yeshock news! The No 1 tennis player in the world has announced that there is more to her life than the number of times she wins a tennis championship. The collective state of astonishment at Ash Barty’s retirement at the age of 25 says as much about how we see athletes as it does about this extraordinary woman. How have we reached a point where it is surprising for a top athlete to have a healthy mindset? Where it stuns us that someone who has won at the highest level isn’t desperate to do it again as many times as possible? Where we ask why she is somehow unfairly depriving herself – and us – of something she owes us, as though she has n’t yet served her time de ella?
Barty has been in tennis for 20 years (remarkable given that she has only been alive for 25 years), has won multiple grand slams including the memorable victory at her home slam in Melbourne in January. She has been world No 1 for over 100 weeks. But the questions after Melbourne focused not on this stunning victory, but how many more like it there would be in the future. Sporting achievements are transient, each one diminished as the focus shifts inevitably to the next, and next, and next. But by finding lasting value in that magical scene in Melbourne, she could have found her biggest victory. When I joined the Olympic pathway some years ago, coaches asked me whether I was willing to do “whatever it takes”. In hindsight, I can see now how sinister that was. When you inevitably agree in the affirmative – the only option unless you wanted to walk out on your Olympic dream – it is like signing a pact with the devil. It means giving up defining success on your own terms or as anything less than coming first as often as possible, at any cost. Barty has made no such pact. She has clearly explained that she has nothing more to give. Why would anyone want her to keep pushing further at a point likely to lead only to mental and physical damage? Do onlookers want her to continue until she fails?
She is, in her words, “the person not the athlete.” So often do we forget that athletes are also daughters, friends, partners, with any number of other interests. Questions of identity are particularly perilous for athletes. Once defined solely by accomplishments of hitting balls, pulling oars or throwing objects, mental health challenges quickly follow: injury becomes a life-crisis, transition and retirement can feel devastating, poor results attack self-worth.
Barty has been very smart by defining success on his own terms. When she lost motivation a few years ago, she retired and went to play cricket (where she also excels). When the mojo returned, she came back to tennis not just with great results – more importantly, she created a new way to enjoy the tennis experience, consciously creating a calendar that prevented a repeat of burnout and surrounding herself with a trusted team to share the journey alongside her.
Barty had a purpose, perhaps clearest when creating history at the Australian Open and immediately taking the trophy to share with youngsters on the clay courts of Uluru. Her strong sense of social responsibility may well be a guiding force in what comes next. We are certainly seeing an increasing number of athletes, from Marcus Rashford to Hanna Mills to the England football team, recognizing how they can bring greater meaning and lasting value to their sporting careers by using their platforms as a force for positive social change. Moreover, when motivated by purpose, it’s far easier to move on to the next part of your life; athletes chasing trophies can only chase more trophies.
Barty is not alone as an athlete defining a new path. In the same sport, Naomi Osaka has talked about the darkness that came from chasing rankings and her determination to re-find the joy in tennis. Gymnast Simone Biles similarly astounded the world when she put her own health first, stepping back from competing at the Tokyo Olympics and insisting that “I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics.” Many called Biles brave and have used the same adjective for Barty. But something has gone deeply wrong when it’s brave to act in your own best interests and challenge others’ expectations that would likely damage you mentally and physically.
Across the high performance world, I have found that when success is defined narrowly (a single result, a moment on the podium) in non-human terms (a medal, trophy or entry in the record books), and imposed by others (“ only first place counts”, you will be worth more, funded more, sponsored more, if you get a certain result) – then athletes frequently end up feeling empty, unfulfilled, even depressed. Examples of this bound – from Jonny Wilkinson to Victoria Pendleton.
High performance sport has been spectacularly unhealthy for some time. After endless doping, corruption and athlete abuse scandals, there is perhaps a new opportunity for sport and society emerging with the next generation of athletes creating their own stories and refusing to follow past patterns. Ash Barty may just have written herself into the history books after all, in a way that won’t simply be scrubbed out by the next person to win more trophies.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism