Me, myself and Naomi can have mountains moved if we just mention mental health

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To start, I’m going to let you in on a little secret.

Long before I settled on being a hack (failed hack to some/many), I’d ambitions of being a pilot. My uncle was one and it was like the nerd equivalent of being a rock legend or a sports star.

The uniform. The literal high flying. The respect. The globe trotting. The money. The lot.

There was one small problem though.

To this very day I’ve a psychological issue and a brain barrier that means every time I get on a plane I’m convinced I’m going to die. I can just about tolerate the repeated and brutal panic attacks down the back. But that probably wouldn’t be a whole lot of use in the cockpit, despite my studies of aviation and the ins and outs of the controls and systems.

Or so I thought.

You see recently I’ve realised so many would take my side over the big, bad corporate world of airlines and their unfair job specifications. Turns out my anxiety fits into the realm of mental health. And those two words are so powerful that a large chunk of people expect employers to change everything regardless of the ramifications, and to bend over backwards for those that bring to the table the mild inconvenience of not actually being able to do all of the job.

Naomi Osaka and I have that in common and therefore we get each other.

And thankfully others get us, and have our backs, and scream about the discrimination and the road blocks put up because of something that is not really our fault. Mountains will be moved for us to be what we want to be, despite sense and logic saying we cannot be. All pushed by the woke masses who have found an issue that is a gold mine for easy likes and vital virtue signaling, without ever caring for the practicalities of or implications in real life.

That’s the modern world and that has allowed us to fulfill our dreams against all of the odds.

Once more, Naomi should be allowed aim for Grand Slams.

And at last I must be allowed aim for the sky.


Who knew so many people were interested in women’s tennis?

Until recently I was sure the sport was struggling to put bums on seats outside the majors, and that ratings were low, and that it meant the area was crippled financially. Thus it wanted to make sure its famous faces were front and centre, and key sponsors and those who purchased rights demanded it or they’d walk and a house of cards would fall.

It’s either that, or a lot of people who talk so strongly and passionately and angrily on it all of a sudden actually don’t have a clue about it. How it’s funded. Its obligations. Why players are needed at press conferences. The consequences for an industry and its employees if they don’t show. And of course how Naomi Osaka fits into that entire dynamic.

Speaking to people in the game about her since she shot to fame, you’ll struggle to hear a bad word. Shy is the one that is most commonly used, and for that very reason I am trying to give her the benefit of a doubt that she and her team have created, by coincidence, along with great wealth.

When I heard she suffers with interviews and how they affect her in such an horrific way, I did a quick Google. And I found it odd that someone with such a hatred of talking to media popped up across recent months yapping away with Nike, Sports Illustrated, Vogue, GQ, CBS’s This Morning, and in repeated chats with Ellen where questions were far more awkward than any tennis press conference as she was probed about boys and crushes and personal details.

Then I remembered that benefit of the doubt and considered that perhaps paid interviews that raise her profile and value reduce this anxiety, and therefore she is able to tolerate them.

Only then I listened to some press conferences and questions about her serve and back hand and thought this may be an irritant but there’s no way that constitutes mental health. So I forced myself to repeat that mental health is bloody complicated and affects different people in so many different ways, so again I returned to the starting point of that benefit of the doubt.

Then I realised you actually cannot question anything when someone says mental health and we are reaching the stage where not being good on clay is mental health. But benefit of the doubt, benefit of the doubt, benefit of the doubt.

Ultimately it brought me to the conclusion that if she is suffering, then anyone with a heart would wish this young athlete all the best and hope she can recover and finds a peace and calm. The problem is that anyone with a brain would also know that this isn’t just about her and her feelings. It’s bigger than that and it’ll always be bigger than that, no matter if she trends briefly on social media before the next great outrage. For believe it or not – and this may be news to those that have her trending – press conferences serve a couple of key purposes.

The first is from a journalism perspective which allows for an accountability from those who use the wallets of paying customers to get rich and famous. This is sadly rare but it does exist. I can remember staying up until 2am at the Olympics to get at Mo Farah about his history of doping coaches. A few years on and I felt obliged to ask Brazil manager Tite about how far-right president Jair Bolsonaro had hijacked their Copa America win with his on-field appearances. Both caused anxiety and stopping press conferences based on anxiety will by natural extension stop that accountability. Is that really where we want to go with this? Is that really where we should go with this?

