Sport, the media and mental wellbeing

Players and journalists are necessarily intertwined, but there have to be more considerate and respectful ways to bring the game to spectators.

Naomi Osaka’s exit from the 2021 French Open – and now Wimbledon too, citing “personal reasons” – forced the sporting world to discuss a topic it speaks about in hushed tones, if it doesn’t ignore it completely. It started when Osaka revealed that she would not be attending the mandatory press conferences after her matches to protect her mental health, while picking up the $15 000 fine for each transgression.

The world No. 2 later revealed that she has suffered from depression and anxiety since her US Open victory in 2018. That moment was overshadowed by Serena Williams’ heated confrontation with the match umpire.

A moment that was supposed to be memorable for Osaka became a painful complication with loud boos greeting the trophy presentation, of which the tennis star spent a great deal in tears. Her win was thus forever tainted, and the anxiety and subsequent bouts of depression an underlying symptom of a narrative no one saw coming.

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While her stance in Paris received support from sports stars in tennis and far beyond, she was attacked on social media, accused of being entitled and disrespectful. At 23, Osaka is the highest-earning sportswoman in the world as a result of her cross-cultural appeal, activism, style on and off the court and, most importantly, a tennis career that has already garnered four Grand Slam titles.

At the 2020 US Open, which she won, she wore seven different masks, each featuring the name of an African American victim of police violence, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. Osaka declined to play WTA matches at one point, in solidarity with the protests that were happening in America. It can be said, then, that even in silence, her voice and influence are far-reaching.

The lazy assumption is that courting the media should be the most natural thing to do, especially for someone with more than three million social media followers. But this is far from the truth for many athletes. Social standing and bank balances are no yardstick for anxiety or mental health.

Osaka was raised to be a champion, dedicating swathes of time to becoming a top player. But nothing can prepare an athlete for the attention, the hysteria and, most pointedly, the abuse that comes with fame. Many suffer in silence, even the superstars who display their considerable skills for public consumption every week.

Speaking in public

In South Africa, with 11 official languages and a myriad cultures within sporting teams, anxiety often builds over mere communication. The rise in social media influence has seen many sporting stars mocked for their media engagements and perceived lack of education or articulation. To borrow from Osaka, they are often attacked.

A former Proteas men’s cricketer admitted that there was considerable trepidation for some players ahead of press conferences, about more than going out to bat or bowl in front of a full stadium. “You can train for cricket and work on your skills. But being attacked by sections of the public or the media, there really is no preparation for that,” he said.

“We are all human and we all react differently. Players might say they don’t read or listen to what the media say, but it always gets back to them from friends, family or even teammates. The message of what is being said or written about you gets back to you, and it does affect you.”

12 September 2020: Naomi Osaka sits in front of a wall of virtual fans during a changeover at the women’s singles final of the US Open. (Photograph by Al Bello/ Getty Images)

One of the most visible struggles with media and attention in the current men’s cricket team comes from its most talented batsman. Quinton de Kock is regarded as one of the finest cross-format players in the world. He makes the difficult look easy and then struggles to explain how he does so. The awkwardness is the unlikely wages of genius ability.

“I have come to accept that public speaking is not something that comes naturally to me,” De Kock said. “I’m a professional cricketer. I’m not a professional spokesperson.”

In private, De Kock is expressive. Engaging. Funny. It is a world away from the awkward persona that he sometimes cuts in press conferences. De Kock and his outrageous talents have thrown him into the limelight, in a fashion not dissimilar to Osaka’s journey. It can be a lot to take in, especially when the public and the media then assume that the natural ability will necessarily translate to a polished media personality.

‘No judgement’

At a young age, when De Kock was starting to make waves in Gauteng cricket, he would express himself freely on the pitch and then sit shyly in the corner, especially around strangers and older players.

He is honest about those struggles, and how cricket is a safe place. Recently, De Kock has starred in several social media video activations with Rockwood Conservation, giving attention to a subject that is very close to his heart.

“That stuff with Rockwood was awesome,” De Kock beamed.

In the videos, he is self-deprecating, playing up to his awkward media persona. He stumbles over his script, apologises and then sincerely delivers a far more pertinent message about rhino conservation.

“I would say that was my most enjoyable time in front of a camera,” he admitted. “I felt at ease, because there was no judgement. I was talking about the animals and the bush. I felt like I could free up and there would be no judgement.”

