Is showing weakness a sign of failure?

Josanne Cassar | While discipline, sacrifice and mental strength are essential at this level of elite sports, it is becoming clearer that it has to be balanced with emotional and psychological well-being

There has been a lot of talk this year about mental health issues, not only due to Covid-19, but also within the world of sports. 

Most notably, two star athletes, 24-year-old Simone Biles (US gymnast) and 23-year-old Naomi Osaka (Japanese tennis player), were both at the top of their game, winning medals and trophies and hailed as “the best” in their respective sports. 

But then, on the eve of this year’s French Open, Osaka announced she would not be attending any press conferences at Roland Garros; an announcement which was met by uproar and threats of expulsion by the organisers if she did not fulfil her media obligations.  She explained her decision in this way: 

“We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.” 

She added that she doesn’t appreciate how many members of the media make athletes re-live poor performances and views it as “kicking a person while they’re down.” 

After her first-round win, she announced she was withdrawing from the tournament completely: 

“I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer. More importantly I would never trivialise mental health or use the term lightly. "The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” her statement read. 

This shock announcement from someone at the top of her career, led to mixed reactions from both tennis fans and fellow players, some of whom argued that athletes would be nothing without the media attention. 

Then, during the Tokyo Olympics, Simone Biles abruptly withdrew from several gymnastic events, citing the need to focus on her mental health because the pressure of always being ‘the best’ was too much.  Again, there was huge controversy with some supporting her stand, while others spoke scathingly about the fact that she was ‘quitting in the face of adversity’ and bringing ‘shame to the country’. 

What both athletes have highlighted by withdrawing, however, is the intense scrutiny which comes with being catapulted to the dizzying heights of fame at a young age, and the financial obligations which come with Big Sport. But these two incidents are just the tip of the iceberg, especially with mentally challenging individual sports such as tennis, where all eyes are on a sole athlete. Tennis player Mardy Fish, the former US number one, recently opened up in a documentary about the severe and crippling anxiety disorder which led him to withdraw from his match against Roger Federer in the 2012 US Open. At the time he cited health reasons, but in reality he was spiralling out of control and could not get to grips with the tumultuous thoughts speeding through his mind. (In fact, following Naomi Osaka’s statement about her mental health he was one of the people who publicly supported her, because he knew exactly what she was going through). 

While discipline, sacrifice and mental strength are essential at this level of elite sports, it is becoming clearer that it has to be balanced with emotional and psychological well-being. The alternative is the burn out of promising athletes who should be basking in the glory of reaching the pinnacle of the career they have worked so hard for. Unfortunately, if talking about depression and anxiety is seen as a sign of weakness or failure, we risk losing not only the best in international sports, but more worryingly, also damaging these athletes as human beings.  The intense demands made not only by sports federations, but also lucrative commercial endorsements as well as the public to continue to deliver have been perfectly outlined in articles such as that written by Barry Svrluga, ‘Simone Biles and the price of being a GOAT’ (which is not an insult, but actually stands for Greatest of All Time).  As he rightly asked, “what are we doing, breaking our athletes?”. 

By the time you read this, the US Open women’s finals will have been decided and we will know which of the two teenagers, 19-year-old Canadian Leylah Fernandez and British player 18-year-old Emma Raducanu, will have won their first Grand Slam. It is the first time two teenagers are facing each other in the finals since 1999. I hope whoever wins will be able to handle what comes next, which will undoubtedly be a media frenzy. Some might argue that in the past, teenagers in elite sports were made of sterner stuff, and that this ‘snowflake’ generation seems to crumble at the first sign of pressure. However, it cannot be disputed that, these days, it is not just  the microphones and cameras shoved in their faces after their match, along with the formal interviews and press conferences which they have to deal with, but the expectation to be constantly present on social media, specifically on Instagram and Twitter.  Perhaps what needs to be scaled back is this incessant intrusion into every aspect of their lives, stripping them of any privacy, which is definitely not healthy.  

After all, as much as these talented teenagers are inspiring young children to dream of one day being on that centre court, or of taking part in the Olympics, it can also have a detrimental effect on aspiring youngsters if these athletes are mentally broken by a system which simply sees them as a money-making machine.  

Are we ‘woke’ enough yet? 

I consider myself quite open-minded when it comes to equality, but there are times when even my teeth are set on edge by the insistence on being ‘woke’ (definition: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice). 

The extent to which this whole concept has now been blown out of proportion was brought home to me by a book recommended to me by a friend, written by Ben Elton, entitled Identity Crisis. In his inimitable satirical style, Elton demonstrates the absurdity of the society we are living in by taking the idea of woke-ness to extreme lengths. In this novel, a police detective strives to investigate a murder but keeps tripping up each time he has to address the media because he can never get the latest political correctness and jargon quite right. The book also scarily delves into how easily what we see on our newsfeed can be manipulated through algorithms, and how hashtags about specific hot button issues start trending not through a natural, organic process but because someone is pulling the strings.   

The fear of offending anyone (and in the process, inevitably, offending someone) is so spot on and funny, that you have to keep stopping to wipe the tears of laughter from your eyes. 

Many things I come across remind me of this novel, and Air Malta’s latest decision that it would be using gender-neutral language rather than ‘ladies and gentlemen’ is one of them.  Does it matter to me that they are going to use ‘guests’ instead?  Not one iota, but come on, this is all verging on the ridiculous.  What difference does it make really to people who have changed their gender? If a he has become a she (or vice-versa), then logic tells me that, ‘ladies and gentleman’ should not be a problem. And please don’t tell me this is about those who are gender fluid or non-binary because, again, come on, shouldn’t the national airline be concerned about more important things?  This is like unisex restrooms, the very thought of which grosses me out because too many men are, frankly, unhygienic. Why should there be unisex bathrooms – shouldn’t the few people who have changed their gender simply go to the restroom with which they now identify? 

As for celebrities like Demi Lovato telling us they want to use the pronoun ‘they’ because they have not decided what gender they are, my eyes cannot roll more than they roll after reading such statements. Honestly, who cares about the confusion you have about your sexuality? I certainly don’t. But there is also no way I am going around saying ‘they’ when I am addressing or referring to someone. 

I have also noticed that so many TV shows are trying to self-consciously incorporate all these new terms at some point in their episodes to prove they are woke, that again, my reaction has become, ‘oh please, give me a break’. 

You know what I would like to see more of?  People, no matter their gender, who are polite, well-mannered, kind and considerate, and who act decently towards others. What they do in the bedroom and with whom is none of anyone’s concern, and I just wish they would stop telling everyone about it.