One danger in sports journalism, a profession I have enjoyed for a half-century, is engaging in amateur psychology. That may be because there are so many occasions for potential malpractice, such as addressing tennis champion Naomi Osaka’s recent public scuffle regarding her self-worth.
At 23, Osaka’s sporting achievements already have made her fabulously compensated, uncommonly marketable and widely admired. And, by her own account, thoroughly joyless. After the latest of her rare on-court disappointments, a third-round loss in this year’s U.S. Open — which she has won twice — she tearfully announced an indefinite sabbatical. Because, she said, “when I win, I don’t feel happy. I feel more like relief. And then when I lose, I feel very sad. And I don’t think that’s normal.”
An unqualified shrink, armed with only a press credential, might wonder about the irony of such dissatisfaction. Or the source. Might the expectations that haunt Osaka come from so much early success? Or from the relentless winning-is-the-only-thing culture that pervades the sports world, echoed by fans, Internet scolds, talk radio and the athletic community itself?
Shortly before the Open commenced, Osaka posted on social media that she was ready to leave her “extremely self-deprecating” habits behind, admitting she has felt “I’m never good enough….I’ve never told myself that I’ve done a good job, but I know I constantly tell myself that I suck or I could do better.”
It’s easy to marvel at how a life of elite athletic competition not only would have established that the existence of a scoreboard is evidence that the goal of playing is to win, but also that sport is a zero-sum thing: There always will be a loser as well as a winner.
“It sucks in tennis that there’s a winner and loser every single day,” top-ranked Ashleigh Barty said after she was beaten midway through the Open. “But you can’t win every single tennis match that you play….”
At Wimbledon, the oldest and most celebrated of the sport’s major tournaments, two lines from Englishman Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” are written on the wall of the players’ entrance to Centre Court:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same…
There are other versions of that, countering the cliché that athletic victory is a defining moral trait (though they are not necessarily embraced by athletes or their followers). Grantland Rice — a sportswriter! — declared in the 1940s that “it’s not that you won or lost but how you played the game.” Modern Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin said that “the most important thing…is not winning but taking part.”
The reality, of course, is that a faulty, straight-line connection between hoisting a championship trophy and one’s personal merit — between a sports loss and some character flaw — constantly is reinforced by so many who have the critic’s megaphone or an Instagram account.
After losing at the Open, another of the tournament’s former champions, Sloane Stephens, posted that more than 2,000 abusive messages were sent her way, though she had been beaten by a worthy opponent, three-time major-tournament winner Angelique Kerber. From total strangers, there were curses, threats of physical harm and suggestions that Stephens be jailed.
Sometimes the other player wins. And so what? Even an amateur should realize that the psychological danger is the all-too-common habit of seeking to assign blame for a loss.