That judgement, that toxic culture of the public or the media taking cheap shots at performance or utterances is something that is often unspoken about, but it takes a toll. “Yeah, it does hurt. The negativity affects people in different ways, and guys try to cope how they can,” said De Kock.

Fear around the media

In the current global circumstances of a pandemic and lockdown procedures for the public and bio-bubbles for players, mental health has taken on even more relevance. Being alone for large chunks of time in hotels might sound attractive to some, but it’s a different and difficult concept for players who have been raised as a part of a team.

Loneliness, anxiety, depression and boredom are a potent cocktail that is often overlooked. What Osaka did in Paris was shed light on the silent sufferers. In the moments just after giving everything on a court, a stadium, a pool or a track, athletes have obligatory media engagements.

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Lights, camera, reaction.

Public speaking is still universally recognised as one of people’s greatest fears. A number of sports professionals, some of them still active, spoke of the fear, that sense of dread, before media engagements.

Football players spoke of the difficulties of being interviewed in English, and the subsequent ridicule that comes with trying to sound articulate in a language you are not comfortable speaking. More than half of the athletes spoke of genuine fear around the media often overshadowing the pressure of playing.

That culture can only be unhealthy. That level of trepidation can surely hamper performance and thus affect the chances of consistent success. Humans are complicated creatures, and they often carry burdens that are unseen until it is too late.

Out of the spotlight

De Kock said it was easy to speak about conservation, primarily because he knew that what he said wouldn’t come back to be used against him. “I felt like I could be myself, share my passion and not worry about what someone might think of what I said.”

He struggled with media engagements in his early days as an international player. As soon as there was a camera, De Kock would retreat into his shell, giving short answers for an audience fascinated by his talent. Away from the microphones and lenses, he was shy initially but still revealed his sharp cricket brain. 

The issue was the spotlight. 

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Recently, he had to deal with the cumulative challenges of captaining a team under pressure, media obligations, being seen as the most important batsman in the team and playing in bio-bubbles. The result was a complete loss of form and function. 

De Kock is at home in open spaces. Fishing, hiking, drilling a drive through the covers… The claustrophobia of a bio-bubble and the throttling expectations overwhelmed him. Since relinquishing the captaincy, he has returned to his potent best, with a sparkling century in the West Indies. He said he is in a far better mental space and feels free once again to explore the depths of his talents. 

Unique pressures

Many sportsmen and women have found themselves deeply affected by the unusual circumstances of the past year and a half. It has been eerie, lonely and full of anxiety. Even the loudest personalities have had to take moments of introspection, away from the din of the crowd. 

Many have not spoken of their mental scars, but the virtual traffic for mental health coaches has never been greater. The South African Cricketers’ Association noted a surge in requests from players for help.  The anxiety is real. 

Osaka’s pleas to protect herself and her mental state initially fell on confused ears. Many were baffled by how a multimillionaire could simply brush off media obligations. She is rewarded enough to at least explain herself, was the chorus. 

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But in the past fortnight, she has found support from some of the world’s greatest sporting champions. Usain Bolt. Jack Nicklaus. Billie Jean King. Serena and Venus Williams. All of them have been champions who live in a bubble of expectation and frenzied attention. Better than any fan, journalist or sponsor, they recognise her concerns. 

What had also been hugely overlooked was that Osaka was close to Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter accident in January last year. Bryant was like a big brother to her, a mentor who had been helping her deal with the unique pressures of elite sport. And that relationship ended abruptly, in an unexpected way. 

Taking all this into consideration, it is clear Osaka has been dealing with a lot more than the rigours of winning matches on clay. 

A changing world

As the world clumsily tries to navigate the world of mental health and public performance anxiety, there may well be changes to institutions such as the post-match press conference. In the cold light of day, it is generally a bunch of observers and analysts asking someone who has just performed at the highest level of sport to explain how they think the performance went. 

Often, there is an instigator looking for a punchline or a controversial angle. Without fail, there is the obligatory question about mood in the camp, or where to from here? It is largely formulaic and perhaps Osaka’s refusal to face such questions will challenge the media to revisit its role in a changing world. 

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No longer are journalists the umbilical cord between athletes and an expectant public. Social media now provides millions of fans direct access to their favourite stars. 

It is little wonder, then, that more and more sport stars are coming forward and admitting that they dread the routine, especially after running the gauntlet of television and pitch or courtside interviews before getting to the written press. 

The world and its priorities are changing. All the time.

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