Recreating expectations around mental health and performance

Posted on June 11, 2021
By rita cincotta

Recreating expectations around mental health and performance

Naomi Osaka, the world's second-best female tennis player, put her mental health first last week. She didn't want to front up to another media conference and was fined as punishment for not adhering to her "media duties." 

Osaka went on to explain (some would ask why she needed to) that after suffering multiple bouts of depression, she needed to look after her health first.   

"I've often felt that people have no regard for athletes' mental health, and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one… we're often sat there [sic] and asked questions that we've been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I'm just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me." 

Naomi Osaka

We have seen many other sports stars, locally and internationally, actors, politicians, and corporate leaders over recent years need to step away from work short citing mental health issues.

Whilst this is not necessarily surprising given their level of commitments and exposure to 24x7 news cycles, it does raise a question about our expectations around mental health and performance.  

Are we expecting these stars and leaders to be immune to the intense pressure that comes with being at their level, and if so, why?

The visibility associated with any influential role can be intense. As your identity becomes swallowed up in the role you are performing, you can lose yourself. It can feel that everything is on the line because you are your role and your role is you. 

People can be harsh about their expectations of these roles. There was backlash around Osaka's decision to decline to attend the media conference. The sentiment from some was, – turn up, it's part of the role, face-up, you are paid the big bucks to show up. This issue with these types of sentiments is that it doesn't take into account the person's humanness.   

Sportspeople, Corporate leaders, and anyone else who has more visibility than most people out there are not superhuman. There is no cape. Yes, they are elite and at the top of their game, but it doesn't make them immune to any of the feelings we may face with intense scrutiny and assumptions about you and your lifestyle.

Perhaps the reason we hold them in such high regard is that we think they can do something we cannot. That could be true; they may be the best of the best in their craft; however, that doesn't give us the right to expect superhuman capabilities from them.

When I was in a c-suite role, the best advice I received was to find somewhere to take metaphoric shelter. As the role was so visible, there was the expectation to always be on. But you can't be, not in a sustainable way. Or, if you are, it may create a deficiency elsewhere, such as in your personal life. There is no point in being lovely at work and a nightmare at home.  

In fact, when we see more consistent examples of leaders in the community taking "shelter," as Naomi Osaka, it may give others confidence that these roles are attainable and that you don't need a cape for them.   

Naomi Osaka put herself first. Some other leaders and sportspeople have also done the same. And we need more people to continue to do this.  

This recreates expectations around performance, reduces the stigma associated with mental health, and it dispels thoughts that we need to be superhuman to perform at mastery levels.

It's important to set boundaries as a sign of love and respect for ourselves. We are the only ones that can set them. Once they are in place, honor them. This will help manage your own expectations around your mental health and performance.  

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