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Ed Clendaniel: Naomi Osaka French Open fiasco offers crucial message for parents, players
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Ed Clendaniel: Naomi Osaka French Open fiasco offers crucial message for parents, players

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Osaka steps out of French Open and onto sport's third rail

FILE - Japan's Naomi Osaka returns the ball to Romania's Patricia Maria Tig during their first round match of the French open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, in this Sunday, May 30, 2021, file photo. Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open on Monday, May 31, and wrote on Twitter that she would be taking a break from competition, a dramatic turn of events for a four-time Grand Slam champion who said she has "suffered long bouts of depression."

Naomi Osaka’s shocking exit from the French Open provides a case study on how not to deal with young athletes struggling with depression.

It also should serve as a wakeup call for parents and coaches who are increasingly putting undue pressure on young athletes at the expense of their mental health.

I played high school and college tennis and coached youth sports teams for 25 years, including six years as a junior high and high school tennis coach. I also covered high school, college and professional sports teams as a sportswriter for 10 years. What I learned was this: Yes, the stakes get higher as players climb the ranks of competitive play. But the mental pressure on athletes at the youngest levels of competition can be every bit as challenging — and potentially as damaging — as it is for athletes at the professional level.

Osaka is the No. 2-ranked player in women’s tennis. She has won four Grand Slam tournaments and earned $55 million last year, making her the world’s best-paid female athlete.

But she is also still just 23 years old and said that she has “suffered long bouts of depression” since winning her first grand slam title in 2018.

She also said in a Twitter post that she was “not a natural public speaker and gets huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.”

I believe her.

Kris Soutar, a consultant for Tennis Scotland, aptly describes post-match press briefings as a “vulture’s pit,” in which reporters routinely question players’ strategy, the clothes they wear, their fitness and their mindset before, during and after matches.

Some players embrace it. With others, including Osaka, it is obvious that they would rather be anywhere else on the planet.

Tennis officials require that players show up for post-match interviews. The media conferences — especially at Grand Slam events — help promote the sport. And it’s unfair to other players if one player is granted an exception.

So when Osaka announced last week that she would not be attending post-match press conferences during the French Open, it created a stir.

Tournament officials responded in the worst way. They should have sat down with Osaka and sought ways to help her get through the press briefings with less anxiety. Every player should have the right to say “no comment” to questions they don’t feel comfortable answering. And they could coach her on limiting questions to the most recent match and intercede when inappropriate questions are asked.

Instead, after Osaka skipped the press conference after her first-round win, French Open officials announced they would fine her $15,000 and threatened to expel her from the tournament.

So Osaka took her rackets and pulled out of the tournament.

Good for her. Her own well being is more important than whether she competes and wins the French Open.

And that goes for athletes of all ages at all levels of play. Take note, parents and coaches.

The pressure on young athletes to perform has always been immense. But the advent of year-around sports and parents’ hopes that their children will win college scholarships has never been greater.

The degree of children’s anxieties became clear to me as a high school tennis coach. I came up with the idea of devoting one day a week to working with my players’ mental approach to the game. I confess I thought we would work on strategy and how to approach big points and matches.

What I didn’t expect was the number of players who would quietly admit that they no longer enjoyed the game as they once did. That it seemed more like a job, and that they really, really hated the conversations with parents after a loss, or even after a win in which a parent felt they didn’t perform to their expectations.

So we would talk about coping mechanisms. Reminding them that tennis is practice for life. Tennis is hard, and so is life. The hope is that the lessons you learn on and off the court will serve you well when you confront bigger issues in the years ahead. Asking parents (with my help) if it would be OK to not talk about a match for 24 hours, unless the player initiated it. Encouraging them to be forthcoming about their fears and anxieties, so we could work to overcome them. And, when necessary, walking away from the game, for a week, a month or whatever it takes to regain their mental well being.

Osaka focused worldwide attention on the pressure athletes face and the devastating impact that pressure can have on their mental health. French Open officials failed to reach out and help her. I urge parents of athletes not to make the same mistake. The ball is in your court.

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