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A Year That Changed How Athletes Think About Mental Health

The psychological challenges of sports have been talked about for ages. In 2021, athletes in a number of disciplines took action.

“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” posted Naomi Osaka prior to the French Open in May.,

Back in February, it felt like an ordinary instance of something extraordinary: Naomi Osaka, losing and facing match point against Garbiñe Muguruza, in the fourth round of the Australian Open, unfurled a top-spin forehand that curved into the far corner, forcing an error by Muguruza. Osaka went on to win the match and, three rounds later, the title. It was her second Grand Slam in a row and her fourth in three years. She had other, more spectacular highlights in the tournament: a slice drop volley off her shoelaces against Ons Jabeur; a forehand down the center of the court so powerful that Serena Williams, standing just a few feet away, barely leaned toward it. But it was the saved match point that I returned to during the next few months, when I thought about Osaka’s performance in Melbourne. It was one of those moments that sports used to offer me with some regularity—a moment when everything else fell away, and only the stakes of the competition mattered.

I hadn’t experienced that feeling much during the previous year, for all the obvious reasons. When Osaka lifted the trophy in Australia, things were not back to normal, of course, nor did they even seem that way—Melbourne was just emerging from a short but brutal lockdown, not its first, and Jennifer Brady, Osaka’s opponent in the final, had begun her time in Australia in a two-week quarantine, doing agility drills in the space beside her hotel bed. But the mood was starting to shift. There were people in the stands. The coronavirus vaccines were becoming more widely available, and the worst of a brutal winter wave of infections was receding. Restaurants were reopening. Tom Brady had just won another Super Bowl. Soon, the weather warmed, and spring training started. The pandemic hadn’t ended, but it felt possible to imagine the day that it might. Sports, always a fun-house mirror of the wider world, reflected that sense of possibility.

The mood didn’t last. Many people refused to get vaccinated; some parts of the world could not get enough vaccines from the wealthier countries that had them; the covid death toll for 2021 caught up with that of 2020, and later surpassed it. The feeling that came to predominate was not hopefulness but whiplash, in sports as in everything else. It was not clear, anymore, what even counted for normalcy, or what should.

In the midst of all this, toward the end of May, Osaka posted a long note on social media explaining that she was not going to do any press during the French Open. “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” she wrote. Osaka’s candor elicited both praise and pushback. On Reddit, Osaka’s sister, evidently trying to defend her, suggested that Osaka was trying to insulate herself from criticism of her play on clay. But Osaka’s remarks seemed to hint at something more serious. A week later, after the four Grand Slam tournaments issued a joint statement threatening fines for any player who did not speak to the media, she pulled out of the French Open altogether, and then she took to social media again, where she elaborated on the reference to mental health in her initial post, explaining that she had suffered from periods of depression ever since she was catapulted into stardom, in 2018, by beating Serena Williams in the U.S. Open final.

Osaka is hardly the first prominent athlete to speak openly about her psychological struggles. In the past several years, in particular, stars in a range of sports have publicly discussed dealing with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. The N.B.A., the N.C.A.A., and even the N.F.L.—probably the league most closely associated with a man-up, get-over-it mentality—now have fairly robust counselling and mental-health services. Still, Osaka’s withdrawal seemed like the sort of event that could change how mental health was talked about in the sports world, and perhaps beyond it. This wasn’t only a matter of her candor; it was that she had chosen not to play.

In July, at the Tokyo Olympics, Simone Biles withdrew from the women’s gymnastics team final. She had lost her air sense—gotten a case of “the twisties,” as gymnasts evocatively put it. Biles, the all-around favorite and the unofficial face of a controversial Games, had been competing in the aftermath of widespread sexual, emotional, and physical abuse in her sport—abuse that she herself had suffered. It was too much for anyone, she later acknowledged. Biles said that she hadn’t initially intended to make a statement; she simply knew that she was not in a state to compete. But, after she withdrew, Google searches of the phrase “mental health” spiked worldwide. At the Olympic Village, Biles was swarmed by athletes who wanted to thank her. She returned for the final in the beam, performing with a modified dismount and winning bronze. She said that she had made the decision to compete for herself, and no one else.

In October, the Atlanta Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley stepped away from the N.F.L., to “focus on my mental wellbeing,” as he put it. The Philadelphia Eagles tackle Lane Johnson missed three games while battling anxiety and depression. The former U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu announced that she would not be competing at the Australian Open, writing that she had been affected by frequent periods of isolation and her grandmother’s hospitalization with covid. She “was feeling the collective sadness and turmoil around and it took its toll on me,” she wrote. The U.S. soccer star Christine Press, after becoming the first player to join the much-hyped expansion team Angel City F.C., of the National Women’s Soccer League, announced that she was stepping away from the sport, for a time, to focus on her mental health and process the grief that followed the death of her mother. When, a few weeks later, the N.W.S.L. suspended games for a weekend, amid allegations that a prominent head coach had psychologically abused and sexually coerced players—one in a series of accusations of harrassment and misconduct within the league—the players’ association announced that the break had been demanded by the players, and was intended to give them “space to process this pain.” (The coach has denied most of the allegations.)

