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’. 

Author: Gareth J. Mole

Gareth J. Mole is an endorsed Sport and Exercise Psychologist. He is the founder of Condor Performance and co-creator of Metuf™. He lives between Canberra and Sydney (Australia) with his wife, their two children and their fourteen chickens.