Naomi Osaka redefines quitting and our thinking

Naomi Osaka withdrew from French Open Tournament 2021 last week. Sports teaches us not to quit. Most parents are advised to make children learn some form of sports so that they become tough to handle a loss.  

In another story of a boy, he was not even ten years old when he attained an international player’s rating in his sport and that too a decent opening rating. Within a year, the more he played tournaments, the more he lost his rating points. At ten, you don’t know how you are supposed to think and here was a little boy who was trained to believe that he cannot afford a loss. The more he thought about his rating points, the more he lost, and the more his confidence came down. He would be an aggressive and his bold self with a higher rated opponent and would get stressed with a lower rated opponent, because you lose more points when you lose against a lower rated player. An intervention of a sports psychology counsellor helped the parents understand how to deal with this little life who was living a big one inside his head. Apart from many small suggestions, the parents were advised to not say that they were proud of the child, because it made him build large expectations in his mind. ‘You make me proud’ was replaced by ‘do you want to use the washroom before you start the match’  or ‘would you like to eat a banana’, no matter how proud the mother felt when the boy played for hours together and lost and then woke up again next morning to face an opponent with a fresh mind, hopefully not to lose again. 

They went again and again to participate in matches not to simply win and get better but to learn not to quit, not to quit when inappropriate. Mental well being is a real issue. Ill mental health doesn’t make any announcement, it just creeps in. During early stages it is a matter of understanding, addressing and dealing with it. Ignoring or discounting makes it grow in a bigger, worse state. 

Sachin Tendulkar, after years of retirement, shared about his anxiety related challenges which he endured during his career. Decorated swimmer Michael Phelps talked about his depression that he suffered, only after being able to successfully come out of it and face another Olympics, successfully again. Naomi Osaka, the woman who is the top tennis player, the highest paid female athlete ever, the young and intelligent whose bout of mental illness started when she won her first grand slam, is talking about mental health not after dealing with it, but while enduring it. 

While sports teaches not to quit, here is Naomi Osaka teaching valuable lessons by actually quitting a tournament. In today’s Habits for Thinking, I am bringing your attention to Naomi Osaka’s decision to leave the tournament and how it is a wake up call, loud and clear, for people,brands and companies to understand and learn and act from her decision.  Here are some thinking lessons that we can pick up from her ability to walk away.

Naomi Osaka is walking the talk: 

The player announced her reservation towards speaking to the media well in advance. She would have been acutely aware of her distractions towards performance on the court and she took a step towards staying focused so she decided to stay away from media. More than just fine for blacking out any media, the authorities also used social media to pass a slight remark “They understood the assignment” featuring other players who talked to media. Whatever would have led to Naomi’s decision of leaving the tournament, it was just another step by her to keep her mental well being safeguarded. She only walked her own talk. 

The thinking: While businesses and companies are talking about WFH related mental well being, they need to learn to walk the talk. Some people in the team need more effort, more rest than the others.  

Naomi Osaka has changed the narrative: 

Out of the many things that pandemic has changed, one is how people take a stand and support empathetically or remain silent. Rohit Brijnath wrote in Mint – “A summer when many of us saw the heroic from the unknown and silence from heroes.

During earlier tournaments, Naomi Osaka wore masks to support Black Lives Matter. I wrote about it here “medium is the message”. This time she is standing for herself. Naomi has changed the narrative.  She has not only spoken for others silently, she is speaking for herself too, silently, by taking a step away from the noise. 

Naomi Osaka Supports Black Lives Matter

Pandemic has changed the narrative for many, not just Naomi. I was stunned and in awe of the courage of a lady, an author, with more than 12,000 followers on her social media, when she shared her pain of first coming out of hospital alone, leaving her husband behind still healing, then shared his deteriorating condition, to his passing away and to her first day without him. A mother of two children, asked for support through prayers, gathered courage through wishes and is battling grief through her virtual connections. 

The Thinking: More and more people come out to share their deep, personal pain and grief. This creates a real ambience of acceptance. The narrative has changed, not only to speak but also to be heard. Brands and companies have to pay attention to the new narrative and create a safe space for acceptance. 

Naomi Osaka demonstrates that the media is democratized:

The furore started with avoidance of the media. When she left the tournament, she left with a message on her social media, reaching not only to her followers but the world’s media. Today, everyone has access to make themself heard, irrespective of the presence of media persons. 

It is time to realise that the media’s role needs redefinition. Media has the power to change the trajectory of the ball. Media’s consciousness will help the world, not only for mental health but for overall well being and growth. Instead of reacting to the blackout, they had the power to question why an athlete is forced to face a press, during the series, and why not only at the end of any tournament? Why can’t they be given a choice? Is player protection more important than the tournament’s publicity? 

The Thinking: Many times, startups and companies do take a position of power when their social following is large, that they do not need any media. Both, the influencer and the media are important and need each other. It is time we change the norms and define new roles. Instead of fighting the presence of social media and platforms that influencers use, we understand that the media’s role to create an availability cascade is not just to change the trajectory, but can help the world. Similarly, influencers that play big on social media, need to remember the value of power of media and not get carried away.

Mental health is a personal challenge, but it is one illness that gets aggravated by other people and their reactions. Naomi Osaka’s depression started in 2018 with her first grand slam victory. Instead of celebrating a precious moment with bright eyes and open arms, she stood on the stage with drooped shoulders and the tear laden face hidden behind her visor. She had been booed more than she could take during her first big victory.

Each one of us plays a role in the mental well being of others, knowingly or unknowingly. Only empathy and thinking before reacting can help others. Naomi Osaka by leaving this tournament has shown us the path of keeping a promise of care, the path of healing and recuperating by acceptance, and the truth that the biggest influence in life is one’s own thought, not the muscle-flexing outside world.

That is what the boy was taught by shutting the noise, to learn to control the thoughts. And the mother is proud, loud and clear.