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The mental health of athletes must be a priority

Naomi Osaka's withdrawal from Roland Garros is just the latest of many cases

The mental health of athletes must be a priority Naomi Osaka's withdrawal from Roland Garros is just the latest of many cases

Mental health in sport is becoming an increasingly central issue and Naomi Osaka's retirement at Roland Garros 2021 is the tip of the iceberg that has become much more visible thanks to Kevin Love's coming out. The number 2 tennis player in the ATP ranking on the eve of the French Open had stated that she would have deserted the press conferences of the tournament because sometimes the interviews are equivalent to "kicking people when they are on the ground". After a 15,000 euro fine, Osaka decided to step away from the Grand Slam tournaments to prioritize her mental health, mostly undermined by "interactions with people who doubt me and have had a detrimental effect on my life".

Having weaknesses, especially when you are in top form or when you have maximum visibility, seems to have become a problem. Naomi's long outburst on social media goes precisely in this direction:

I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris. I never wanted to be a distraction. The truth is that I suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that. I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly. I'm gonna take some time away from the court now, but when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the platers, press and fans.

The issue becomes even more marked when athletes of all disciplines begin to suffer from the contraindications of stress. The most intimate and human part of the sports player seems to be in contrast with the figure of supermen and superwomen who portray most of the media. At the moment in which the great organizational systems - whether it be the FIA, FIFA, the ATP or the NBA - make commercial interests prevail over the psycho-physical priorities of the players, sport has already lost its fundamental value.

In addition to Kevin Love - player of the Cavaliers who in 2020 with an emotional letter published by The Player Tribune opened Pandora's box and who opened the first "Mental Health Gym" in the world - the list of sportsmen who have exposed themselves on the issue of mental health is really long: from football examples like Héctor Bellerín (whose mental health was severely tested during the injury, an incredible process told in his documentary) to Gigi Buffon, to NBA stars like DeMar DeRozan, the first to echo the strong words of the Cleveland colleague, passing through Lewis Hamilton and Michael Phelps.

The most ready organizations - be it clubs, federations or leagues - have begun to take the matter seriously. Adam Silver, NBA commissioner, has repeatedly stated that "although the players have millions of dollars in salaries, they are really unhappy" and followed up these statements with the first program structured to help athletes in difficulty: it is called Mind Health and supports players with specific therapies to manage stress, depression symptoms and other side effects of their sports life.

Mental health comes first, because before being considered superstars, phenomena and heroes, they are above all people. People who have weaknesses, who have different backgrounds and who internalize the spotlight constantly on them in a different way. There are those who manage everything and those who need support. Talking about it, externalizing the problems is the first big step to dispel one of the biggest taboos of the sport system.