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Olympians call for greater mental health support for athletes

a woman talking on a cell phone: Naomi Osaka of Japan conducts an on court interview wearing a mask after her victory against Patricia Maria Tig of Romania in the first round of the 2021 French Open on May 30th 2021

© Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images
Naomi Osaka of Japan conducts an on court interview wearing a mask after her victory against Patricia Maria Tig of Romania in the first round of the 2021 French Open on May 30th 2021

Canadian Olympic champion Alexander Kopacz is no stranger to media attention.

While the 31-year-old former bobsledder enjoyed the spotlight during his athletic career, he felt there were times when there was no escape.

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“Virtually, there was no option. You just had to deal with it,” Kopacz said about the press commitments, which he added were the most demanding during the gold medal run at the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.

“It’s a bit of a double-edged sword,” he told Global News.

After a late-night finish tying for gold with the German duo at the two-man bobsleigh race in Pyeongchang, Kopacz and his teammate Justin Kripps were up until 3.30 a.m. in the morning doing interviews, before waking up at 9 a.m. and talking to more journalists well into the afternoon.

“I would have preferred to have waited till the end of the four-man races,” he said, as they had to quickly shift gears to focus on training for the four-man event the next day.

It’s a sentiment shared by other professional athletes.

The world’s eyes will be on Tokyo next month as competitors from across the globe gear up for the Olympic Games.

Aside from the stress of competing for their country, athletes will also have to deal with media and fan pressure that can often take a mental toll on them, experts say.

“They’re facing it on social media, in the news and so that can be quite detrimental to athletes’ mental health,” said Katherine Tamminen, associate professor of sports psychology at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education.

Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka is a prime example. The world No. 2 and four-time Grand Slam champion made headlines last month after she announced she would not take part in any press commitments at the French Open, citing mental health concerns because of the kind of questions asked by reporters.

“We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me,” the 23-year-old said in a May 26 statement posted on her social media accounts.

The Japanese player ended up being fined $18,000 and later withdrew from the tournament.

Tamminen said Osaka’s case showed how an athlete tried to set some boundaries and took proactive steps to protect their mental health.

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It’s an aspect that can easily get overlooked in professional sports and not given the same importance as the physical side, said Adam Naylor, a sport psychology consultant based in Boston, Mass.

“It’s easier to hide mental health issues rather than share them,” he told Global News.

The evolution of media in the digital age has multiplied the stress factor, Naylor added.

“We’re almost in an era where even if you coach someone up, the media is happening so quickly between live media, social media, it’s almost impossible to be able to feel like you’re saying the right things, representing yourself the way you want to.”

In a May 31 statement, Osaka opened up about suffering long bouts of depression since winning the U.S. open in 2018.

“Though the tennis press has always been kind to me, I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media,” she wrote.

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During his National Football League career, American running back Ricky Williams found a unique way to cope with the media attention through his insistence on wearing his helmet during post-game interviews. He was later diagnosed with social anxiety.

Public speaking and the constant pressure to give thoughtful answers can also cause anxiety, said Naylor, especially for high-profile athletes.

“Some of the most elite world-class athletes know that they have a wonderful forum to stand on, so that is a lot of pressure.”

Marathon runner Dayna Pidhoresky, who will be making her Olympic debut for Team Canada next month, said she finds it overwhelming if there are more media requests than usual, which has been the case since she qualified for the Tokyo Games in 2019.

“Media coverage is something that … I’ve always just viewed as an obligation,” the 34-year-old from Windsor, Ont., said.

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“I’m sure there are people who love it, but I’m not like one of those people. I’m very shy.”

Pidhoresky said she received a media training guide from Athletics Canada for the upcoming Olympics, with tips on what to expect in Tokyo and how to answer tough questions.

To help better support athletes and their mental well-being, sports bodies need to put structures in place so there is easy access to psychological support, especially for newcomers and those who cannot afford private coaches, said Tamminen.

“We need to work more towards normalizing mental health concerns and that they are legitimate and important and that they deserve as much, if not more, attention than physical injuries among athletes.”

The role of post-match interviews and the way they are conducted also should be reconsidered, Tamminen added.

Kopacz said political questions at times would put him on the spot and he found it helpful to know what he would be asked ahead of time so he could prepare before the interview.

Most big sporting events have mandatory pre-game and post-game media protocols, with interest from broadcasters and sponsors to consider.

After Osaka’s boycott, all four Grand Slams issued a joint statement warning the Japanese player that repeated violations could lead to more substantial fines and future suspensions.

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Federations and organizers need to put the athlete’s mental well-being at the forefront instead of making “money-driven” decisions, according to Pidhoresky.

“Athletes are humans and they might be really good at what they’re doing, but they also have struggles.”

Appropriate accommodations should be made to respect the athletes’ privacy, said Naylor.

“The real game-changer, if we look at the science and literature of it, is organizations becoming more mental health literate.”

“This is bigger than just media.”

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