By Valerie Rein, PhD
Naomi Osaka, 23, a no. 2 ranked woman tennis player is taking professional sports and athletes higher.
Leading up to the French Open, Osaka declined to participate in mandatory press conferences to preserve her mental health.
Osaka stated, “I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media… Here in Paris, I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious and so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences.” She shared that she had been suffering from bouts of anxiety and depression since winning her first Grand Slam in 2018.
The establishment responded by issuing her a fine of $15,000 but didn’t stop there. The four Grand Slams produced a joint statement threatening Osaka with more substantial fines, possible default, and suspensions from the Grand Slams – should she continue to decline to appear at post-match press conferences. Osaka then chose to withdraw from the French Open.
Sadly, the organization’s response is not surprising. In 2018, the French Tennis Federation arbitrarily banned Serena Williams from wearing a bodysuit she had custom-made to help with circulation and prevent potentially fatal blood clots at the French Open.
Differential treatment of female and male athletes across sports is notorious, such as women facing penalties for acting “emotionally” while men’s far more extreme emotional outbursts go unpunished. Now we’re witnessing Osaka being penalized and threatened with dire consequences by the entire tennis establishment as a response to her decision to protect her mental health from media encounters that can be toxic.
Patriarchal and racist attitudes are insidious both in the sports establishment and the media. Osaka has been consistently questioned by the media about her race and ethnicity. One headline about her read, “How Japanese is Naomi Osaka,” and she was even asked by a reporter to speak Japanese. Other female athletes have faced similar racist, sexist, and overall inappropriate questions, such as one about being compared to Serena Williams on the basis of being black (Coco Gauff), questions about her weight (Taylor Townsend), about whether her father’s recent death could be blamed for her performance (Amanda Anisimova, a teenager), and a disproportionate number of questions about their personal lives and having tabloids follow their every move (Caroline Wozniacki, Maria Sharapova).
Unconscious patriarchal and racist views, attitudes, and policies in sports take an enormous toll on female athletes’ mental and emotional health and wellbeing. The micro- and macro- aggressions they face in the industry range from often being paid less than their male counterparts, to being subjected to penalties and injunctions that men are not subject to. They also face more intrusive and objectifying media coverage – why is there no Sports Illustrated Male Swimsuit edition?
This hostile environment continuously triggers a particular stress response that I have studied and termed Patriarchy Stress Disorder (PSD). For millennia, women have been suffering from the trauma of oppression under patriarchy. The field of Epigenetics has established that trauma is genetically transmitted. PSD is an intergenerational trauma of oppression that women carry in the patriarchal society.
What this means for modern women is that everything that has been historically prohibited and punishable under patriarchy – authentically expressing ourselves, speaking our truth, making our own money, loving who we love – our subconscious interprets as unsafe, sending our nervous system into the fight, flight, freeze response.
It has been unsafe being a woman in the patriarchal world for countless generations. As a result, PSD has kept women in a state of chronic stress, using the fight, flight, freeze response as a survival mechanism. This response escalates the more a woman steps into her power, in her visibility and celebrity, professional success, earning larger sums of money, speaking her truth, and authentically expressing herself in front of bigger audiences. If left unaddressed, this can lead to anxiety, depression, and issues with performance and physical/health expressions. Such as Naomi Osaka.
The impact of PSD on celebrity female athletes is substantial. Female athletes of color contend with an additional layer of intergenerational trauma – that of racism. Just like PSD, the trauma of racism is passed down from generation to generation and is triggered by the systemic practices, attitudes, biases, micro- and macro- aggressions that these women encounter daily. The toxic impact is amplified by the limelight and increases exponentially with their success.
Everyone’s mental and emotional health and implications for their physical health and performance warrants more awareness and attention. And we need to bring into the conversation – and into practice – the factors uniquely affecting women, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and athletes who belong to other marginalized groups.
Integrating mental and emotional health training that specifically addresses the intergenerational traumas of PSD and racism is one piece of the puzzle.
Creating awareness in the corporate structures of the sports federations that tackles the persistent biases in attitudes, decisions, and policies is another.
Naomi Osaka has advanced the global awareness of these issues. This is an opportunity to create an environment in professional sports where all athletes can truly thrive.
Valerie Rein, PhD, is a psychologist and women’s mental health expert who has discovered Patriarchy Stress Disorder (PSD) and created the only science-backed system for helping women achieve their ultimate success, happiness, and fulfillment by healing the intergenerational trauma of oppression.
She holds an EdM in Psychological Counseling from Columbia University and a PhD in Psychology from the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. She is the author of the acclaimed, bestselling book “Patriarchy Stress Disorder: The Invisible Inner Barrier to Women’s Happiness and Fulfillment.” Download the first chapter free at www.drvalerie.com/book