Naomi Osaka's mental health concerns are a reminder no two athletes or people are exactly the same
How do you explain a mental health issue to people who don't understand or can't relate? It's hard enough for everyday people who live with anxiety and/or depression. Now imagine its you are a professional athlete and part of your job is having to live under a public microphone every single day of your life.
The fact Tennis star Naomi Osaka made public her battles with both issues Monday should not come as a total surprise to, really, anyone. I guarantee you she is not the only athlete who has social anxiety problems or has battled depression.
I'll be honest here: When I heard late last week that Osaka said she would no longer participate in post-match News Conferences, I was planning on writing something about it. Like so many others, I was going to be critical. I had no idea there were other issues at play.
After reading this post from the 21-year old Tennis whiz, something really struck a chord. The reason: I've battled social anxiety and depression for most of my 56-years and still battle with them today.
It's impossible to explain to someone who's never had a problem talking in front of others or making themselves the center attention how hard it is to overcome it. Maybe that's the reason there's been a backlash--mostly by random fans, over what she is trying to explain here.
Far, far too many people are unable to comprehend the idea or thought of seeing life through someone else's eyes. They see you on the surface and assume things based on your appearance or your public actions or your chosen profession.
So many people assume that because they act or feel a certain way, everybody else in the world is like them.
They clearly are wrong. They could not BE more wrong.
When I was a kid, one of the things stressed to me by both my parents and my teachers was the fact almost no two people are exactly alike. Everyone is different and don't assume they believe, feel or experience life the same way you do.
It's a fatal, painful flaw in our current society that we've all seemingly have forgotten or cared to comprehend that basic tenet of life. In this era of social media, we often project our values, experiences or beliefs as something everyone agrees with and lash out or say horrible things about anyone who disagrees or has an opposing point of view.
This perspective, or-- viewpoint is even more glaring when it comes to athletes. There seems to be this perception that because a professional athlete makes a ton of money to play a game, they don't have personalities or are all the same or they all do it because they want to be the "center of attention"
Nothing could be further from the truth. And yes, while for some, money is a factor in what they do, we need to stop with this whole rationalization that "Athletes don't have personal demons or mental issues, it doesn't matter, they're rich" line. It's bullshit.
Over the past couple of years, the conflict between fans seeing athletes as just athletes and said athletes speaking out about issues that plague society has become a big issue. An issue a frightening amount of people have a problem with. A certain percentage of fans just say "Shut-up and play, we don't care about your opinions".
If you can't respect someone's right to have an individual thought---maybe the problem is not them, it is you.
I don't want to belabor that part of this conversation---it's a whole separate societal issue with people and their belief systems and I don't want to get bogged down in that.
The topic--and problem today is that most people would be stunned at who or whom social anxiety and or depression is an everyday part of their lives.
For Naomi Osaka, being an introvert who has issues speaking in public for me is about as relatable as it gets. For her, the idea of sitting on a podium in front of 100 photographers and reporters--most of whom she probably doesn't know is apparently frightening. I get it. Having been on the camera end of such situations hundreds of times, I totally get it.
Imagine having to sit there and explain your thoughts, feelings and innermost demons along with your thought processes to room full of people you don't know, hoping you didn't phrase something the wrong way and realizing every word you say could possibly come back to haunt or be used against you. And you have to do it at the end of your workday. Almost every day.
That's what its like to be a professional athlete. And don't give me a "it's what you signed up for" line of crap either. There are plenty of people who use a sport as a way to release their inner frustration, something for them to hide their thoughts and concerns and set them free--they can just perform and it makes them happy. They don't live to tell everybody their innermost thoughts and strategies and everything about their lives because they can. They do it because they have to.
A shy, introverted, anxiety riddled football or basketball player can often hide because they play a team sport. They can be worked around. It's easy.
For someone like a golfer or tennis player or swimmer, if you are good at it, you have no place to hide. And it manifests itself in very different ways depending on the person. No, often that is not a good thing. Some dovetail into drugs or other things that send their lives into a tailspin. It's why some athletes just freak out and do crazy things for unexplained reasons. Trying to internalize a very obvious mental health issue can make you flat out crazy.
Social anxiety is something very hard to explain. It's hard to express the fear of talking in public, on a raised podium to someone who has never had to do it. Unless you are someone who speaks to the public daily in front of a bank of cameras and reporters---you can't possibly know what it is like.
