put it behind you, chin up and go again! This is all very well but in my experience only really happens properly after it’s been practised at least a few times. The other ideal frame of mind is to use the errors to either add something new to the practice program or improve some current part of training. In the case of the dropped catches, this can be as simple as doing more catching practice and/or increasing the mental demands of current training.

Mental Health Is Not Fixed

The common theme here is that “the problem” (if we can use that word) is not permanent. It can be solved.

Ms Osaka has been very brave in voicing how she struggles with the media and limelight in general. But I for one would be much more interested in what she is doing about it now. If it’s nothing, implying that there is nothing she can do to become better at this part of professional tennis, she is giving the wrong message about mental health. That it’s fixed and the best way to protect yourself is to avoid mentally challenging situations.

Another part of this commentary I am frustrated about is how the term ‘mental health’ is used almost as if it’s a specific diagnosis. Can we be more specific speak Naomi? You mention depression but which of seven major types are you referring to? When an athlete has to withdraw from an event due to a physical health issue we get specific. ‘John has pulled out due to a torn, left hamstring.‘ What aren’t we doing the same for mental health? Are the huge waves of anxiety mentioned above clinical or what most people experience when in public speaking situations? There are up to 11 different types of anxiety disorder, would it not be more useful to be talking about one of these instead?

Are Press Conferences Really Part Of The Job?

This story actually boils down to if press conferences are genuinely a compulsory part of the job or not. If you believe they are then you might suggest that Naomi has a couple of simple choices moving forward. She can either find a job that doesn’t require speaking to the media (99.99% of jobs don’t) or she’ll need to learn how not to let negative comments impact her mental health. Even if she wanted to keep playing tennis as her job she’d still have these two options. Either only enter tournaments that have no press conferences (there are plenty of these, but the prize money is far less) or she’ll need to learn how not to let negative comments impact her mental health [as much as they do now].

It might be easier to think about this choice away from sports. Imagine a policewoman, for example, who hated witnessing gun violence to the point where it impacted her mental health. She has the same choice, no? Leave or learn. She has to pick between either finding a way to make a living where there is no chance of any guns being involved (99.99% of jobs would meet this criterion) or she’ll have to learn ways in which this “unavoidable part of the job” doesn’t impact her [as much].

Leave or Learn

Those who know me as either a colleague at Condor Performance or as one of my former or current clients will know I have a strong preference for learning rather than leaving.

Due to Naomi’s status (and bank balance), she’d have unlimited options if she wanted to learn how not to let critical comments impact her mental health. To start with, as part of training, she’d benefit from learning some basic thought diffusion techniques. These skills, one of the foundations of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, literally allow people to learn how to be more comfortable with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings so that commit instead to their actions. These uncomfortable thoughts and feelings can originate from many sources. For example, being bombarded with difficult questions within an hour of having just played a high-intensity tennis match. Thought diffusion techniques, just like a serve or backhand volley, only really work when they are included as part of the Daily Training Environment (DTE).

Another way to learn in this particular situation would be to arrange for some (lots) of practice press conferences. Imagine the delight of some retired journalists in setting up some mock pressers as part of Naomi’s training regime. You combine these two strategies and it’s just a matter of time for press conferences to just feel like a normal part of the job. In fact, she might even start looking forward to them!

Summary

In summary, good job Naomi on bravely withdrawing from the French Open. But please don’t imply that mental health is fixed and that there is nothing we can do to improve it other than by avoiding the situations that make us feel like ‘a dog that is being kicked whilst it’s down’. 

Performing Under Pressure

“I’m fantastic in training but I fall apart during matches. Can you coach me on how to perform better under pressure?” These are amongst the most common reasons that performers first reach out to us as sport psychologists and performance psychologists. This article provides a few tips on how we help these athletes and non-sporting performers.

Performing Under Pressure is all about psychologically astute preparation.

Below is the definition of the word performance from the Cambridge dictionary:

Introduction

It’s important to start an article entitled ‘Performing under Pressure’ by clarifying the key terms. What do we mean by both performing and pressure?

In some circles, performing is virtually regarded as any action. This can range from really obvious actions (playing a sport) to ones that don’t immediately come to mind such as sex or running a business. For others, the word performance is and should be much more limiting. For them, it would only apply to competitive sports and a few other areas such as the performing arts.

