‘I'm really happy with – of course I lost – but I'm happy with how it went’.
They were the words of tennis superstar Naomi Osaka after she exited the Australian Open last month.
Osaka, the defending champion and multiple grand slam winner, earned match point on a couple of occasions but failed to convert them, eventually suffering a shock second-round loss to an unseeded player.
So why was she ‘really happy’ after the match?
Because what matters most to Osaka now is perspective. She wants to enjoy the game, try her best and ‘just have the greatest attitude ever’.
Not so long ago, things were very different. Last year, shortly after winning her first match of the tournament, Osaka pulled out of the French Open on mental health grounds. She said she experienced ‘huge waves of anxiety’ before meeting with the media and had suffered ‘long bouts of depression’ since winning the US Open as a 21-year-old in 2018.
She also skipped Wimbledon before returning for the US Open in September, where she lost in the third round.
‘I feel like for me recently when I win, I don’t feel happy, I feel more like a relief’, she said at an emotional press conference afterwards. ‘And then when I lose, I feel very sad. And I don’t think that’s normal’. She was, she added, going to take a break from the game.
Osaka is not the only high-profile sportsperson to recently talk about her mental health struggles. Mental health pressures resulted in acclaimed US gymnast Simone Biles withdrawing from several Olympic events last summer.
These are not isolated examples, as research indicates that many professional athletes are in the same boat. Male athletes, for example, have been found to be more vulnerable to eating disorders and more likely to use performance-enhancing drugs than non-athletes. A 2013 study found that depression is quite common among professional swimmers. The very best swimmers, it found, were particularly vulnerable to depression.
One reason why professional sportspersons can be susceptible to mental health issues is that many are high-achieving perfectionists. Naomi Osaka’s comments are revealing in this regard and testify to the dangers of perfectionism.
‘I tell people I'm a perfectionist’, Osaka said last year. ‘For me, something that's less than perfection, even though it might be something great, is a disappointment. I don't really think that's a healthy way of thinking, so something that I really want to change.’
She is right: as I have noted in past columns (see here, here and here), perfectionism is an unhealthy, dangerous trait. It is linked to a variety of emotional disorders, and causes great unhappiness and pain.
Perfectionists are especially likely to downplay their achievements and discount the positives, saying things like “It wasn’t that hard”, or “I may have come top of my class, but I could have done better”.
Unsurprisingly, this can hammer your self-esteem. Osaka mentions how sometimes a little kid will tell her that she is their favourite player or a role model. ‘Instinctively the first thought in my mind is “Why?”’.
An impartial observer might say, “Why? Because you’ve won multiple grand slams, are one of the best players in the world and you’re a role model who uses your platform to highlight racial injustice”.
What is obvious to others is often not obvious to perfectionists, however, due to this tendency to discount and explain away one’s achievements.
Naomi Osaka is now trying to change this perfectionist thinking. ‘I feel like I have to sort of embrace more the feeling, the honour that they're telling me that, and I should believe more in myself’, she says.
Instead of beating herself up when falls short of perfection, she now talks about trying her best and viewing mistakes as learning opportunities. ‘I'm not God’, she says. ‘I can't win every match’.
And this isn’t just in relation to her tennis. ‘ It's more like a life thing’, she says. ‘I hope I can keep this mindset throughout my life going forward.’
Try your best, be good to yourself, view mistakes as learning opportunities, acknowledge your achievements – simple but very true advice that all of us should heed.
(First published in Southern Star on 03/02/2022)