For me, it's fear of crowds or being somewhere where I don't know anyone. There are times I have passed up opportunities or things to do because I would have had to go by myself and be in a crowd of people I would not know or were comfortable with. Professionally, yeah, I did it and continue to do it. My first job out of school was in a place (Lynchburg, Va.) where I'd never been and didn't know a single person.
I was scared to death--but knew what I wanted to do. For several months--I did almost nothing socially until I got friendly with some people from work and accepted their invitation to have dinner. The same at almost every stop along the road. I'm a journalist by profession and my job involves getting people to tell me their stories.
Hiding behind a giant television camera made it easy, it was strangely similar to having a comfort blanket. Now, it's the telephone or e-mail. I don't have to directly be in the same place as the person I'm trying to get information from. I can do that.
To this day I am and have always been petrified of going to a party put on by someone I don't really know. Heck, I struggle with work gatherings full of people I DO know. A million thoughts go through my head at roughly the same time. Should I sit at a table with one group of people that I know but don't know well? Do I sit by myself? Is there someone there I know well enough to sit with them? What do I say if I sit with them?
I can't say that it causes my to sweat or anything like that anymore---it used to. But I really don't know what to do or the best way to handle those situations. I struggle to make small talk with people, battle the voice in my head on how to best respond.
I'm even more scared to initiate conversation with people I don't know well. What do you say? How do you say it? What would get them to respond? How do you carry on the conversation? What if I say the wrong thing? How do I answer a question without telling them I don't know what to say? Are they going to hate me for interrupting them?
It's so, so hard to describe this to people. It's made even worse in that the people I know or have known for a long time--people I've been friends with, don't even see this anxiety. They know me as someone usually smiling or laughing or cracking jokes. Someone often thoughtful and willing to do anything for them. They don't always see me in large groups so they don't know.
These are all things that go through the head of someone with Social Anxiety and really, I'm barely scratching the surface. It's so much easier to sit here at a keyboard and type my thoughts, try to articulate the voice in my head as opposed to having to say it. If you came up to me and asked, you'd never get an answer like you are getting now.
Before I finish--I should add a byproduct of these behaviors seems to be a spiral into depression. From what I understand about social anxiety, it often shuts you off from the world and the isolation or lack of interaction often grows into depression.
I believe this to be true. It affected me before I was married and I believe right or wrong, being isolated during the pandemic has made it more apparent to me. Without interacting with other people you become depressed. I believe for some it is worse than others--but the problem exists.
I will admit--begrudgingly, it's affected me. I used to talk to my closest friend almost every day on the phone. Now--we might talk once a month. The few times I've been out, it's overwhelmed me when crowds of people are present, it's input overload.
I can come across as out-going and friendly often at work because I have over the years worked myself up to the point of attacking and moving forward. I have to perform and do my job. I have to do things I'm uncomfortable with in order to be successful at my job. I've been able to suck it up and do it. Often I come home exhausted from work not from the physical part of my job, but having to lock in, focus and be "on" for 8-9 hours a day.
Most of my co-workers have no idea how bad my social anxiety is. I've never brought it up. I go to great lengths to hide it. It's not something I like or want to discuss openly. The only reason I am is because I feel like reading about Miss Osaka is a reminder about the problem and people need to know.
I don't know Naomi Osaka, and I don't need to know her personally. Reading about her experience told me a lot of what I need to know. I, nor you, nee to know each and every aspect of her personal life or beliefs. Those are hers and hers along and should be treated as such.
But I also can relate to her because her issues are my issues. No, they aren't on the same scale, they aren't even close. I think that maybe people who suffer from anxieties and depression are often lumped together, I would argue much like everything else in life it is an individual thing. I believe (but can't prove) everyone is different and the scale of their problems are very, very different.
Like I said---I haven't told, really, outside my wife and one or two friends who know me well and see through my facade about my inner struggle. It's not something you just randomly blurt out to someone else.
For someone who's #2 in the world at a professional sport and who draws attention everywhere they go, there is really nowhere to hide. Clearly, this past week's issues with the French Open exemplify this---the reason she didn't want to talk to the reporters was barely addressed, nobody bothered to ask why or if there was a problem?
And that's a problem. If there was ever a warning flag, taking such a dramatic step and knowing the repercussions should have told everyone something was up.
Yet it didn't.
Here's hoping young Miss Osaka works through her issues and continues her playing career while moving forward. It's not going to be easy. And let's hope tennis...and sports fans in general respect that and understand how difficult a challenge it is to try and make them happy while making yourself happy.
It's a delicate and excruciatingly difficult thing to do.