Even if you are not a big fan of Novak Djokovic, you have to admit that his mental strength is exceptional by all standards. By many opinions, Djokovic is not the most talented tennis player out there, but he is certainly the toughest and the strongest in terms of mental toughness. And tennis, like any other individual sport, is a mind game.
Djokovic’s comment early on this year about mental health opened an interesting discussion. Following Biles’s retirement saga from the Olympics, the Serbian said that “pressure is a privilege”. Well, perhaps, and perhaps not. Not if you ask Mardy Fish, Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, and… Novak Djokovic who faced his first mental breakdown in the final of the US open versus Daniil Medvedev.
Breaking point – The story of Mardy Fish
Before Biles and Osaka, there’s one athlete, in my view, that really opened up the discussion about mental health – Mardy Fish. Frankly, being a huge tennis fan, Fish wasn’t really high up on my radar over the years he played tennis, probably because he was playing at one of the most exciting tennis eras in history along with tennis giants like Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic.
Nonetheless, after seeing the Breaking Point film on Netflix, Fish got into my heart. Not only the American tennis player is extremely intelligent and well-spoken but also the way he presented his story made any viewer feel the pressure of being a tennis player, or any type of athlete for that matter. It would be fair to say that Fish is the right guy to speak about mental health issues – he’s the guy that looks like your friend, or someone you can grab a beer with. More importantly, Fish is not a self-centered person who reveals his story to get sympathy and attention. Nope. Instead, it seems that Fish wanted to discuss his mental breakdown so people can get an insight and better understand what it’s like being a tennis player and an athlete in the modern era. Anyway, whether you like sports or not, it is a must-watch movie.
The price of being an athlete
Clearly, most people want to be athletes. The lifestyle, the high income, the places you get to see, and the fame are some of the reasons why sportsmen have become the gladiators of our days. But, everything comes at a cost, and being an athlete is not so glamourous. Even Tom Brady, who is a member of a team and was facing less pressure than individual athletes throughout his football career, recently spoke on mental issues and how it changes the dynamic with family and friends and can negatively affect some athletes.
What’s more, the vast majority of athletes sacrificed their youth and the normal lifestyle that regular people get to live. For some people, it’s a privilege while for others, it might become a burden, and is a major cause for pressure. And, let’s not forget the involvement of social media and the huge focus that athletes get these days. Fish, for example, explained that he clearly wanted to be out of the spotlights for a while – something that happens to many of us when we reach the end of the third decade of life. But for an athlete, this is not a possible scenario.
At last, another thing to take in mind is the people around individual athletes. Being a one-man show is not the same as being part of a sports team. There’s a team of people around that heavily depend on one individual success, which obviously adds more pressure.
So, what’s the bottom line?
Well, there’s nothing new about the fact that any type of sport comes side by side with pressure. Cynics will say that there’s no point in discussing sports mental health issues, simply because it is a huge part of being an athlete, much like being a singer or even just another employee in a firm. Also, Biles, Fish, and Osaka have been dealing with mental issues, but, who isn’t???
At the same time, getting things out there is important for athletes and for the audience. Nowadays, things have changed – people want to see vulnerability, tears, and even mental weakness. It is simply part of the evolution of sports. That was the case with Federer who shed tears and was extremely emotional on several occasions in his career. Michael Jordan did the same after his first NBA championship, Michael Phelps struggled with depression, and despite the controversy about Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong – it is impossible to ignore their struggle.
But now, after the Tokyo Olympics that changed the general opinion about athletes’ mental health, it is a topic that will be more openly discussed and accepted by the media and the public. Perhaps the greatest evidence for that is the tears of the same Novak Djokovic who was criticized after his comment about Simone Biles. In that aspect, the US final was the moment that revealed that Mardy Fish and Novak Djokovic who is known as ‘the man of steel’ are, after all, not so different.