At Condor Performance we sit somewhere between these two extremes. For us performing is essentially just the execution of skills, with the majority of these skills being motor skills. So of course this covers all traditional sports. But would also include the performing arts, military activity, most medical and emergency procedures and even competitive games such as chess and eSports despite the fact that there is less human movement involved in these.

Performing should include both the preparation and competitive sides of the equation. This is important because in many sports the word performing gets mostly used as a synonym for competing. For example, in a post-match press conference, a coach may say that she was happy with the performance. Or that the performance wasn’t quite what they were looking for. The issue with using the term performance as a synonym for on-the-day competitive outcomes is that it forgets about the performance element of preparation. As you’ll see from below it is actually what do you do in preparation that ultimately allows us to perform better under pressure.

In the interest of accuracy and objectivity here is the Cambridge Dictionary definition of the word performance. In summary, “how well a person, machine, etc. does a piece of work or an activity”.

So What About This Thing Called Pressure?

In my work as a sport psychologist, I often simplify and separate everything into thoughts feelings and actions. Those who are familiar with my particular style will know that I am a big believer in predominantly learning to accept thoughts and feelings whilst still committing to our actions. When breaking down the human experience like this it can be useful to try and consider if pressure is more of an emotion or a thought or a combination.

For most performers, it will be a combination of thoughts and feelings. Consider the typical signs of experiencing extreme pressure. In terms of emotions tensing up, tightening of the muscles and nerves might be common. The thoughts that typically present themselves when pressure is experienced are often predictive and negative. For example, cognitions such as “what if I mess up today” or “I just know I am going to play badly”.

Arguably the most important starting point when it comes to helping performers to be more consistent under pressure is for them to learn unequivocally that pressure is neither good nor bad. All too often athletes and non-sporting performers will regard pressure as negative. They frame it as something that will get in the way of them performing at their best. Interestingly there’s actually a small percentage who believe the exact opposite! This minority hold the view that they need some pressure to produce the goods!

The Pressure Is Real, Just Accept It

The mindset that we are looking to help our clients develop is one whereby pressure is just pressure. It’s neither good nor bad. It can be useful for you to consider the variations in pressure as similar to other variables. Such as the weather or the colour of the opposition’s kit (shirts). These are just natural variations common in sport. It’s unhelpful to think of warmer days as being good and cooler days as being bad for example. The same applies to pressure vs. no pressure.

The most effective way of learning to perform better under pressure is by learning to accept the thoughts and feelings rather than get into a fight with them. There are multiple ways of doing this but some of the most useful would be via these five mindfulness apps which have been approved by psychologists. 

Once the process of learning to observe thoughts and emotions is underway we can move onto the next stage. That is, learning they needn’t have any impact on your desired actions. In other words, the goal is to learn to execute your skills irrespective of the thoughts and emotions you may be experiencing at the time.

This is easier said than done of course. Often experiences of pressure are much less common in training. This reduces the opportunities whereby we can prove to ourselves that we can kick a rugby ball or smash a backhand down the line even under extreme pressure.

Mentally Harder Practice

Mentally harder practice addresses this issue most of the time. MHP attempts to replicate pressure-related feelings and thoughts in training situations. The logic behind this is sound. Doing MHP in training will make it much easier to ride the pressure wave when it happens organically in competitive situations. 

A nice analogy for mentally harder practice is lifting weights. If you want to be able to flip a truck tire over a dozen times (thinking about CrossFit clients now in particular) then you’re gonna need to slowly increase your muscle strength in practice. The same logic applies to performing under pressure using mentally harder practice. You need to be able to slowly increase the mental demands of certain aspects of your training so when they occur in competitive situations that they are not so different from the training challenges you set up. 

The weight training analogy is so useful because it quickly allows you to see the risks of overdoing it. So if you make your training psychologically too difficult, it will have the opposite effect and potentially cause some kind of psychological injury. By psychological injuries, we could be referring to genuine mental health impacts such as a trigger for depression or anxiety.

Conclusion

As we have very little influence over who stumbles across our blog posts then we would urge anybody who feels they might want to lower the risk of overdoing mentally harder practice to get in touch and be guided by one of our highly qualified and experienced sport psychologists or performance psychologists. The best way to get in touch is by completing one of the free, online Mental Toughness Questionnaire via this link here and one of the crew will get back to you in less than 48 hours.