Sloane Stephens Gets Candid About the Pressures of Being a Female Athlete In the Media
Sloane Stephens may not have competed in tennis at the Tokyo Olympics — she narrowly missed a spot on Team USA's roster after losing in the fourth round of the French Open — but she's been putting in the work stateside. Her summer has been spent rehabbing her knee after taking a tumble at Wimbledon, hopping back on the court at the Atlanta Open, and launching a profile on a new content sharing platform called Bulletin, where she plans to "develop a deeper relationship" with all her fans.
But Stephens has always been about connecting with people — namely, younger generations — and acting as both a catalyst for change and a mentor. Her namesake nonprofit, the Sloane Stephens Foundation, is dedicated to using tennis and education to change the narrative of poverty, health inequity, and educational underdevelopment.
"I am so fortunate to have this platform and absolutely recognize the opportunity I have to positively impact others," she tells Shape. "My foundation has supported more than 8,000 youth since we started in 2013, so I always think of those kids before I do anything. Would they feel inspired if they read or saw what I did? Would their parents be proud to have their child in my program? I'm all about representation — I think it's so important for young people, and especially young girls of color, to have positive role models that look like them and are doing amazing things. Once someone sees something, it creates that spark that they can do it, too. I want every child to dream big."
That representation is a huge piece of the puzzle in creating inclusive environments in both wellness and sports and paving the way toward a more equitable future for all. Luckily, some organizations — including Stephen's foundation as well as SeeHer, a movement started by the Association of National Advertisers in an effort to accurately portray women and girls in marketing, advertising, media, and entertainment so they see themselves as they truly are and in all their potential — are working to make sure future generations see nothing but opportunity in front of them.
These efforts have perhaps never been as important as they are right now as the world of sports is seemingly in the midst of a revolution around athlete's mental health. Just a few prominent examples in recent memory: GOAT gymnast Simone Biles took a step back from Olympic competition for mental health reasons; runner and former Nike athlete Colleen Quigley has been outspoken about mental health struggles and how it influenced her decision to withdraw from the Olympic trials; and Naomi Osaka recently withdrew from the French Open after she refused to do press in the name of preserving her mental health. For the first time in what feels like ever, athletes are being candid about their emotional wellbeing — as well as the impact media and public figure-hood has on it. This visibility only serves to decrease mental health stigma and normalize these pro athletes as mere humans.
Here, Stephens shares her own experience dealing with (mis)representation in the media, the role mentors have played in her life, and the open doors she's hoping to leave in her wake.
When was the first time the media got it right?
"I don't remember the specific publication where I was first represented accurately, but I remember realizing that non-tennis fans and strangers would read that article and learn about my story directly through my own words.
I've gotten used to having people watch my matches and practices from an early age, but seeing my name and thoughts in major publications was totally surreal. Realizing that people were interested in learning about me as a person and as more than an athlete, was, and still is, very humbling." (Related: The Simple, 5-Word Mantra Sloane Stephens Lives By)
Have you ever felt misrepresented? How did it affect you?
"All the time, unfortunately. I've had some situations where I thought I had a really fun conversation with a journalist, and we got along so well only to see the final piece and have it be totally different than what I thought. I think there is so much pressure now, especially through social media, for clickbait and taking super short sound bites to cause a reaction or fit in the length of a tweet. In an interview, I could've given a super thoughtful five-minute-long answer, but outlets will publish a few words out of that entire statement that could be misconstrued. It's super common and, unfortunately, I think it weighs on the minds of lots of public figures."
Do you think there are enough women role models in media?
"I think there are so many amazing role models and positive stories that we could choose to celebrate and uplift each other, but the headlines don't always choose to highlight the positive because it's more interesting to sell controversy or drama. There's so much pressure on women of all ages, especially related to appearances, and it's tough to find accurate representation and role models. I do think this is changing for the better, and I'm hopeful that these conversations will continue to progress."
Who are your own biggest role models and why?
"My mom is my forever role model. She is my best friend and my inspiration in everything I do. She is the executive director of the Sloane Stephens Foundation and treats every single child like her own; she is a former All-American [swimmer] who understands what it's like to train and compete; and she earned her Ed.D. while traveling with me to support my dreams. Above all of her accomplishments, she is kind and honest."
How do you feel that engaging with media has affected your own mental health?
"Press is a part of our job and that exposure helps make tennis a premier global sport, but there's a compassionate way to go about things. Everyone goes through the process differently, and some people have way more pressure at different times. Unfortunately, no one is handled delicately. With such a huge conversation about mental health right now, that needs to be taken into account. Not everyone is the same, and not every day is the same. Athletes are humans, first and foremost, and feelings are normal."
How do you think social media has changed the media landscape for athletes?
"I appreciate that I can have a direct dialogue with fans through my social media channels. If I have a message I want to communicate or something to share, I can directly say it when and how I want. It's definitely uncomfortable at times to be vulnerable, but as I've gotten older, I try to focus on the positive. During quarantine, for example, I had more time to focus on my non-tennis interests like hair care, beauty, and wellness, and I'm excited to continue sharing this side of me with my community."