Awareness among the populace regarding mental health has only increased in recent times. In the field of sports, many sportspeople have spoken publicly about the underlying issue. Not only have they tried to spread awareness about the condition but also urged people around the world to respect and help individuals suffering from it. Moreover, some have even gone to the extent of publicly revealing that they are suffering from poor mental health. While the problem was, for long, neglected because people could not see the illness in a ‘physical form’, more and more sportspeople and other significant individuals speaking about mental health is changing the narrative for good.
Ever since its inception, the COVID-19 pandemic has further made the situation difficult for sportspeople. Starting from being not allowed to step out of the bio-bubbles created at sporting events to isolating before and after the tournaments and playing at stadiums with zero crowds, the matters have only left a negative impact on the mental health of players. So much so that a lot of players are coming forward and taking breaks from their games to address the issue and give themselves and their mental health the much-needed time to recover. Let’s talk about a few players who have, in recent times, stepped aside from their respective sport due to mental health issues.
Naomi Osaka can be called the leader of the American mental health movement. It all started when the tennis star refused to speak to the media at the French Open 2021. Osaka insisted at the tournament that she would not attend any press conferences for her mental well being. The 23-year-old later withdrew from the tournament stating, “I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media”. “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 players, press, and fans”, she added.
“It’s O.K. to not be O.K., and it’s O.K. to talk about it”, she wrote in an essay after withdrawing from the tournament. The reaction to her decision was a mixed bag comprising immense support as well as criticism. Several experts, commentators, and corporate sponsors praised her honesty and courage. Following the revelations at the French Open, Osaka announced that she would not take part in the 2021 Wimbledon to take some “personal time” off to spend with friends and family. The 23-year-old, however, said she would be participating in the Tokyo Olympics. Osaka crashed out of the Olympics in the 3rd round as Flora Duffy delivered gold for Bermuda for the first time in the tiny island’s history.
Joining the movement started by Naomi, several other players, including sprinter Noah Lyle and swimmer Simone Manuel spoke publicly about mental health treatment or challenges. The world was shocked when Meghan Markle said she experienced suicidal thoughts during her time with the royal family and that she couldn’t seek help. Markle revealed her mental sufferings at an Oprah interview.
Coming back to sports, the Tokyo Olympics were at the centre stage when American gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of the women’s team gymnastics final at the mega event. “I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being”, Biles said as she withdrew from the grand finale, where Russia registered a comfortable win over the Americans to clinch Gold. Biles told reporters while she wanted it to be for herself at the Olympics, she felt she was still doing it for others. The star gymnast said she was having ‘twisties’, which prompted her to prioritize her mental well being over anything else. According to experts, twisties is a mental health condition that affects gymnasts. The ailment develops when the body and mind become disconnected. Biles even posted a video on Instagram explaining twisties, only to delete it later.
On 30 July, England all-rounder announced he would be taking an indefinite break from all forms of cricket. The 30-year-old said the break is for him to focus on his mental wellbeing and continue his recovery from a finger injury. The last year or so has been pretty harsh on sportspeople, and the story with cricketers hasn’t been any different. Ben Stokes spent the majority of the last year away from home. The all-rounder had to live in bio-secure environments with England’s Test and limited-overs squads. Also, his time at the Indian Premier League with Rajasthan Royals was in bio-secure environments. As if the stress of bio-bubbles wasn’t enough, Stokes had to miss two of England’s Tests against Pakistan in order to visit his family in New Zealand. He was then struck by his father’s death. Stokes’ father battled brain cancer in the last days of his life.
The England Cricket Board was fully supportive of the decision, stating the board would “continue to help him during this period away from the game”. England’s director of men’s cricket, Ashley Giles, also came forward in Stokes’ support and said Stokes has “shown tremendous courage to open up about his feelings and wellbeing”. Stokes’ absence is surely going to hurt England in the Test series against India, followed by the white-ball series against Bangladesh and Pakistan. As for the five-match Test series against India, Stokes has been replaced by Craig Overton. Fans, as well as cricket experts, already look forward to the return of the prolific all-rounder.