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Psychologist who helped the women’s No. 1 tennis player avoid burnout says her unorthodox mental health technique could ease the Great Resignation

May 14, 2022, 6:21 AM UTC

The annals of pop psychology are full of books explaining what elite athletes can teach us about high performance at work. But in recent years, the focus has shifted away from the virtues of top-flight competition to its psychological costs. In no sport has that switch been more apparent than tennis. In 2021, the Japanese star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open citing a long battle with anxiety and depression, exacerbated by the constant scrutiny that success had brought her. She was still struggling at the U.S. Open later that year. After losing in the third round she tearfully announced her intention to take a longer break from the game. “I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do,” she said. “I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match.” 

The question Osaka was wrestling with was not just, ‘How can I reach the top?’ It was more complicated: ‘how can I reach the top in a way that doesn’t jeopardize my mental health?’ That is exactly what Daria Abramowicz, psychologist to the world’s No. 1 women’s tennis player, has set out to answer—not just for athletes, but for everyone.  

Abramowicz works full-time with the Polish player Iga Swiatek, whose meteoric rise has coincided with Osaka’s troubles. In 2020, when she was just 19, Swiatek won the French Open without losing a set the entire tournament. At the time she was ranked 57th in the world, the lowliest player ever to win the title. In April this year she became world No. 1 and has been on a tear ever since, winning the last four tournaments she has entered. As one tennis writer recently put it, Swiatek is now “the transcendent figure in the sport.” 

Iga Swiatek of Poland walks to practice with sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz at the Internazionali BNL D’Italia on May 9, 2022 in Rome, Italy.
Robert Prange—Getty Images

Swiatek has two great strengths as a player. One is an arsenal of groundstrokes that leave her opponents reeling. The other is an unusual dedication to the mental element of the game. Most players consult with psychologists, but Abramowicz reckons she is the only full-time psychologist on either the women’s or men’s tour who travels with a player from tournament to tournament. 

Before Abramowicz turned to psychology, she was an athlete herself; she sailed on the Polish national team. One year, during the European sailing championships, she began to suffer from what she calls “over-training”—a feeling she likens to the burnout that can strike any of us during periods of overwork. Her mood was low, she had trouble sleeping and eating, and she had lost touch with the racing instincts that she had spent years refining. “I stopped being able to feel my body and boat on the water,” she says. “In sailing you have to be unified with your equipment. I had switched off.” 

Abramowicz credits this experience with getting her interested in psychology and for shaping her view of what elite athletes need to maintain their mental health under pressure. In tennis, the major difficulty is handling the rigors of training, competition, and defeat while living almost entirely on your own. It is a solitary sport on and off the court. Most players spend 11 months a year traveling from country to country alone or with one coach. Every week almost all of them lose. Coping with it is up to them.  

COVID heightened this sense of loneliness: players were competing in empty stadiums and confined by tight bubbles wherever they went. It is no surprise that Osaka’s struggles intensified during the pandemic—and she wasn’t the only one. Bianca Andreescu, a Canadian who won the U.S. Open in 2019, also took a break from the game in 2021, citing concerns about her mental health.

As the world begins its recovery from the pandemic, the lives of athletes whose careers combine loneliness and intense pressure hold useful lessons beyond the world of sports. Over the last two years, millions of people have endured forced solitude, upended routines, and non-stop work, all without the in-person support of family, friends and colleagues. The resulting exhaustion and burnout led many to quit their jobs or reassess their careers in the Great Resignation, of which Osaka and Andreescu were temporary participants. Even as it becomes safer to go back to the office, hybrid work arrangements, intermittent COVID spikes, and school closures continue to disrupt employees’ everyday life.

For Abramowicz, reinforcing a player’s identity beyond sport is central to countering the claustrophobia of their working lives. “When athletes come to my office, I always ask them, ‘Who are you?’” she says. “And they all say, ‘I am a tennis player.’ It is the biggest part of their identity.” But even for a top pro, “a sports career is only one part of life,” Abramowicz says.

She and Swiatek spend as much time talking about non-tennis matters as they do about the game itself. They work together on deepening Swiatek’s relationships with her family and friends, and Abramowicz makes sure her player indulges her off-court interests whenever possible. While Swiatek’s opponents might be adding an extra practice session to their schedule, or taking one last look at their competitor’s tactics, Swiatek often makes time before big tournaments to go to the beach or for a hike in the countryside. 

By tending to off-court life, Abramowicz says, “it’s easier to deal with discomfort on court—and it’s always uncomfortable when you are competing.” Abramowicz encourages Swiatek to do something everyday that has nothing to do with tennis, but is purely for herself, even if it’s as simple as finding a great cup of coffee. Although Andreescu doesn’t work with Abramowicz, she followed a similar path during her time out. She spent her break rebuilding other bits of her life, like making music. Far from being a distraction from her tennis, it has enabled it: she is now back on tour and climbing the rankings. 

The difference between tennis players and the rest of us is that they are their own bosses. Abramowicz says the onus now is on companies to allow their employees to find the right balance between work and everything else. Not everyone responded to the challenges of the pandemic in the same way. Although many found working from home intolerable, others enjoyed the flexibility of life out of the office. 

“This is a moment where companies should really ask their people what they gained from the pandemic, and what they lost,” Abramowicz says. She cautions against returning to pre-COVID patterns of work just because it is possible. “Not every organization is dealing well with this challenge,” she says. 

Her approach is not about workers taking their foot off the gas. As Swiatek’s rise to the top of the game suggests, it’s about making sure they’re mentally fit enough to keep pressure on the pedal. 

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