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The ‘privilege’ of pressure: US Open tennis helps redefine strength in a positive way

The recent U.S. Open tennis tournament showcased gifted athletes performing under stress. “Pressure is a privilege,” is how tennis legend Billie Jean King puts it. In fact, those  words appear on a plaque on a wall at Arthur Ashe Stadium.  

King’s maxim has a dark side that is not ordinarily highlighted by organizers of elite sports competitions. This year’s U.S. Open was an exception.

The dark side is that, while 20 percent of Americans struggle with mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety, the figure rises to 35 percent for elite athletes, who must deal with relentless stress, including fear of failure and injury. Just as a brilliant career was getting underway, depression forced Naomi Osaka to withdraw from the 2021 French Open and take extended breaks after that. (She has announced plans to return to professional tennis next year.) 

The end of an elite athlete’s career does not end their mental health challenges, but often only worsens them. According to one estimate, 45 percent of former athletes, whose adolescent and early adult lives are typically built around a single, all-consuming activity, have mental health problems, including loss of identity and self-worth. When three-time tennis Grand Slam winner Andy Murray thought a hip-injury might end his career, he struggled with depression. “I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had always thought that if I could just play tennis it would make me happy.” (Hip surgery allowed him to keep playing.)

To its credit, at this year’s tournament, the U.S. Open held a forum, “Mental Health and Sport: Why it Matters.” The panelists were Osaka; Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, who has suffered from suicidal ideation; and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. The two athletes spoke about how they have coped with mental distress. Murthy suggested that, to help people deal with mental illness, we need to redefine personal “strength” because too often a strong person is thought to be someone “who is not reliant on anyone else, who never expresses any weakness, who never has a bad day, and who never has a moment of doubt.” Rather, personal strength should be defined by the courage to be “kind” and “real and authentic,” and, especially, to reach out to others for help and to help.

One challenge to redefining personal strength is the stigmatization of mental health illness in America. Much progress has been made — in one survey nearly 90 percent of Americans said that a mental health disorder is nothing to be ashamed of — but more remains to be done. In the same survey, 40 percent said that “I would view someone differently if I knew they had a mental disorder.” Especially among men, fear of stigma is an “extreme barrier” that keeps many from seeking needed help for mental problems.

Redefining personal strength is especially challenging in the macho culture of the National Football League. “You grow up in an environment where you’re constantly being told to suck it up, push through, brush it off,” observed Dwight Hollier, a former pro-football player turned licensed professional counselor, who oversaw the NFL’s “Total Wellness” initiative to educate players on mental health. “That becomes who you are and it can be detrimental when you’re faced with challenges you can’t handle yourself.”  

But NFL players are starting to break through the stigma. After his brother committed suicide, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott dealt with emotional distress by reaching out for help. He later spoke publicly about how the mental adversity we experience is “always going to be too much for ourselves, and maybe too much for even one or two people, but never, never too much for a community or for the people in the family that you love. So we have to share those things.”

It’s a good sign that NFL players have begun demonstrating what strength should mean.

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor in the Carter and Reagan administrations and a member of the ABSCAM prosecution team, which convicted a U.S. senator and six representatives of bribery. His newest book, “Into Siberia: George Kennan’s Epic Journey Through the Brutal, Frozen Heart of Russia,” is due out in December. Follow on X @GregoryWallance.

Tags Andy Murray Billie Jean King Billie Jean King Dak Prescott Gregory J. Wallance mental illness Michael Phelps tennis US Open Vivek Murthy

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