Iga Swiatek part of a growing band of tennis stars shining a light on mental health

Sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz gives insight in how she helps 2020 French Open champion cope with the rigours of top-level sport

Iga Swiatek in action against Petra Martic during the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California. AP Photo
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In honour of World Mental Health Day, 2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek announced on Monday she will be donating $50,000 of her Indian Wells third-round prize money to an organisation dedicated to offering mental health support.

“It's important to raise awareness in terms of looking for help and support if we need it. It's a sign of strength and wisdom, not weakness. As Michael Phelps wrote today: It’s OK not to be OK,” Swiatek said in a post on her Instagram.

“My day was more than OK. I would like to dedicate today's win to all the people who aren't OK. And contribute to help them even if only a bit for now.”

Mental health is being discussed more and more in sport, with the aim of destigmatising the process of seeking professional help.

Apple TV+ hit show Ted Lasso dedicated its entire second season to Coach Lasso’s battle with panic attacks and anxiety, retired former top-10 player Mardy Fish detailed his journey with anxiety in the Netflix docuseries Untold, and stars like Kevin Love and Michael Phelps continue to advocate for mental health and wellbeing through their own platforms.

Venus Williams recently announced a programme she has launched in collaboration with the WTA and BetterHelp that will provide $2 million of free therapy to the public. Swiatek says her decision to donate a portion of her prize money to the cause was inspired by Williams’ initiative.

Swiatek is only 20, but despite her young age, the Pole has recognised the importance of having a sports psychologist as part of her team.

Daria Abramowicz joined Team Swiatek on the road for the first time at Roland Garros in 2019.

Initially, the idea was not to travel full-time with Swiatek, but when the pandemic struck and the tour restarted amid difficult conditions, Abramowicz became a constant presence at tournaments. Swiatek benefitted greatly from having a travelling psychologist with her at all times on the gruelling tennis circuit.

Between bubble fatigue and loneliness while competing mid-pandemic, and the sudden rise to stardom that came with winning a maiden Grand Slam title in Paris 12 months earlier, Abramowicz helped Swiatek navigate a tricky period, and the work they’ve done has clearly paid off as she made her top-five debut and added two more trophies to her resume.

Abramowicz says she doesn’t plan on staying on the road with Swiatek full-time as coronavirus restrictions begin to ease.

“The idea never was that it’s going to be always like that, and it still isn’t going to be always like that, but this is something that’s on the table, and I think it is very comfortable for the player to have this possibility that we can do this, we can have this set-up, having this team that is able to communicate and function on a high-performance level, in a good relationship also. And being able to put this work that brings good effects and good results,” Abramowicz told The National in a Zoom interview from Indian Wells on Monday.

Abramowicz is in constant communication, not just with Swiatek, but with other team members like her coach and fitness trainer. She often attends her press conferences to see how Swiatek responds to questions from the media, and to better understand the kind of pressures she faces. She works with her on giving shorter answers – something Swiatek struggles with sometimes – and even reads the transcripts of other players’ press conferences to gain more insight into a competitor’s psyche.

“I obviously encourage her to use the possibility of speaking to press or managing her social media to create her own narrative in sport,” said Abramowicz. “I think that media pressers, these are really important. It is important because it is a window that sheds a bit of light on the athletes’ perspectives.

“I read the transcript of the Ajla Tomljanovic press conference and it was very thoughtful, very insightful, very mature and it doesn’t just give media content to work on, but it also can be a very good source of knowledge and education for other athletes, coaches, parents sometimes, and other people involved in sports.”

Tomljanovic, who upset fifth-seed Garbine Muguruza en route to the last 16 in the California desert, opened up about her mental struggles during her conversations with reporters this week.

“I will over-think even the smallest things, which sometimes works for me and other times it doesn't. On top of that I just want it so much a lot of the times. There's, like, that little kid in me that all I wanted to ever do was play tennis and win,” Tomljanovic explains.

“Sometimes it's hard to accept the losses and it's hard to accept that maybe where I thought I'd be, I didn't hit those marks. It kind of builds in my mind that I kind of failed. Then I want it even more. I get into situations when it's, like, really within my reach. It's tennis, it happens, you don't always win. I sometimes make it bigger than it is.

“I think what's been really helpful this year is I've just accepted that whatever happens happens and I have to move on and then try again.”

Tomljanovic, who made her first Grand Slam quarter-final at Wimbledon in July, says she’s been working with a general psychologist for nearly a year and credits the work they’ve done for her newfound perspective.

Abramowicz believes the conversation around mental health in tennis has definitely evolved, and she sees more players working with sports psychologists or using psychotherapy on a regular basis.

“On the other hand, I would appreciate more conversation about education and how we can take care of ourselves, which kind of tools or resources we can use to take care of our mental health and well being and also, of course, to create the better performance, and not maybe focus on changing the system. From my point of view, the beginning should be with the human being,” she added.

Abramowicz has a unique way to keep Swiatek relaxed but also entertained when she’s not on court. When she’s not reading, Swiatek spends time constructing intricate Lego structures, which Abramowicz says is a great way to stay away from social media, keep her mind off tennis, while also developing her cognitive abilities.

Working with someone so young, Abramowicz identifies some key challenges faced by phenoms like Swiatek.

“We prepare ourselves to deal with a loss, to cope with losses, we don’t often prepare ourselves for success and that’s something that can change,” she said.

“With this instant success, I would say creating this balance between work and rest, being a player and being a public persona, sometimes it happens overnight. Iga had this experience for example, or Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu right now. So this balance, even on this very basic and fundamental and physiological area, it’s having quality and quantity of sleep, good nutrition, not forgetting about this, then creating a support system that is absolutely fundamental and crucial for everything we do in our life.”

Part of Abramowicz’s work with athletes involves making sure they keep their “inner child” alive so that they can find joy in the simple things in their day-to-day lives.

“I know it sounds very poetry style but really it’s true. Mikaela Shiffrin once said that sport is difficult enough that we shouldn’t be alone in it and that we should kind of search for these simple joys, and I really do advocate for that.”

The 19-year-old Fernandez, who reached the US Open final last month, provided a prime example of that during one of her press conferences this week at Indian Wells. The Canadian teen needed to work on her serve but her father/coach Jorge Fernandez surprised her when they got to the practice court.

“My dad just said, ‘We're going to play soccer’. We did not hit a serve for, like, three days. We threw the football, threw tennis balls around, seeing who's going to hit the target. That really helped me to calm myself and just have fun, not really over-thinking it,” said Fernandez.

“Every time that I'm on court and the pressure is going up, I just think back to that moment, and it always brings a smile to my face, calms me down. Just want to be a little kid who want to be playing in a park once again. That just helps a lot.”

Updated: October 13, 2021, 7:12 AM