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Sports Psychologist Kanyali Ilako On How To Treat Athletes' Mental Health


When Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open after refusing to do post-match news conferences, she said those conferences contributed to her depression and anxiety. Some elite tennis players were supportive; others basically said it's part of the job. I asked Kanyali Ilako about this. She's a sports psychologist who works with Kenya's Summer Olympics team.

KANYALI ILAKO: A lot of the time, we forget that athletes are humans, too. They have life outside their sports. It could be these things that are bringing them that pressure or anxiety to perform. And if it's not from something outside and it's just in specific, then we'll work on, like, relaxation techniques such as breathing techniques. There's one thing that I particularly like, which is engaging your five senses. It goes like - five things I can see, four things I can hear, three things I can smell, two things I can touch and one thing I can see. So that almost (ph) helps them get out of their head.

KING: I love those recommendations, and I love the fact that you point out anxiety and nervousness isn't always about just winning (laughter). Let me ask you something that I will admit has been at the forefront of my mind. It is the year 2021. We have had famous top athletes around in the public consciousness for decades now. And yet, it seems only recently that people are starting to take individual athletes' mental health more seriously. Why do you think that is? Why do you think for so long this went unspoken about?

ILAKO: I think because, usually, there's a perception around talking about your struggles and talking about your struggles means that you're weak. Also, mental health is not particularly something that you can see. It's just not something that people have fully understood. So it's almost like, sweep it under the rug because we don't understand it, and we hope that it disappears.

KING: Even ordinary people struggle to find a balance between work and what they owe their employers and then what they owe their families and what makes it possible for them to survive as private citizens. I would imagine that this tension is a thousand times bigger when you're an athlete who is beloved by millions of people, but you also do need to take time for yourself. Do you think it's possible to really achieve a balance there?

ILAKO: You know, we expect so much from them, and we almost dehumanize them. And so this puts a lot of pressure on them, you know? And then the other thing is that we only see athletes as one thing. We forget that they have other things going on for them. And another thing is that if you have to speak to the media, you know, and be in the limelight all the time, especially for people who have more introverted personality, it just brings about a lot of feelings of anxiety. So I think just, like, putting all those things together and understanding, first of all, that an athlete is a human being first before they're an athlete and allowing them to go through normal human interactions and experiences will help curb a lot of these mental health issues that are coming up.

KING: I was really fascinated by the response from other athletes to Naomi Osaka's decision. Some of them were 100% supportive - let her take time; let her do what she needs to do. But there was another side to this. Some former tennis stars - and I'm thinking of Billie Jean King; I'm thinking of John McEnroe - they effectively said, look, doing press is part of the job. It is a responsibility. It is what you sign up for when you become a professional athlete. Those are professional athletes making that point. What do you think about their response to Naomi Osaka?

KING: I just like to point out that whenever an athlete is physically injured, they're also allowed to skip out of these pressers. If the doctor says that, you know, they can't physically make it to a press sitting, they are actually given time away. And so I think we should start looking at mental injury just the same way we look at physical injury because if an athlete is injured physical (ph), they're given time off, they go through physical rehabilitation. You know, everybody's working really hard to get them back to where they used to be so that they can perform even better. But then we need to extend the same grace towards people who face mental health issues as well.

KING: So understand that a mental challenge is as serious as a physical challenge and possibly treated the same way.

ILAKO: Exactly.

KING: Kanyali Ilako is a sports psychologist with the Kenyan Summer Olympics team. Thank you so much for joining us. We wish you and your team good luck in Tokyo, and we appreciate your time.

ILAKO: Ah, thank you (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SHIGETO'S "MISS U") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.