By Amy Rosner By Amy Rosner | August 25, 2021 | Culture
Meet Patrick Mouratoglou: the long-time legendary coach to Serena Williams, the GOAT, Coco Gauff, the rising star, and Stefanos Tsitsipas, #3 in the world.
Patrick and Serena
On the court, Patrick is the tennis whisperer and winning weapon. Off the court, he is an advocate for change in the sport, an activist for underserved youth, and a global entrepreneur leaving tennis footprints across projects in media, entertainment, travel, tech, and more.
With mental health being particularly relevant in sports right now, and the US Open quickly approaching, we sat down with Patrick to discuss the role mental health plays in the physical game of tennis.
Q: How has publicity surrounding Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles brought mental health to the forefront in sports?
A: These cases are definitely very different from each other, by virtue of the fact that they haven’t lived the same life. Either way, both instances demonstrate that it’s ok to say I’m not ok.
These women have opened a door that was very much closed before. In the life of an athlete, there are two sides, especially when the athlete is performing at the highest level. One side is the sport in itself, and the other side is the professionalization of the industry. The actors of this industry have become superstars. Superstars who are looked at as invincible.
For the first time, world-class athlete, Naomi Osaka, is coming forward saying that she is struggling. This is something we all need to accept as a culture. Whether it’s struggling to talk to the press, like Naomi, or choosing not to compete in certain events, like Simone, athletes should never feel obligated to do something that compromises their mental state.
These instances show that it’s extremely difficult to handle the pressure of the sport. Prior to this, fans didn’t take this important factor into consideration. After these two athletes revealed their truths, the public finally began to realize how difficult it is to be in the spotlight and to always be expected to perform to the utmost of their ability.
In a way, it makes athletes more human. And that’s a really good thing, because the public thinks these athletes are machines. They are everything but machines, and these situations have brought that to the forefront.
Q: Speaking of pressure, especially with high-level athletes, do you think it comes from internal sources, the players themselves, or external sources, the media and public opinion?
A: I think it’s both, but definitely the toughest part to deal with is the expectations of the people. When you are number one in the world, everything but winning is seen as a failure.
Failure becomes a huge deal when everybody expects better from you. The public strips world-class athletes of their right to fail.
The second these athletes don’t live up to societal expectations it immediately hits the headlines and everybody freaks out and places blame on the athlete.
You feel that expectation as an athlete, every single day, at every single match, and all year long. This also applies to interviews and speaking to the press. If you make one little mistake, or say one word at the wrong time, it instantly could jeopardize your career. This pressure really is permanent. When you go in the streets, you have the pressure of the fans. It’s constantly 24/7.
By being with Serena for almost ten years now, I can attest to how much pressure a number one in the world athlete feels at all times.
It’s definitely the price you pay because sports has become such a big thing and such an important part of contemporary culture. Things were different in the 70s or 80s where tennis was big, but not nearly as professional or influential. Now it’s a huge business, so the athletes have to learn not only how to fight to win, but to deal with the expectations of the entire world.
Q: Do you believe new standards or protocols should be implemented in the game to ensure mental health is a priority?
A: I think that the players should adapt to the system because I don’t think the system itself is flawed or broken. And that means knowing your own personal boundaries. If athletes need to take a break, they should be encouraged to take a break. Mental health issues are like an injury – a different type of injury than a physical ailment, but still an injury. It takes time to rest and heal. Mind and emotions are very present in the sport, and athletes should take care of that just as much as they take care of their bodies. The system is finally acknowledging this.
Q: You mentioned that tennis is both mental and physical. How much of the game is mental versus physical, and where do your athletes find their sources of strength?
A: The mental and physical really work together. It’s very difficult to separate them because mental health has such a big impact on the body, and the body has such a big impact on the mind.
The body is obviously important in any sport, but you can achieve things with your mind that are outside the realm of possibility. The mind is always running the show, so if your mind doesn’t believe that something is possible, then it will never come to fruition. We’ve seen this a million times in sports when there are players who are expected to win, but their mental state ultimately prevents them from achieving victory.
And we also see the opposite in some cases. With Serena, there have been many times where her mind was so strong that was she was able to overcome physical issues, whether it be a sickness or injury. The mind is your most valuable asset. As a coach, you have to be able to help them on that front.
Q: That transitions perfectly into my next question. From the coaching side of things, are there any specific methods that you implement to ensure that your athletes are staying healthy, both physically and mentally?
A: It really is daily work. We are all the result of our experiences. The way you think, and your overall mindset, is a product of the way you have lived. As a coach, it is my responsibility to have my players do daily things that are going to reinforce their mental strength. I encourage them to implement routines that make them believe in themselves, make them feel strong, and make them feel that they are able to achieve things that seem impossible.
Practice may improve the quality of their game, but it’s also about improving the quality of their mental state. The smallest methods in their everyday lifestyles can make a huge difference. When people believe in themselves, they will work with more motivation, more belief, and that yields better results. It’s a virtuous cycle that you need to build and create.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about social media and how this plays a role in mental health?
A: No matter who you are, you always have to be very careful with social media. Everything you say can be picked apart and misinterpreted. Social media has modified the way we can communicate, in a way that it is difficult to have an opinion that strays from the popular, global opinion. If you have an unpopular perspective on something, people will attack and shame you, especially when you are in the spotlight.
This makes you feel that you’re stripped of your freedom and liberties. In the past, you were entitled to have your own opinion, since only the community around you would hear it. If you expressed your thoughts in the press, you didn’t know what people were thinking about you. Now, you have an immediate reaction that can be very violent and aggressive.
Understandably, this can cause a lot of anxiety for athletes. Once again, it’s that same feeling of restriction- that lack of freedom of expression. On the other hand, these athletes have to live in their era, and it’s impossible to be an icon without social media today. This comes with the territory of being a world-class athlete, and the territory of being a coach of world-class athletes. It’s difficult. You have to accept it, and learn to work with it.
Q: How do you think the conversation surrounding mental health has changed in the last two to three years? Where do you think that the conversation is heading?
A: There was no conversation before Naomi came forward with her struggles. Mental health was not something people were talking about, so she bravely opened the door to these dialogues.
In the past, if public figures were battling with anxiety or depression, they wouldn’t dare admit it. There was no platform or opportunity to do so- it just wasn’t an option. These athletes would hide their true feelings, which would lead to more shame.
Now, athletes aren’t as ashamed to divulge their struggles, and more people are understanding and accepting it.
There has to be a start to everything, and Naomi represents this start. Because the door has been opened, all of the governing bodies will be forced to take that into consideration, and hopefully be empathetic towards it.
When people are severely suffering, they need help. And even if this help doesn’t come from the institution itself, the system will give these issues more attention, and give them the authorization to pull out when necessary.
The system is giving athletes permission to not be ok, and that’s a huge stride in the world of sports.
Photography by: Patrick Mouratoglou