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Utah psychologist discusses athletes' mental health challenges after Osaka drops out of tournaments

Naomi Osaka plays in the French Open on May 27, 2016. After dropping out of the French Open last week, Osaka started a conversation about mental health concerns faced by many athletes.

Naomi Osaka plays in the French Open on May 27, 2016. After dropping out of the French Open last week, Osaka started a conversation about mental health concerns faced by many athletes. (Associated Press)

SALT LAKE CITY — When Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open last week citing mental health concerns, it opened a new dialogue about the pressures professional and even youth athletes face outside the court.

Professional athletes have unique lifestyles and stressors "that are really uncommon for the general public," said Dr. Tony Kemmochi, a sports psychologist at Intermountain Healthcare Orthopedic Specialty Hospital.

Many athletes say they don't seek help or talk to friends or family members "because when they do, they get this experience where they realize how much they don't understand, how much people don't understand. So they end up feeling alone," Kemmochi said.

In a statement posted on Instagram, Osaka explained that she's suffered "long bouts of depression" since the 2018 U.S. Open. She said she experiences social anxiety and gets "huge waves of anxiety" each time she speaks to the media. Multiple outlets Monday reported Osaka pulled out of another tournament next week as she takes time to work on her mental health.

Kemmochi likened the athletes' job to a workplace where "your boss follows you around, all your co-workers are really watching you every step of the way, and every mistake you make, they point it out."

"Oh, you made a spelling error, it wasn't fast enough, you need to work harder. Every single day, you're exposed to that — and it goes on for days, weeks, months and years. Even if the pay is good, you may find yourself losing passion for your job or even maybe thinking about quitting because it's just too painful," Kemmochi said.

When approaching an important event like a playoff, athletes cope with tough expectations and the fear of failure, he said. Athletes' exposure to social media can magnify those fears.

Kemmochi said he advises athletes not to push their anxieties away or ignore them, but to work to relax.

Professional athletes aren't the only ones who can face mental health concerns.

It's "even more critical" for us to be mindful of the mental health of our youth athletes, according to Kemmochi.

"They don't have quite the language or self-awareness to be able to let us know when something's not working or when they're suffering on the inside because they don't have the life experiences, or a special mental health education is lacking. That requires parents and teachers and us to just watch out and notice what's happening," the psychologist said.

He said parents and other family members should focus on the reason why a youth athlete plays sports.

"A lot of times, what can happen is their motivation tends to pull into what we call 'extrinsic motivation,' which means reasons outside of you. So things like, 'I want to make my parents proud,' or 'I want to feel approved of by my coach,' or 'I want recognition.' All those things come from outside," Kemmochi said.

Words that are meant by family members as encouragement can instead make an athlete feel pressured, he said. And if a youth athlete learns at an early age to play a sport for external reasons rather than personal reasons, it could make them more prone to burning out, according to Kemmochi.

Parents should watch for signs of depression in their children, including reduced communication, moodiness and irritability. Parents should also create a safe environment for their kids to be able to talk about their feelings and emotions "without trying to fix it or telling it to be strong, or reassuring them that everything's going to be better," Kemmochi said.

"They don't want to hear that they're going to be just fine. What they're looking for is validation: 'No wonder you're having such a hard time. Thank you for sharing that.'"

Many athletes fear that asking for help is a sign of weakness, Kemmochi said. But he urges athletes to understand that if it's difficult to talk about something but they do it anyway, it's a chance to be brave and grow stronger.

Kemmochi also encourages athletes to work on remembering to be "a person as a whole" and pay attention to "different parts of their identities," so when their athletic identity is threatened by things like injuries or criticism, they have other passions to turn to.

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