Granted, that isn’t the reason that basically every sporting organisation on the planet demand their athletes do media, despite basically every athlete finding the task a nuisance.

That’s a money thing and that makes the elite sporting world work.

Get on that ride and around you will go.

You may well find a lot of the vacuous pap spouted at such get-togethers boring and you might well be right, but there are an army of followers of the biggest stars that lust after their every word as if some ancient wisdom. It’s why sponsors have contracts that demand those biggest stars are seated in front of their logo and it’s why interest increases via them, which drives ratings, increases rights values, and brings in more companies wanting association.

It is a cornerstone of funding for what isn’t solely sport but big business. They aren’t forcing it on their athletes for the fun of it or out of a love of journalism. There’s a good reason that it’s in the contracts of players, and this is it.

That’s why Osaka isn’t just a sportsperson but a key player in her big business.

There’s a huge naivety or perhaps a flat-out refusal to digest and accept this fact.

Playing tennis is only part of her job, and if she didn’t do the rest there may not be that level and luxury of tennis for her to play. That isn’t hyperbole for too many don’t get how all this works or consider what happens if she gets a pass based on this anxiety and mental health. Take the money that her name and media work bring into the game.

Without it the business and thus the sport shrinks and shrivels and off the court the lay-offs will come. Did those hollering about her rights rather than her obligations ever worry about the mental health of those ordinary-pay workers if they lose their jobs? And what of the other tennis players and their chances?

Five years ago when an 18-year-old Osaka was ranked 145th and had a decision to make if this slog and struggle in the shadows was for her, you can be sure it helped that she could afford some sort of a living. Those that went before doing their job and making the sport the money therefore allowed her to become her best sporting self just as the money she brings in now does for the next person who dreams of being like her. It’s the sustainable cycle of this.

That is merely reality which can comfortably co-exist with offering her situation genuine sympathy. The same way understanding and caring about mental health can co-exist with not expecting a business to crumble based on it.

The inconvenient truth is that the French Open went out of its way to offer help and support to the first new female star it’s had in nearly two decades. It cannot do any more than that for just as the sport allowed her talent to prosper and make huge money, that favour has to be returned in front of media. That may seem tough but elite sport isn’t fair.

In her world the rewards are massive but to get them you’ve to have a range of talents that aren’t just physical but mental, that aren’t just about hitting a ball but dealing with the pressure all the time. If Osaka hurts her leg and cannot run, opponents won’t have their shoe laces tied together so that she can compete despite injury. And if she is suffering mentally, then that too is an injury that doesn’t mean she gets special treatment not afforded to the rest.

Ultimately such injuries mean she cannot play. Indeed they mean it would have been best if she’d withdrawn from the start and that’s on her or perhaps her team. It is ruthless and if she’s not in a position to handle that pressure, it’s best she’s away from it.

For exemptions don’t heal depression, they create animosity. And asking to be treated differently reeks of privilege regardless of your struggles and how difficult they may be.

Osaka is clearly smart but maybe at her age, she hasn’t yet realised that elite sport isn’t and shouldn’t be there to care for her feelings to a degree that threatens its very existence. She’s also an adult though and no one forced anyone to sign a contract and if she doesn’t like what’s on that page, then she’s in an extremely lucky position in that she has the resources to say no and take personal time. That’s a place many people with mental issues don’t find themselves.

This isn’t to be cold. But it’s also to avoid being soft, as in this sphere they are two very different things. It’s tough at the sporting top and you’ve to be damn hard to survive there. That’s as it should be when dealing with competition. No mention of mental health changes that ever.

The truth is that not every job is for every person.

I’ll never overcome a mental barrier that stops me being a pilot, regardless of how that makes me feel.

I hope Osaka can overcome whatever barrier is there for her and we get to enjoy her brilliance again. If not though, despite all her gifts, she’ll have lacked the complete and necessary skill set to be an elite sporting great.

2 June, 2021

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