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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Flakes, PE

Four Lessons to Be Learned from Naomi Osaka’s 2021 French Open Experience

Naomi Osaka at the 2016 French Open Tournament
Naomi Osaka at the 2016 Roland-Garros Tournament courtesy of Carine06 | Wikimedia Commons

Most people are likely aware of Naomi Osaka’s decision to discontinue her competition in the 2021 French Open, formally known as the 2021 Roland-Garros Tournament. Before the tournament began, Osaka notified the public that she would not be doing any required post-match press conferences due to concerns over her mental health. “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athlete’s mental health, says Osaka, “And this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one.”

Roland-Garros then posted a since-deleted tweet that praised four tennis players for attending their respective press conferences at the tournament. The next day Osaka defeated her first-round opponent, Patricia Maria Tig, but she did not participate in her post-match press conference. Roland-Garros then fined Osaka $15,000, and the four grand slam tournaments issued a joint statement admonishing Osaka for not attending the obligatory press conference. This joint statement ultimately led to Osaka announcing her withdrawal from Roland-Garros before her second-round match against Ana Bogdan.

Naomi Osaka has received significant praise for making a personal decision to protect her mental health. Although much has been said about Osaka protecting her mental health, and much has been said about how Roland-Garros could have done better to accommodate Osaka, there has been less discussion about how she could have done a better job of communicating with Roland-Garros.

Even though Osaka is a professional athlete, regular working professionals could greatly learn from her experience at the 2021 Roland-Garros Tournament. Below are four questions that Osaka should have asked and considered before posting to social media that she would not participate in the press conferences. After each question, lessons to be learned from Osaka’s experience have been provided that could be helpful for various situations at work.

1. Who is the intended audience?

Osaka posted two since-removed videos along with her statement in the social media post. The first video involved John McKenzie's 1995 ABC News Day One interview with 14-year-old future tennis professional Venus Williams. In the interview, McKenzie repeatedly asked Venus about her confidence. Richard Williams, her father, then abruptly intervened and objected to how McKenzie conducted the interview. “You’re dealing with a little black kid,” says Richard Williams, “and let her be a kid. She done answered it with a lot of confidence, leave that alone.”

The second deleted video was from Marshawn Lynch at the 2015 Super Bowl media day. During the interview, Marshawn Lynch repeatedly told the press, “I’m just here so that I won’t get fined.” Osaka only posted an excerpt from the video, but the full video from the media day is worth watching.

If the goal of the two video posts was to gain sympathy from mental health advocates and fans who support her, then a job well done by Osaka. Who isn’t sympathetic to a young girl being interviewed by a reporter? Also, it is well known that Lynch does not like doing interviews.

If Osaka’s audience was officials from Roland-Garros, however, then the videos may have upset both press members and the tournament organizers. Osaka probably posted the videos to support her claim that the press does not support mental health, but some in the press may have considered it an attack on all journalists. One could even argue that McKenzie was unfair in his interview of Venus, but he received an Emmy nomination for his interview of her, so it is possible some in the press felt like the video was an attack on the profession.

Also, the video of Lynch at the Super Bowl easily could have been viewed as Osaka being defiant and dismissive of the press. Lynch was quite abrasive during his Super Bowl media interview. In the past, Lynch has told the media, “Y’all shove cameras and microphones down my throat. But when I’m at home in my environment, I don’t see y’all, but y’all mad at me. And if you ain’t mad at me, then what y’all here for? I ain’t got nothing for y’all, though. I told y’all that.” Lynch’s attitude towards the media does not appear to be rooted in mental health but is more due to personal issues with the press covering only his negative stories, not positive ones.

Lesson to be Learned

When communicating important information with others in business, it is always important to consider the following questions:

  • Who are the stakeholders in your organization?

  • What are the interests of the stakeholders?

  • What is the makeup of the stakeholders (e.g., age, gender, race, culture)?

  • What is the protocol for communicating with your intended audience?

The answers to these questions will help you craft a message that best suits your audience.

2. What are the reasons for the existing rules?

Although Osaka is much like a self-employed professional, she is still obligated to follow the rules of Roland-Garros. Osaka may not agree with the rules, but the rules were created for a reason. Roland-Garros emphasized this in their joint statement: "We want to underline that rules are in place to ensure all players are treated exactly the same, no matter their stature, beliefs or achievement.” Simply stated, the rules are the rules, and the rules are not meant to be broken.

