Opinion: Personal timeouts for athletes are critical today – respect that

FILE - In this March 31, 2021 file photo, Naomi Osaka, of Japan, returns to Maria Sakkari, of Greece, during the quarterfinals of the Miami Open tennis tournament in Miami Gardens, Fla.  Sponsors of Osaka are sticking by the her after she withdrew from the French Open citing mental health issues relating to the press conferences required for players. Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion, said Monday, May 31, she was withdrawing from the French Open for mental health issues.  (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)
FILE - In this March 31, 2021 file photo, Naomi Osaka, of Japan, returns to Maria Sakkari, of Greece, during the quarterfinals of the Miami Open tennis tournament in Miami Gardens, Fla. Sponsors of Osaka are sticking by the her after she withdrew from the French Open citing mental health issues relating to the press conferences required for players. Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion, said Monday, May 31, she was withdrawing from the French Open for mental health issues. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

Credit: Lynne Sladky

Credit: Lynne Sladky

SUNDAY ISSUE: SPORTS AND SOCIETY

Naomi Osaka turned the world upside down last week. What was beautiful was that it was not about winning a tournament or a particular match, it was about her intent to not speak to the media. There are many angles to unpack in Osaka’s decision, but I believe the most important insight we can take away from this is the impact of society’s expectations on a player’s mental health.

After all, any sport is just as much as a mental game as a physical one. In order to achieve optimal performance, you undoubtedly need both.

The mental health side of this equation can so easily be forgotten. Society often looks at athletes like they are indestructible and treats them in ways that are uncharacteristic. The recent activities of some fans during this season’s NBA Playoffs unfortunately offers a number of examples.

0011901-21KH Keiko Price, Campus Life staff studio head shots. Shot for Tomika DePriest, Emory Campus Life
0011901-21KH Keiko Price, Campus Life staff studio head shots. Shot for Tomika DePriest, Emory Campus Life

Credit: Kay Hinton

Credit: Kay Hinton

The pressure today is unlike any time in history. To many of these athletes, their sport is their identity. How would you feel if that were taken away from you for a year? For some, it would be traumatic and that is what has happened during COVID. Coping with this loss of identity, lack of competition and effect on training schedules could cause an adverse impact on any athlete’s mental health. Not to mention that many have gone 10 months or more without being with their coaches or teammates -- people they consider family and their support systems.

But that is not the end of the potential mental stressors that are prevalent today. COVID has only compounded it and social media continues to exacerbate it.

On the professional level, those athletes who are compensated for their sport, whether it be through their contracts or endorsements, operate under a different set of rules. Many that they have agreed to in writing. But what they have not agreed to is to allow these external pressures on their mental health to not be considered. No one deserves that, no matter whether you are paid or not. They need support and in some instances a bit of grace so they can deliver on what they are being compensated for. This is a fact of life and part of any job.

When you consider the college level, the impact recent world events, including a social justice movement, have had on our athletes is unprecedented. COVID cost many of them precious and limited time in playing a sport they love. As college students, it took away a piece of what many of them see as their identify.

When learning became remote, delivered through technology rather than being in a classroom, they were still students. But when they could not practice with their team, in their facility, on their field, with their usual equipment, it changed their existence, mentally and physically.

As leaders and mentors, we need to be sensitive to the unique pressures that have been put upon student-athletes and the potential impact to their mental health. Emory understood fairly early the potential impact COVID had on the mental health of all students. This past year we offered additional mental health services for all students, including telehealth services, and enhanced mental health support for student-athletes adjusting to competing once again.

Our plan is to not stop there, as we understand that all the events occurring over the last year will likely have lingering effects and we will continue to identify opportunities to support emerging mental health needs.

Today, my role as an Athletic Director far surpasses the operational and programmatic charge I had been given in the past. I recognize that it is important for myself and other leadership to help address these challenges and support cultural shifts that do just that. To do this, education needs to occur with both the athletes and their support systems. Family members can be a source of pressure without even recognizing it.

This is a time for us all to support one another and give each other grace, particularly with athletes that we look to do and accomplish feats many of us on the sidelines can only dream of. I will tell our athletes that it is ok if they are struggling and need to talk to someone or even need to step away.

Get yourself right, that always comes first. With this, they can come back stronger and better prepared to take on the challenges this new world has put in front of all of us.

Keiko Price is Emory University’s athletic director.

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