Svitolina wants more mental health aid for juniors

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PARIS — Elina Svitolina can vividly recall her struggles as an anxious young player on the international tennis circuit, and is now campaigning for better mental health protection for juniors starting out in their careers.

The former No.3-ranked Svitolina remembers how tough the weight of expectation was, the loneliness and long travel. Not to mention replaying crushing defeats in her mind when stuck in a remote hotel room.

“I had tough moments in my career (at) a young age. You travel alone, just with your coach. When you are traveling so many weeks every year, it can be a big challenge,” Svitolina, a 27-year-old Ukrainian player, told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday. “You’re losing pretty much every single week, so this is mentally really tough to handle.”

So she welcomes the idea of psychologists being readily available for juniors on the tennis circuit.

“I think it’s the right way,” she told the AP in Paris. “Because traveling from January until November, this can be really tough. The expectations of the media, the parents, the coach. You are working a lot and not as successful as you wish.”

Svitolina dealt with things differently back in her junior days, and perhaps more resiliently. But said juggling so much, too young, affected her emotional development and personality.

“For sure something changes in your mental life. You become more downhill, you become more (of) a sad person,” she said. “You become a bit of a lonely person, you miss your friends, miss your family. You are in a hotel every time, packing every few days to move to the other city.”

Svitolina made it on the elite women’s tour: winning 16 career titles, reaching quarterfinals or better at all four of the major tournaments – including runs to the semifinals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. There are players who didn’t reach the top level, yet have to deal with similar hidden struggles.

“There are lots of things that people don’t see, don’t realize, that are happening to the young player and what they are going through,” Svitolina said. “For me it took a few years to find a good person with who I could share (things).”

In July last year Svitolina married French player Gael Monfils, who continues to play on the men’s tour.

Svitolina, who sees a psychologist, was one of several speakers Wednesday at the Global Sports Week conference in Paris. She addressed mental health in sport and further evoked young players getting access to psychological support.

“For juniors the transition can be challenging, so that’s why it’s important to have a mental coach,” she told the forum. “To give them this opportunity, if they need to share their fears, to share their worries. It’s very important.”

Young players might feel disorientated early on, she said.

“When you’re a junior it’s extremely tough to know what is going to happen to you. You just watch players winning trophies, all smiley and happy, but you don’t know what is happening behind the scenes,” she said. “When I was growing up, I never really heard of someone speaking about their difficulties … People (were) taking it for weakness.”

The 27th-ranked Svitolina is on a break from tennis. She constantly fears for her family in Ukraine, impacted by Russia’s 11-week invasion. The mental strain of the war troubled her so much that she stopped playing.

“Sometimes your body cannot handle this pressure,” she said. “When I’m not mentally fit my physical condition drops.”

Misconceptions about successful athletes need to change, Svitolina said, namely that glory and financial gain afford them some kind of magical immunity from emotional and mental fragility.

“I feel like people are mixing (things) up; like when you have a lot of money you should be happy,” she said. “For me a successful person is the person who bounces back from tough moments, tough losses. I feel this is the best value that you can have. This shows how strong you are.”

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