How the Intense Pressure of Pro Sports Has Athletes Like Naomi Osaka Needing a Mental Health Break

“They’re regular people, human beings, just like the rest of us and have their own struggles and concerns,” says sports psychologist Dr. Nicole Detling

Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka. Photo: Jason Heidrich/Icon Sportswire via Getty

When Naomi Osaka said that she would skip press conferences during the 2021 French Open to limit her anxiety — and later withdrew from the tournament — she sent a message to the tennis world, professional athletes in all sports and every person, competitor or not, that mental health has to come first.

"It was huge," Dr. Nicole Detling, mental performance coach at HeadStrong Consulting, tells PEOPLE. "Anytime you have someone who a lot of people look up to and admire and pay attention to speaking about something that has been taboo for so long, it just increases awareness and it normalizes making mental health a priority."

Just two months later, gymnast Simone Biles took a stand for her mental health when she withdrew from the team and all-around events at the Tokyo Olympics, citing the immense stress she's been under as the star athlete for Team USA.

Days before the start of competition, Biles had said on Instagram: "I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn't affect me but damn sometimes it's hard."

Though athletes are often seen as tougher than the average person based on their ability to physically dominate on the court or field, they're still human, Detling emphasizes.

"At the end of the day, amazing athletes are not special people," she says. "They're regular people who have special physical talents and they've honed those talents and they've worked for years and years and years to get where they are, but they're no different than any of the rest of us who have worked really hard to get wherever we are in our careers."

Just like the average person, they deal with anxiety and depression, and struggle with expectations of perfectionism and negative self-talk.

"The list is endless and it's the exact same list for them as it is for us," Detling says.

The difference is that athletes are under intense public pressure to succeed at their sport.

"The only difference is that publicity, it's that external pressure that the world is watching," she says. "Imagine there's a million people watching you do your job and yelling from the crowd that what we're doing is wrong and how stupid we are, and for them, that's constant. They're getting that all the time. And of course, that's going to weigh on you."

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"Some athletes handle it better than others, but it's not because those people have special powers. It's just because they've managed it in ways that are really more productive and beneficial for them."

Detling hopes that because of athletes like Osaka, and Michael Phelps and Kevin Love before her, speaking openly about their mental health, more people will make theirs a priority.

"That kind of normalization will be super beneficial for all the other athletes out there who don't feel okay," she says. "It'll just continue to become more normalized to recognize that it's okay to not be okay, and to get help for that."

For anyone, athlete or not, that is struggling with their mental health, Detling encourages them to "reach out."

"There's so many people out there willing to help, you just have to reach out."

If you or someone you know needs mental health help, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.

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