Most, though not all, of these athletes are Black, and it is surely not a coincidence that this has happened in the wake of a pandemic that, in the United States, has hit the Black community particularly hard. Osaka is one of many athletes who participated in the widespread protests for racial justice that followed the murder of George Floyd and that, for a time, in 2020, overtook even the coronavirus as the major story of the sports world. Public attention has subsided since then, but, for many, the hurt has not.

Putting aside the predictable bombast of the toy soldiers of the culture wars, the public response to Biles, Osaka, and others has been overwhelmingly positive. More and more people seem comfortable with the idea that mental health matters as much as physical health. “You have to take care of your brain just like you take care of your body,” the Tennessee Titans wide receiver A. J. Brown told reporters, after posting a video on TikTok and Instagram in which he talked about dealing with suicidal thoughts the year before. (Social media has figured prominently in the conversation about mental health in the past year, cutting both ways—heightening the intense scrutiny many athletes receive, but also allowing athletes to speak directly and candidly to fans and the public.) The stigma against talking about psychological pain is diminishing. This is a hugely positive thing.

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And yet, however well-intentioned that conversation is, certain complexities are persistently elided or overlooked. You can perform an MRI to diagnose an A.C.L. tear, and then follow a well-established rehabilitation program that comes with a relatively predictable timetable for your return. Psychological issues are rarely so straightforward in their diagnosis or their treatment. The very phrase “mental health” is so broad as to become, at times, unhelpful. The phrase that people tend to avoid, of course, is “mental illness”—a tacit admission, perhaps, that these athletes are generally talking about more common psychological problems, and also, possibly, evidence that certain stigmas have not gone away.

Mental health has been invoked in serious ways by the athletes above and by other prominent sports figures, such as Michael Phelps, who has discussed suffering from depression so deep that he was unsure of whether he could emerge from it. It has also been invoked, for instance, by Aaron Rodgers, who, after weeks of trolling his team, the Green Bay Packers—and, apparently, devising a plan to avoid the covid vaccine—said that he spent the summer working “on my mental health.” Did he mean it, or was he being glib? It’s hard to say. Before the N.B.A. season began, the star point guard Ben Simmons said that he was done playing for the Philadelphia 76ers, despite the four years left on his contract. Many fans and even some of his teammates were openly frustrated with him, until he told the team that he wasn’t mentally ready to play—at which point his teammates, at least, moved to show their support. The timing of his statement, shortly after it became clear that Simmons would have to forfeit his salary if he simply refused to play, prompted cynicism among others, as did ​​Simmons’s initial refusal to engage with his team’s counselling services. (He reportedly worked with therapists provided by the N.B.A. players’ association, before finally agreeing to meet with the team’s counsellors.) His agent, Rich Paul, said that Simmons’s conflict with the team “furthered the mental-health issues for Ben.”

Reflexively doubting Simmons risks undermining the seriousness of these concerns; it is difficult to express skepticism without reinforcing the old stigma. In truth, though, athletes are almost inevitably imperfect role models for most of us when it comes to both physical and mental health. They train themselves to push their bodies—and their minds—toward extremes that can be at once awe-inspiring and unhealthy. They compete with torn cartilage and broken bones; they will themselves onward under pressure that would crush a normal person. We celebrate them for this, and rightly so: it is what allows them to perform almost unimaginable feats. But it often comes with a cost. This year, many athletes pointed that out, and some decided that, for them, the cost had become too steep.

Osaka missed Wimbledon. She returned to the international spotlight at the Tokyo Olympics. With so much time away from the tour, and with the intense scrutiny that came with representing Japan—she lit the torch for the Games—it wasn’t surprising when she was defeated in the third round. Still, it was clear that Osaka felt the loss deeply. A few weeks later, at the U.S. Open, she had a comfortable lead against the young, unranked Canadian player Leylah Fernandez; then her play began to unravel. More than once, she slammed her racquet into the ground in disgust.

After Osaka lost the match, she addressed the media, choking back tears. “I feel like, for me, recently, when I win, I don’t feel happy, I feel more like a relief,” she said. “And then, when I lose, I feel very sad. And I don’t think that’s normal.” The moderator of the press conference gave her the chance to end it, but, with visible effort, she kept speaking. “This is very hard to articulate,” she went on. “Well, basically, I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match.”

My mind flashed back to that moment in Melbourne, when she faced match point. Confidence on the court is a real but narrow kind of courage; what Osaka was doing now seemed to require bravery of another order. As painful as it was to watch, there was hope in it, too—a chance, maybe, to redefine what success can mean, and what we consider, after all this, to be normal.

Louisa Thomas is a staff writer at The New Yorker. She is the author of three books and a co-editor of “Losers: Dispatches from the Other Side of the Scoreboard.”