Naomi Osaka: "It Takes More Strength to Speak Up than to Stay Quiet"

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·5 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Photo credit: Quality Sport Images - Getty Images
Photo credit: Quality Sport Images - Getty Images

In recent years, young athletes such as tennis star Naomi Osaka, gymnast Simone Biles, and snowboarder Chloe Kim have begun breaking down the stigma around discussing mental health in the professional sports world.

Osaka famously made headlines last year when she withdrew from the French Open to focus on her mental wellness. Now, the four-time Grand Slam singles champion is partnering with Modern Health, a mental health platform, to continue to destigmatize mental illness—especially among younger generations and underrepresented populations.

The pro tennis player will serve as the chief community health advocate of Modern Health’s community impact program, which will provide marginalized communities with access to resources and mental health care.

"I hope by working together we can help others join the conversation and also offer clinically backed resources, because too often people want the help of a professional and just don't know how to find it," Osaka tells BAZAAR.com.

Osaka herself has had a difficult relationship with mental health care, and it wasn't until recently that she started speaking out about experiencing mental health issues and making an effort to help herself heal.

"Growing up, I kept quiet about my feelings and, in particular, about times when I felt anxious or just not myself. I do think even though mental health is a topic we are starting to be more open about, for some people, there is still a stigma attached," she says. "After speaking up, my view on expressing the need for a break or space or help really changed. Speaking up and being really honest with everyone has allowed me such freedom and a sense of relief, and the outpouring from others about their own struggles made me feel less alone."

Some things that have helped her in her journey are meditation and therapy. The first, she says, allows her to start her day feeling balanced and with a purpose—"rather than from an anxiety-ridden point." And though she was resistant to therapy at first and found it "a scary first step," attending sessions regularly has also given her peace of mind.

"I'm also trying to be more reflective every day and make sure I take note of what I've achieved or what I'm grateful for," Osaka tells BAZAAR.

The tennis star is in a very different headspace than the one she was in when she left the French Open last summer, but she still sees the moment as a turning point for herself.

"I think all of us athletes can relate to feeling pressure, not only from the outside world, but the pressure we also place on ourselves," Osaka says. "As an athlete, strength is key to how you are perceived, so for me admitting I wasn't always okay was a big step. The good thing is that I learned after speaking up that not only was I not alone, but admitting I needed a break meant I was not weak. In fact, it takes more strength to speak up than to stay quiet."

Today, she is healing, she is less afraid to confront her own anxieties, and she feels empowered by how the world has reacted to her openness.

"This year, I am in a different state for sure. While I may not always feel 100 percent, I am able to voice feelings," the athlete says.

Within the professional sports world, pro tennis in particular has long been known as an incredibly hush-hush, elite, non-inclusive universe. But in recent years, that has begun to change, much thanks to stars like Osaka, as well as Venus and Serena Williams.

Osaka says she is "honored" to be part of that shift and has been pleasantly surprised by the support she has gotten from her peers since she addressed her mental health troubles last year.

"So many people reached out to me privately and publicly, and it really was helpful for me to know that I wasn't alone, but also that I was able to help someone else," she says. "The mental health conversation in sports has really just started, but I am really optimistic about the direction it is moving in. I see more than ever that athletes are speaking up without shame or stigma, and rather than being looked at as weak, they are being regarded as human. This needs to become the standard rather than the exception."

Much like Osaka, Team USA gymnast Simone Biles dropped out of part of the Tokyo Olympics, admitting that her body and her mind were simply not in sync. And Olympic snowboarding champion Chloe Kim announced she would sit out the 2022–23 season to focus on her mental health following a "draining" year.

Asked if the fame that comes with being a pro athlete has contributed to her mental health issues over the past couple years, Osaka says it certainly has, but in many ways, it has been worth it.

"I remember after I got back from France last year and having photographers follow me even at random places like the grocery store. It felt really odd and a bit overwhelming, until one day a woman came up to me and told me that by speaking up, I helped her son," Osaka says. "At that moment, it did all feel worthwhile. While fame can be overwhelming, there is so much good that has come out of it for me."

Being a public figure has allowed her to start her own foundation, Play Academy—where young girls are encouraged and empowered to play sports—as well as launch her management company, Evolve, and skincare brand, KINLÒ, which offers sun and skin-protection products for people with melanated skin. "All of the things I can do because of fame will always outweigh the pressures I may experience being in the spotlight, and knowing each of these projects can help others is even more fulfilling," Osaka says.

You Might Also Like