Athletes endure enormous pressure and can buckle from the amount of media attention they receive. In this Insider article, Mindpath Health’s Leela R. Magavi, MD, discusses how this pressure can cause or worsen mental health issues.
Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open in 2021 after saying she gets “huge waves of anxiety” when dealing with the press. The 23-year-old tennis pro was fined $15,000 for skipping a post-match press conference, and then pulled out of the tournament altogether when she was threatened with expulsion.
“I get really nervous and find it stressful to always engage and give you the best answers I can,” Osaka, currently the number two female tennis player in the world, wrote on Instagram. “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.”
Osaka’s words highlight the pervasiveness of high-functioning anxiety.
Psychiatrist Dr. Leela R. Magavi, the regional medical director for Mindpath Health, who has worked with many student and professional athletes, said attention can exacerbate insecurities in sports players, which can lead to “debilitating anxiety as athletes may feel pressured to look, speak or present a certain way.”
It can also increase the chance of developing, or worsen feelings of “imposter syndrome” — a psychological phenomenon where people doubt their skills and talents and constantly worry they will be exposed as a fraud.
Some athletes have told Magavi in therapy sessions they felt that one comment or statement they made could ruin their professional careers or personal lives, she said. This means some will agonize over questions they might be asked in interviews for hours and prepare how they might respond if controversial topics are brought up.
“This anticipatory anxiety could adversely affect their processing speed and their performance during the match, game or tournament,” Magavi said. “This kind of pressure can cause demoralization and cause or exacerbate self-esteem concerns, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and suicidal thoughts.”
Osaka’s decision could be a turning point in what is expected from athletes
Ronald Stolberg, PhD, a licensed clinical and sports psychologist said Osaka’s situation may be a “watershed moment” for awareness around mental health issues in athletes.
Interviewees in other areas of expertise have time to prepare, while tennis players have questions fired at them straight away when they are still full of adrenaline — running on a high of their success, or potentially beating themselves up for under-performing. It could be especially difficult for them if those questions focus on topics they would rather avoid, such as their dating life, finances, lawsuits, or political issues.
Sometimes it takes just as much strength to give up on something than to force yourself to keep going
Athletes are masters of self-discipline, but this can feed into a misconception that nothing ever bothers them. Just because someone is an excellent sportsperson, doesn’t mean they will be equally skilled at delivering a talk in front of a crowd.
While a common mantra in sports is to never quit, we should actually give up on things far more often than we do. Ego sometimes gets in the way sometimes and forces us to complete a task we set out to do, when it would serve us much better to throw in the towel.
Read the full Insider article with sources.