Pooja Trehan
Jun 07, 2021

Opinion: Our differences should make us beautiful, and not be chided for

The author states that young people coming into the world of sports, need time and support and should be allowed to work their way to build better relationships with media, instead of fearing them

Opinion: Our differences should make us beautiful, and not be chided for
Brazil’s win at the 1958 Football World Cup, inspired by the 17-year-old prodigy “Dico” or fondly known as “Pele”, was a gamechanger of sorts. Something that made the world sit up and notice that Brazilians are talented, and it was time to stop beating them down for being different or colorful. 
Words matter the most, else coaches and players from opposite teams wouldn’t use their sharp tongues to denigrate other players. Hence, one could read about the pre-match press conference with coaches and teams from both the countries – Sweden and Brazil, in 1958 – which was nothing less than an offensive brutal attack on team Brazil.
So, imagine the mental wrath that players must face in such situations? Can a locker-room cheerleader help them swim through that tide? Before this win, did Team Brazil not face enough public shaming? Forget the boo-hoo’s on the playfield, first imagine the leap of faith that players must take to break preconceived notions, such as emerging from an underdeveloped country or region! My point is simple. Sports come with immense challenges. And for someone to shine on the field, it takes a lot of consistent, focused hardwork. Sometimes they need more than a single coach to put their best out there. 
For centuries, the stress that pre or post tournament conferences come with, hasn’t changed. If the player wins, its positive. But god forbid if the turn of events is different on the field, then the post-match press conferences skin players alive with their questions, obviously rhetorically. 
McLaren’s Lando Norris has been open about fighting his mental-health battle, fearing anxiety and confidence. 
Lewis Hamilton agrees he was “thrown into the pit” and had to learn from his fair share of struggles when he had to face challenging media encounters.  
Closer home, Virat Kohli has often rebuked media for criticising the team on every loss - one-day or test – and at times for the decisions they made. 
What is this bitter-sweet relationship between media and the athletes? Do both entities need to stop pushing these unimaginary difficult boundaries? Sports stars are humans too. Probably they are always on the edge and pushing their limits to keep performing better. Just as media is running against the clock to share interesting stories (and perspectives).
Maybe the young champions are not yet prepared to face the media and give memorable responses. It can be excruciating to be carved into a role model after the wins and then devastatingly ridiculed for a loss. 
Why should athletes feel pressured to live up to expectations at the cost of their personal mental health? Young people coming into the world of sports, need time and support. Let them work their way to build better relationships with media, instead of fearing them. 
When we are aware of these grassroot challenges, why did Naomi Osaka have to explicitly explain herself for refusing to attend the ‘mandatory’ post-match press conferences. Osaka left the Roland Garros Grand Slam, because she refused to attend the post-match press conference, even though she announced this before the tournament began (and was fined for this). She openly expressed that this was too much to take after the bouts of depression that she has been suffering for the last three years. She was brave enough to take this decision and stay away from the media spotlight, but instead it’s caused a new storm for her. 
Isn’t this a red flag enough for us to back up? She is human and saying she is not well enough to do this. She is unable to handle the media-glare and the undaunting stress it comes with.  So why does her honesty have to face this insane backlash?
Covid-19 taught us to reimagine everything in our life from scratch. When we are happily having conversations around ‘mental health’ at work, at home, in our daily life’s – why do athletes across various sports need to suffer and then highlight their need to calm down, after a strenuous game? Is it time to change the traditional press formats?
You might now wear the hat of an avid sports fan and say that televised viewership is not easily available everywhere and hence the ‘word on the paper’ must get out there. But no one stops you from doing that. Write about the game and just for once do not ask the sportsperson on field – how did you feel about losing to the opponent! Just for once. 
One could also argue that fans world over wait to hear their sports icons speak honestly and in an unrehearsed format. This highlights some pertinent solutions. Give options to the athletes across all sports formats to speak to media at the post-match conference (which is anyways virtual these days) or respond to some pre-decided questions or simply do interviews with every publication when they are done with initial rounds and have relatively few days to recuperate. A relaxed body and mind can respond better. Not to forget, their job is to play and not give interviews. Because, if they forget to perform on field, then again we will be ready to shower them with the harshest feedback ever. 
As a communications professional, all I’m saying is – respect Naomi Osaka’s decision for space, that’s all she is asking for. She isn’t doing anything illegal with her game. Why is her decision to choose to not work with people who doubt her or question her capabilities, so difficult to accept?
This is not the first time. Venus Williams and Novak Djokovic have done it as well, but just that Naomi announced it well ahead of time. 
Fair point to question whether Osaka’s approach was appropriate. Could she have spoken to the authorities before “pre-emptively” posting on social media? Or responded to them when they tried speaking after the post? Wasn’t her media team prepared to announce this better and handle it differently, especially before the tournament began. Ill-timing or messaging could have been played differently. Emphasises the need to collaborate and work with the authorities better. With spotlight comes responsibility. Think as many sides as possible to the coins you can. Maybe the reality was that she was mindful whatever be her approach, it won’t go down well. And hence the choice.
When a young 23-year old phenomenon – world’s highest paid athlete (female) – decided to protect her mental health and withdraw from the tournament, it should be a wake-up call for one and all, instead of throwing some archaic rules of operation. Could we drop all the noise around and simply say it out loud – a human being is asking for help to deal with her mental health – how difficult can it be to support that. 
Osaka’s win against Williams, made all of us acknowledge this Japanese Ace. So, we are aware of her incredulous talent, then why not be able to respect her decision to stay silent and speak when she can justify her words? It takes a lot of courage to say “no” in one’s career. 
Yes, this piece has too many questions, because doubts exist and the need to juggle perspectives is so critical. We can’t be lop-sided in our purview. But at the same time let’s not loose sight of the larger picture – personal mental health – is of utmost importance. 
Read every written word in print or digital, not one sportstar disagrees that post-match press conferences can be very, very unpleasant. Yet, there seems to be clear camps for attending media engagements or completing boycotting them (if they could). Probably, there are multiple other factors at play, and could be tough to stay unified on one decision. 
I started writing this piece, hoping to highlight point of views from both sides of the coin. But deep-diving into the research just shouted back only one recommendation – if we are cognizant of the importance of mental health, then why should athletes suffer to speak about the same? 
Undying and unwavering support for Naomi Osaka to protect her mental health.
The author is associate director, marketing, SugarBox. 
Campaign India

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