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Naomi Osaka inspires focus on athletes’ mental health

Photo courtesy of Andrew Henkelman | Wikimedia Commons

Naomi Osaka surprised many when she decided to withdraw from the French Open in July despite then being the second-ranked women’s tennis player in the world, saying she wanted to focus on her mental health and not cause a distraction from the other athletes in the tournament. Another world-famous athlete, Simone Biles, who has been dubbed by some the G.O.A.T of gymnastics, pulled out of a few events during the Tokyo Olympics to focus on her mental health and safety.

These two athletes are among the many who have come forward to talk about their mental health, including student-athletes at universities across the U.S. In some aspects, student-athletes have an even tougher job maintaining a healthy mental state because they have to balance the stress of schoolwork with the pressure of their sport. 

Dylan DeAngelo, a sophomore hurdler on the men’s track and field team, supports both Osaka’s and Biles’ decisions to prioritize their mental health over competition. 

“I look up to and respect them a lot, because it must have been really hard for them to make that decision at such a high level of competition, but mental health should definitely be the number one priority,” DeAngelo said. “And if they feel that withdrawing from competition will help with that then you shouldn’t argue with their decisions.”

Conner Riley, a senior distance runner on the men’s track and field team, agreed with teammate DeAngelo.

“With both of those professional athletes competing at such a high level it takes an admirable amount of strength to make the decision they did,” Riley said. “I entirely support their decision to focus on their mental health and I hope they find the recovery they are looking for.”

Student-athletes are in a unique position. They have to work to excel not just in their sport, but also academically.

“Dealing with the pressure of being a D1 athlete is a big feat. Coaches and family tell you to relax and enjoy, but you really want to make everyone who believes in you proud, and it’s tough to not let that get to you sometimes,” Riley said. “To combat the pressure I try to take deep breaths, but I also try hanging out with teammates and talking to them too because they are going through similar mental battles.”

DeAngelo expressed a similar mindset to Riley, saying his mental health is important to him and is something he focuses on.

“In order to deal with some of the pressures of being a D1 athlete I try and keep a positive mind set and even if I have performed poorly I try to remind myself that there is room for improvement and that I can’t let it keep me down,” DeAngelo said.

For Drake students looking for additional support, free counseling is available at the Counseling Center, with both in-person and online meeting options. 

We are very fortunate at Drake to have a tremendous Counseling Center,” said Drake University Director of Athletics Brian Hardin. “Included in our Counseling Center are two employees who were student-athletes while in college, so I believe they have a unique perspective on challenges our student-athletes may face while at Drake.”

Caitlin Anderson, a sophomore rower on the women’s rowing team said that her coaches regularly have one-on-one meetings to discuss athletics and academics as well as “general well-being.”

“The athletic department does offer a counseling service which I think is great. I think this resource should be advertised a lot more to incoming student-athletes,” Riley said. “Helping student-athletes attain a healthy mentality will allow them to surpass physical barriers that were never possible before.”

“Pressure and stress can certainly be aspects of being a student-athlete at Drake, but we encourage our athletes in finding joy and pursuing passions outside of athletics and academics while at Drake,” Hardin said. “They are not alone in facing mental health challenges, and they don’t have to face these challenges alone. We want them to know they have resources in our department, on our campus and in our community to help them be their best, and their mental health is critical to the successes they hope to experience in their time at Drake.”

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