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OSAKAOUT

OSAKA, BILES AND DOZENS MORE SPEAK UP ON EMOTIONAL WELL BEING

While we use the Olympics to celebrate the strength of our world’s youth, perhaps the real strength is admitting that you’re not as strong as some would like to believe

What a whirlwind few days it was for Naomi Osaka. Just days after lighting the Tokyo 2020 opening ceremony’s Olympic flame (“Undoubtedly the greatest athletic achievement and honour I will ever have in my life.”), the world’s number 2 tennis player crashed out 6-1, 6-4 in a stunning upset to 42nd-ranked Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic, in barely more than one hour.

Sport is hardly a stranger to such drama. But as Osaka had earlier highlighted her struggles with mental health, how she would deal with those extreme highs and lows once again became the centre-piece on the sports news dinner table.

Likely because of Osaka’s brave stance in going public and attempting to start a dialogue with her sport’s authorities, the way was cleared for Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast of all time, to shed light on her very public failures at the Tokyo Games.

Biles, who has already had to deal with the microscope set on historical sexual abuse struggles, was now challenged by a quite different phenomena. The ‘twisties’ are the gymnastics equivalent of the yips in golf, snooker, cricket and darts where players struggle to execute essential but standard physical mechanisms because of a little-understood psychological condition.

Trying to push off the vault, in the Olympic team final, she had planned a 2½-twisting manoeuvre, but her mind shut down after just 1½ twists.

“I had no idea where I was in the air,” Biles said. “I could have hurt myself.”

That terrifying prospect has since seen Biles withdraw from a series of follow-up events, winning both plaudits and criticism for taking care of her own mental well-being, ahead of the well-established desire for gold medals.

Steve Magness, a performance coach for Olympians told the New York Times: “We have a fundamental misconception of what it means to be tough,” addressing the need to win at all costs. “It’s not gritting our teeth through everything; it’s having the space to make the right choice despite pressure, stress and fatigue.”

Prior to 2021 (and pertinently, perhaps we could say: prior to Covid-19) there were only scattered references to mental health concerns in sport: Cricketers on long tours away from family while under immense pressure; boxers, who having retired became lost without the rigid discipline involved in daily training routines; and notably, swimmer Michael Phelps who spoke about anxiety, depression and even suicide amid post-Olympic life.

But suddenly Osaka and Biles have opened a very meaningful floodgate that has paved the way for others to come forward and hopefully claim some relief from previously having to bottle up their troubles.

Listening to Singapore Olympic swimmer Joscelin Yeo speak on the subject, this new conversation can’t come soon enough.

“I had support from the government for what I embarked on. But emotional support was not something that was really talked about. There was physical training, mental training in the form of sports psychologists, but no one ever talked about emotional support,” she recalled via email.

“It was a bit of a taboo subject, like as if athletes are just meant to be tough all around; no time for that kind of ‘weakness’,” she said. 

Now a mother of four, Yeo competed in four Olympic Games from 1992 in Barcelona through to the 2004 Games in Athens. While wishing there had been more emotional support in her era, she’s glad that today, Singapore’s national swimmers get the kind of assistance they do. 

“It shows that there’s better understanding and support for what an athlete needs. It also helps others to understand that these are things that athletes have to work on; it doesn’t just happen, or come with being an athlete, or is some kind of DNA that’s already a part of them. And if an athlete has to work on it, so does anyone!”

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the pressures put upon you by work, family or just life in general, speak to someone whom you trust. A friend or a doctor should be able to give you some perspective and that alone may be of help. Otherwise seek further professional advice. Not feeling ok, is ok. And that message comes from the greatest sports people of our time.
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