Mental Health In Sports: Lessons From Naomi Osaka

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated April 4, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Until recently, there have not been many discussions about mental health in sports—especially at the Olympic and professional levels. However, in 2021, tennis star Naomi Osaka brought mental health in sports into sharp relief during the French Open. She requested not to attend post-match press conferences, citing the need to spend time attending to her mental health. She was fined and eventually withdrew from the tournament, stating that her mental health was important and she needed to take care of it.

Your mental health deserves the same investment as your body

Sports and mental health

Athletes tend to face unique challenges that can take a toll on both their physical health and their mental health. The mental health of athletes can play a significant role in their performance and longevity in the profession.

Despite the importance of mental health, there is often a stigma associated it in sports. To some people, there is a perceived vulnerability in discussing mental health, contrasting with the outlook of “toughness” that is often associated with sports.

In some cases, athletes may be expected to move past negative feelings and forget difficult memories and experiences. Once players get to a certain level in sports, there’s often an expectation for them to project strength and focus on team leadership. In sports culture, some people view this as the pinnacle of productivity. However, this can be detrimental to players in both the short term and the long term.

Despite the existing mental health stigma in sports, progress is possible. That process can begin by communicating to players that mental health challenges do not make them weak or less deserving to be an athlete. Also, those involved in sports culture might help by not sweeping mental health under the rug and expecting athletes to get over their mental health challenges and move on.

Although success in sports often involves rising above certain challenges and setbacks, mental health challenges are typically not something that a person can simply get over. Mental health can have just as much impact on an athlete’s ability to play as any physical injury can.

How can therapy help mental health in sports?

Despite the unique challenges faced by many athletes, there is help available for mental health concerns. 


There are a variety of ways that therapy can help athletes who are experiencing mental health challenges. A therapist may be able to help players see that they are not alone and that they can confide in someone about their unique mental health concerns. Therapy may also provide personalized feedback to athletes and help them develop coping mechanisms that work for their unique challenges.

Healthy coping mechanisms

Across all occupations, there are many people who experience stress and pressure. However, for athletes, stress and pressure can reach especially heightened levels. 

As previously noted, many athletes face expectations to perform at a certain level and to meet certain milestones in their careers. In many cases, these expectations increase as players move through the ranks and rise in their field. Despite certain benefits linked to this progression, expectations can engender stress, and the risk of stress can especially increase when players are experiencing other challenges outside of their profession.

A therapist may be able to help athletes develop coping mechanisms that are tailored to them as individuals. Despite common challenges faced by athletes, no two players are the same. Therefore, what works for one athlete may be different from what works for someone else.

Help for LGBTQIA+ athletes: BetterHelp’s commitment to mental health in sports

Athletes in the LGBTQ+ community sometimes face unique challenges. In some sports communities, there remains a stigma surrounding athletes who come out as gay, bisexual, trans, or genderqueer. To combat this stigma, BetterHelp remains deeply committed to the mental health of athletes. One way in which BetterHelp aims to help these individuals is by providing therapy to LGBTQ+ athletes. BetterHelp works with the OUT Foundation’s OUT Athlete program by donating three months of free therapy to athletes who are part of the program. 

Mental health solutions outside of therapy

In addition to therapy, athletes may benefit from a variety of science-backed strategies to reduce stress. The following mental health solutions can be beneficial to both athletes and other people in need of mental health support.

Keep a journal

Keeping a journal can serve as a mental health solution that athletes can do from anywhere. Research shows that journaling may reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. By writing in a journal, athletes and others can express and reflect on their emotions, which may defend not only their mental health but also their physical health. A study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research found that emotional suppression may increase a person’s risk of early mortality. By putting their emotions down on paper, athletes may defend their physical health and experience greater emotional well-being.

Getty/Edwin Tan
Your mental health deserves the same investment as your body

Spend time with loved ones

Research suggests that we are wired as human beings to connect with each other. When we lack meaningful connection, studies show that the human brain processes that social pain in the same way it processes physical pain. Having a support system and loved ones to confide in can make a significant difference for athletes, especially if they have to travel to competitions often.

To bolster their support system, athletes may find it helpful to schedule regular times to connect with friends and family. Sometimes this may involve brief exchanges of encouragement via texting, and other times it may be helpful to call someone or get together in person for mutual encouragement.

Talk to a licensed counselor

In addition to using the above strategies to mitigate the effects of mental health challenges, you may benefit from speaking with a licensed therapist. If you’re an athlete and don’t have time for in-office therapy, you may benefit from online therapy, which numerous peer-reviewed studies have shown to be effective. 

With online therapy, you can communicate with a therapist from anywhere with an internet connection, which may be helpful if you travel frequently for competitions. You can communicate with your therapist via audio, video, or live chat at a time that works for you. With BetterHelp, you can also message your therapist at any time through in-app messaging, and they’ll respond as soon as they can. This may prove to be useful if you experience stress or anxiety in between therapy sessions.

Counselor reviews

Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp therapists from athletes facing various mental health challenges.

“Wendy is great. I'm unique and not everything in my life is cut and dry or "normal," but she has taken the time to understand my crazy workloads and athletic pursuits and has worked a therapeutic plan around things most people would have trouble grasping. She really is great, and I highly recommend her services!”

Learn More About Wendy Gaunt


In recent years, Naomi Osaka has helped shed light on the importance of mental health in sports. Athletes often face unique challenges, such as pressure to compete at the top level, expectations to maintain a certain weight, and pressure to handle themselves with composure in the spotlight. 

If you’re an athlete who is facing mental health challenges, know that you are not alone and that help is available. You may benefit from connecting with a licensed therapist in your community or online. With BetterHelp, you can choose an online therapist who has experience helping athletes overcome their unique mental health challenges. Take the first step toward getting support as an athlete and reach out to BetterHelp and meet those challenges head-on. 

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