athlete stories

How self-love shifted mental health narratives in sport

We’re all working hard to tell better stories about change. Sometimes the best story is not the one that fits society’s expectations. Instead, it’s the one that hasn’t been told yet. It’s the one we’ve been patiently waiting for. 

Stories of self-love covered the headlines last summer when sport superstars opened up about their mental health struggles. By doing so, they not only influenced other athletes but millions of fans around the world. Their actions gave us permission to speak up and talk about mental health. 

Each individual act of self-love by these athletes helped create irreversible momentum towards narrative change and showed the world that those that speak are not weak.

Naomi Osaka

“The intention was never to inspire revolt, but rather to look critically at our workplace and ask if we can do better.”

Four-time Grand Slam champion, Naomi Osaka, received a $15,000 fine and was excluded from the French Open last Summer after declining to attend a press conference, in a bid to preserve her mental health. Naomi went on to argue that athletes deserve improved working conditions, including the right to privacy, and breaks from media scrutiny without being penalised. Naomi suggests the need for more empathy to help bring tennis “in line with the rest of society.”

Most understand that an athlete’s successes are easily visible to all, but their suffering is not. Naomi took the first step, highlighting the importance of mental health, and by doing so she created room for others to follow – because it’s OK not to be OK.

Simone Biles

“We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”

Seven time olympic medal winner, Simone Biles courageously put her mental health first, when she withdrew from several competitions at last year’s olympics. Simone was inspired by Naomi’s courage to do what was right for her and followed in her footsteps to focus on her well-being. Her esteemed position within sport and culture set the standard for self-care and self-love above all else.

Simone was the fastest follower; a marketing term for those who learn and follow the innovators who have come before them. By doing so, Simone took a crucial role in catapulting new narratives about self-love into the early majority – opening up the debate and pushing the boundaries even further.

Ben Stokes

“I was always one of those people who wouldn’t talk about how they are feeling and just keep it internal and crack on. I now realise talking is such a powerful thing and it has completely changed me.”

Ben Stokes, who is considered one of the best all-rounders in cricket, took a hiatus from the sport after developing a finger injury during competition last year. Stokes opened up that he needed time to heal mentally, as well as physically, and stressed the importance of speaking up. Stokes was praised for sharing his struggles instead of allowing his absence to be speculated as purely physical. 

Ben joined the debate as a part of the early majority. He adopted the idea and presented it to a wider demographic, shifting narratives into the mainstream, including those who might still be hesitant towards self-love and mental health.

How did these stories create change?

Change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It takes thousands of better stories to change a narrative. These three athlete stories turned personal experiences into global conversations around mental health. Their acts empowered others to do the same. 

Naomi took the first step and created room for others, Simone became the fastest follower and helped catapult the discussion, and Ben’s candidness cemented the conversation into the mainstream. 

It’s not weak to speak, so don’t be afraid to go first. You never know who you will connect with and what change you could create.

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