Naomi Osaka and the power of no: What we can learn from the tennis champ

A psychiatrist explains why we should all be more like Osaka.

Osaka Naomi of Japan returns the ball during the women's singles first round match against Patricia ...
Xinhua News Agency/Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

Naomi Osaka, the four-time Grand Slam tennis champion, withdrew from the French Open on Monday. Experts say her reasons should be a wake-up call — not just for the sports world, but for everyone.

Last month, ahead of the start of the French Open, Osaka announced she wouldn’t be doing press conferences at the tournament, saying in a now-deleted Instagram post that press conferences can be damaging to players’ mental health. Too many times, she felt like journalists were “kicking a person while they are down,” Osaka wrote.

After winning her first match at the Open on Sunday, Osaka made good on her word. She skipped the mandatory press conference. She was immediately fined $15,000 and warned that she risked further penalties if she skipped further appearances.

Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University’s School of Medicine in St. Louis, tells Inverse that despite the ensuing controversy the decision was a good one — and an act we can all learn from.

While our workplaces might be very different from Osaka’s, Gold says our mental health — and creating boundaries that support that mental health — are no less important for us than for the tennis champ. Gold shares with Inverse how we can learn to say no, too.

What happened to Naomi Osaka?

After Osaka’s initial announcement, the backlash was predictably obtuse. One columnist called Osaka an “uppity princess.”

Gilles Moretton, the President of the French Tennis Federation, told the French sports daily, L’Équipe, “She’s hurting tennis. It’s a real problem.” He didn’t elaborate on how professional tennis, or even the French Open, which has existed for over a hundred years, would be damaged by a top player not immediately answer questions about their every misstep after hours of fierce, exhausting competition.

On Monday, after Osaka announced her withdrawal, she also revealed she’s experienced depression since 2018, explaining that her introversion and social anxiety made press conferences especially challenging because she gets “huge waves of anxiety before speaking to the world’s media.” She was dropping out, the tennis champ said, “so everyone can go back to focusing on the tennis.”

Read her full statement here:

Naomi Osaka’s statement about withdrawing from the French Open via her Instagram @naomiosaka

Spoiler alert: Everyone didn’t go back to talking about tennis. They kept right on offering their opinions about the 23-year old player. Some still despised what she’d done, others admired it.

But she accomplished something that few other champion athletes have done over the years: She looked a winning streak in the eye and chose her mental health instead of moving forward with the competition.

Although the vast majority of us will never be famous as Osaka, it doesn’t make saying no or walking away from it any easier.

How can you set boundaries at work?

Here’s Gold’s advice for boundary setting at work:

  • First, reflect on your own schedule and see there are ways you can break up to improve your emotional well-being. For example, if your boss has assigned you a list of tasks you need to complete in a day or a week, take some time and see if you can rearrange your schedule. Gold says, “If there’s a meeting that always pisses you off, can you schedule a little break right after? So can you try to stagger the really hard stuff with tasks that are easier, do you don’t have all the most difficult things falling on the same day?”

We’re used to looking at our planners and seeing what we need to do and when we need to do it. Gold suggests we add a third metric: emotional wellness. Trying to fit things in that support your emotional wellness and not just the productivity rat race.

“I know we don’t always have control over our own schedules, Gold says, “I’m a doctor.”

  • Second, find an ally. “Try to figure out who the people are with whom you can be really open about the stressful, emotional things you go through at work.”

Counterintuitive as it might sound, Gold says don’t automatically discount someone in a higher position than you. “I will meet with leaders and sometimes they’ll say ‘I have no idea why people don’t want to talk to me about this stuff, I don’t know why they didn’t tell me they were struggling.’”

Every workplace and workplace dynamic is different, so keep an open mind but be thoughtful about who you can trust with how you’re feeling.

“You shouldn’t have to be stuck to one thing forever if it’s not making you happy.”

If all of the above hasn’t helped, it might be time to move to Gold’s third point:

  • Find a therapist or a career coach. Both can help you figure out what you’re feeling, what you want to say or so about it, and how to express that in the most effective way.

Finally, if you've tried all of the above and it’s still not getting any better, Gold says it might be time, if you’re able, to look for a different job.

“We don’t have to go do things we hate forever,” she says. “That doesn’t make you a bad person. People change. Priorities change. You shouldn’t have to be stuck to one thing forever if it’s not making you happy.”

The Inverse analysis — We’ve seen countless iterations of a similar story. Colin Kaepernick was functionally blacklisted from the NFL for daring to play professional football and exercise his First Amendment rights at the same time. Legendary basketball players like Lebron James have been told time and again that they should “shut up and dribble.”

The message, especially for athletes of color, is as tired as it is absurd and impossible: Be a player, not a person. Mental health experts say that not only is such a standard absurd on its face, it’s simply not healthy — not healthy for the athletes and not healthy for the example they set for the rest of us. On the contrary, these experts say that we should follow the example of the Naomi Osakas of the world. We should learn how to say no.

No job is going to make you happy or be perfect all of the time (unless your job is to take naps on the sofa with dogs). But if you find it consistently and persistently negatively affecting your mental health, despite having tried all the other avenues Gold discussed, it might be time to open the next door and see where it takes you.

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