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What We Can All Learn From Naomi Osaka About Setting Boundaries

Over the weekend, 23-year-old tennis superstar Naomi Osaka announced she was withdrawing from the French Open. This news came about a week after Osaka stated on social media that she would be avoiding the press at this tournament, asserting that the nature of press conferences is harmful to athletes and that “people have no regard for athletes’ mental health.” She said, “I believe that the whole situation is kicking a person while they’re down and I don’t understand the reasoning behind it.”

Unsurprisingly, Osaka’s initial announcement was met with mixed reactions from the general public, the media, and fellow tennis colleagues, many of whom thought she was overreacting. She was called spoiled and entitled, with most of the critics pointing out that doing press is part of her job and her contractual obligations—as well as the contractual obligations of every other athlete.

After this, the world’s top tennis organizations responded with a $15,000 fine and a joint statement. The beginning of the statement reinforces their “commitment to all athletes’ well-being,” affirming that “the mental health of players competing in our tournaments and on the Tours is of the utmost importance to the Grand Slams.” However, the statement goes on to say the following: “We have advised Naomi Osaka that should she continue to ignore her media obligations during the tournament, she would be exposing herself to possible further Code of Conduct infringement consequences. As might be expected, repeat violations attract tougher sanctions including default from the tournament (Code of Conduct article III T.) and the trigger of a major offence investigation that could lead to more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions (Code of Conduct article IV A.3.).”

At this point, Osaka was in a less-than-ideal situation. The concerns she expressed about her mental health were not only met with criticism from her peers, but they were also met with threats to exclude her from the four major tennis tournaments—communicated directly from the leaders of those tournaments themselves. But she handled the situation with grace, humility, and self-respect. Here’s what we can all learn from Osaka’s actions throughout the past week.

Stand your ground.

Osaka could have succumbed to the criticism and the threats. She could have just done the press conferences anyway, putting herself through the emotional stress and pressure that she has clearly stated are deeply harmful to her mental health. But she didn’t. She valued herself enough to know that doing the press conferences was not an option, and did not let anyone threaten or pressure her into it.

Know when to remove yourself from a situation.

Surely if there was better communication around this entire situation, it could have been avoided. However, by trying to fix a problem for herself, Osaka unintentionally created a bigger situation than she had ever intended. At a certain point, Osaka knew that her best option was to withdraw. In her announcement, she stated: “I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer.” She acknowledged where she went wrong in the situation, and ultimately had to walk away. Setting boundaries doesn’t always have the perfect outcome, but remember that removing yourself from potentially harmful situations is always an option.

Be solutions-oriented.

In the midst of all of this, Osaka also stated that she intends to, “when the time is right, work together with officials to make things better for the players, press, and fans.” Not every boundary-setting situation needs to be solved—and some more dangerous ones just need to be walked away from for good—but if solutions are possible, working with the people who have the power to change things is a great way to not only set your boundaries, but to do so in a productive way.

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