Some will argue that Osaka volunteered to accept the fine for breaking the rules, so what is the harm? One must realize, however, that the purpose of the fine is to deter athletes from breaking the rules, so allowing Osaka to accept a fine only encourages her and future tournament participants to break the rules.

Lesson to be Learned

Having existing rules does not mean the rules are fair, and sometimes these rules need to be revisited. However, if Osaka had a greater understanding of the rules, her approach may have been different. Maybe she would have done more before the tournament to get the rules changed before deciding to break the rules. When possible, it is always best to work within the rules before deciding to break them.

3. What is the appropriate mode of communication?

A few days before Osaka’s scheduled first-round match at Roland-Garros, she announced via social media that she would not participate in any media interviews. It does not appear, however, that Osaka notified the officials at Roland-Garros before making her public statement on social media. Even after her public post, members of Roland-Garros tried to reach out to her twice with no response. According to the joint statement from Grand Slam tournaments regarding Naomi Osaka:

"Following [Osaka’s] announcement, the Roland-Garros teams asked her to reconsider her position and tried unsuccessfully to speak with her to check on her well-being, understand the specifics of her issue and what might be done to address it on site. Following the lack of engagement by Naomi Osaka, the Australian Open, Roland-Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open jointly wrote to her to check on her well-being and offer support, underline their commitment to all athletes’ well-being and suggest dialog on the issues."

Lesson to be Learned

Communication is critical for both business and personal relationships. Text messages and social media are convenient forms of communication, but nothing replaces direct communication.

Keep in mind the following:

  • Most business professionals conduct important conversations in person or via phone.

  • Verbal communication (e.g., telephone calls) is usually more effective than written communication (e.g., text messages).

  • Tone cannot always be communicated well via text or social media.

  • Instant messages can oftentimes be misunderstood.

  • Sometimes a letter may be more appropriate than an email.

  • Social media should never be used to communicate important information to an employer.

Lastly, it is important to be prompt with communication. Roland-Garros claims to have reached out to Osaka without any response. It is always important to respond to messages in a timely fashion. The more urgent the message, the quicker the response should be. If you are not prepared to respond, requesting more time to respond is usually acceptable.

4. What is the execution plan?

One must ask whether Osaka even took time to ponder her plan carefully, assuming she had a plan. Several things should have been considered before Osaka declared that she would not attend the mandatory press conference.

For example, did Osaka:

  • Consider how Roland Garros would respond to her public statement.

  • Consider that all four Grand Slam tournaments would be unified in enforcing more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions.

  • Consider any negative press that she would receive from the media and fans.

  • Consult with her advisors or mentors before making her decision.

  • Seek advice from past and present tennis professionals.

We may never know the answers to these questions, but Osaka’s answer likely would be no, and because the advanced work had not been performed, she likely made her situation with Roland-Garros worse.

“Above all, it’s just really sad: for her, for the tournament, for the sport,” said Martina Navratilova, a former No. 1 who has seen plenty of tennis turmoil in her 50 years in the game. “She tried to sidestep or lessen a problem for herself, and instead, she just made it much bigger than it was in the first place.”

Lesson to be Learned

It is always good to have a plan when important decisions need to be made. A good plan is typically well thought out and organized. Planning allows you to be proactive instead of reactive. Planning also allows you to foresee any possible issues resulting from your decisions. You are more likely to succeed with a plan than without one.

Lastly, consulting a colleague you trust, mentor, or friend can never hurt before acting. There is much value in speaking with someone experienced who can offer practical advice on your situation before you decide.

What Osaka Did Right

Despite not addressing the questions above, Osaka did quite well in recovery. First, she owned up to her part and apologized both privately and publicly. In her public statement, Osaka says, “I wrote privately to the tournament apologizing and saying that I would be more than happy to speak with them after the tournament as the [Grand] Slams are intense.”

Osaka also did well to step away from the situation so that she would not be a continued distraction throughout the tournament. “Hey everyone, this isn’t a situation I ever imagined or intended when I posted a few days ago. I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players, and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.”

The final thing Osaka did well was to promise to turn this negative experience into an opportunity. “I’m gonna take some time away from the court now, but when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press, and fans.”

Final Takeaway

Most people would agree that mental health should always be prioritized, and Naomi Osaka should be commended for taking measures to protect her mental health. Although both Roland-Garros and Osaka could have done more to reach a compromise in their dispute, it is beneficial to critique Osaka’s actions with Roland-Garros because there are opportunities for regular working professionals to learn from her experience. If Osaka had considered the four questions above, she might have received her desired result.

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