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Support and Self Care

If you follow the tennis world the way I do you would have heard the news of top women’s player Naomi Osaka pulling out of several major tournaments for mental health reasons. She attributed some of it dealing with press conferences and the social, anxiety and depression / self-confidence challenges that come with them. At first she was given a hard time for this decision, but with further discussion and assessment she has received support from many athletes. James Blake, a former top US men’s player came out supporting her, notng, and I am paraphrasing, that all players should be caring for their mental health on tour, and maybe there should be a mental health professional available for all players that follow them on tour. Tom Brady also shared his history of challenges and showed her empathy and understanding. Finally, in interview on CNN Dr. Jarrod Spencer, a sport psychologist, who I have spoken to, when asked about what it meant that Osaka was going through this it. His answer was simple and to the point – “It means she is human.”

Dr. Spencer’s comment was so telling and to the point about how athlete’s should be understood. What was surprising is that many others in the world just didn’t see this fact at first, and is so telling about the sports world and the continued stigma of mental health needs despite frequent conversations about mental toughness. It is even more salient after the year we have had with the pandemic and the spike in mental health challenges throughout society. While Osaka’s challenges are specific to her, her desire to take a break and care for herself is something we should all be doing as we transition into summer. At the same, her challenges of getting support from others is indicative of the continued need in society to increase supports for everyone, but particularly in the sports, educational, and clinical psychology worlds.

As I said I was struck by Blake’s comment about the need to have a mental health professional traveling and being available for players on tour, as I assumed this was standard. However, at the same time I wasn’t surprised given my own experiences with athletes and working with different programs. I am even aware of the limited resources and support for athletes even in many of the top college programs. Coming out of the pandemic it is imperative that programs step up their game in terms of supporting their athletes. There are so many factors from coping with injuries, dealing with disruptive recruiting processes, seasons, and travel schedules. Even time with families has been disruptive. At the same time, mental health professionals can help athletes learn the self care skills necessary for performance and stress management that is imperative for elite performance. In other words, helping them learn the lessons Osaka is putting into play by prioritizing her mental health. I have no doubt in the long run she will benefit greatly by this choice.

While Osaka’s choices are applicable to all sports, can they be applicable to the educational world? I strongly believe they can be. First, coming out of the pandemic we are seeing improvement in schools and students ‘ mental health. While I hope I am wrong, I worry about the transition back to school and the impending mental health crisis with the return to school in person. I am already hearing themes of anxiety from clients of what they will be like, including fears of being, an awareness of increase in academic demands and its impact on anxiety and confidence, and deali g with evolution of friendships over the past year. I worry that school counselors, many of whom are already overwhelmed, will not be able to manage the spike in mental health challenges. My hope is that schools are more flexible in allowing and supporting outpatient mental health services, and maybe partnering up or collaborating further. For the students, it will be a time of uncertainty with the need to increase their own self-care as well. They will need to learn to balance the demands with school, with finding the supports and time with friends and family, and taking part in other activities.

Finally, for the general public I think we have all learned the importance of adapting over the last year. Hopefully, we can all continue to do this over the next few months. Stress is still high in society and everyone has reacted differently to stress. We need to be patient with ourselves and others. With summer, it is a great time to take a step back, relax, recharge, and eventually plan the next steps for ourselves.

As we said at the start, we can all take lessons from Osaka’s experiences and choice to care for herself. On a societal level we can find ways to apply the lessons learned of what other needs exist, and begin to problem solve putting in new and creative support systems at all levels. On the individual level, it is clear we all need to continue to take care of ourselves and there is no better time than this summer.


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