This week I had my first ever work experience student. Amelia Casey is just about to begin her third year at Birmingham Uni studying Psychology and she wanted to find out if Sport Psychology is a career she would enjoy. Much of my work as a Sport Psychologist is directly with individuals and I give them complete confidentiality so would never be able to have someone sitting in but Amelia was able to come and help at a workshop for a brilliant swimming camp and supported with some marketing ideas and designs. One area we discussed was the role of social media for athletes and she offered to put her reflections into a blog post. You can find Amelia on LinkedIn and her blog post is below.

The importance of social media

As we become more reliant on social media and our screen time increases at a pace we can’t keep up with, the battle of how we should navigate social media is no different for elite athletes. Social media has become a huge part of athletes’ lives, allowing athletes to develop relationships and communicate through interacting with their fans and followers. Additionally, athletes are able to take greater control over their online image compared with traditional media outlets (such as journalism). However, with this comes an unspoken demand to provide an idealistic profile online to secure top sponsorship deals and uphold a spotless reputation to ensure they are well liked. Emma Raducanu, British number 1 tennis player, was described by The Telegraph as ‘UK’s sporting sweetheart’, but how long will it be until there’s a new ‘sporting sweetheart’ and she’s torn down by the media? And how will this affect her tennis performance?

As role models to young children, athletes are held to a higher standard compared with everyone else, often resulting in them posting an unrealistic highlight reel to their social media. Athletes are faced with criticism and unwanted messages when they don’t meet the public’s standards or do something to tarnish their image. At one extreme, this online bullying can result in having a negative effect on an athlete’s mental health, possibly leading to a poor performance.

The constant checking of messages, likes and followers athletes receive, similarly to anyone else, provides a feel-good dopamine hit. This dopamine hit is exemplified due to the sponsorship deal and money that rewards greater engagement and publicity. However, this comes at a cost of acting as a distraction to the athletes and may cause mental fatigue when their focus should solely be on competing. This is supported by the attentional control theory (Eysenck). This theory suggests anxiety, in this case caused by social media, can negatively affect goal-directed behaviour, which is behaviour that has the sole focus of achieving a particular goal. Goal-directed behaviour is important in a sporting context as it provides a focus for athletes, for example the goal for a gymnast could be to land their vault accurately without secondary movement or for a marathon runner to run a personal best time.

What’s the solution?

While ‘celebrities’ in the sporting world can afford to quit social media or have their social media run by someone else, most rely on social media to promote themselves in order to secure or keep sponsorship deals and monetise their brand. As such, athletes adopt strategies before, during and after a competition so they are able to showcase themselves and their sport whilst prioritising their performance. Many athletes use a blackout period before and after competitions. For example, US professional basketball player LeBron James engaged in a social media blackout during the NBA season playoffs for a number of years. Similarly, Sydney McLaughlin, 400mH world record holder, logged off social media before becoming world champion in June this year. Perhaps, other athletes should take inspiration from these ‘sporting legends’ and be more restrictive of their social media use during competitions.

As social media becomes more of a dominant force in our lives and our screen times increase exponentially, will elite athletes turn the other way and limit their social media presence to prioritise their performance and protect their mental health? Or are the financial rewards that come with a high social media presence just too hard to resist?