Social media vs athletes

Social media and athletes: damned if you do, damned if you don’t?

Whether we like it or not, social media is here to stay. The athletes of today are dealing with a very different world to those of 20 years ago. The pressure to put their best foot forward on social media for the “benefit” of their followers, sponsors and teams is a very recent one in the sporting landscape. Its impact – positive and negative – is becoming more apparent as the lives of our sporting heroes get more visible by the day.

How do athletes embrace the social media phenomenon for their benefit without allowing it to burn them out, mess with their mental health and affect their performance? It is a real and present challenge and one that we are still only beginning to figure out. It is turning into a necessary life skill, if the goal is to stay visible.

The ability to switch off and recover after training and racing is becoming more challenging due to the “need” to keep followers informed and the trolls managed.


According to the Director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Newport Beach, California, Dr. Pamela Rutledge, it is up to the athlete to establish social media boundaries.

“Players need to remember that cruel comments are really about the person commenting, not the player,” Rutledge said. “It takes mental toughness to perform well. It takes mental toughness to withstand social criticism. Social media amplifies the voices. Whether or not this impacts performance will be an individual matter.”

But is it really that simple? Surely the ability to withstand social media abuse requires a totally different form of “toughness” than the ability to race and play hard? For some athletes there is no correlation between their sporting prowess and social confidence. For some, a lack of social confidence is one of the reasons they got into sport and now excel as an athlete.

According to  the Huff Post’s recent article, Who’d want to be a sports star in the social media age,  Female athletes in particular are targeted by the most insidious vitriol imaginable. Threats of rape, derogatory comments on their looks, and promises of all manner of sadistic scenarios are commonplace for sportswomen who have a presence on social media.”

What do you say to an athlete at practice the next day after receiving that? “You need to mentally tougher.”? I don’t think so.

Armchair commentators now have a presence in the quiet time of an athlete and are another mental and emotional energy-draining source in an already challenged headspace.

This is where the joy of free speech becomes a nightmare. Athletes might get 9/10 in whatever they do but will focus on the 1/10 that they missed. The same with social media comments. They may get 100,000 positive reactions but the 10 negative ones can become the focus. It is just the nature of perfectionism – a common trait of many high-performers.

This is the trolling sweet spot and the trolls know it. The elegant and successful tall poppies that elite sport harvests can be the play-thing for sporting fan-trolls. Athletes could do well to recognise that the trolls are waiting to turn their loss, mistake or foul into a social catastrophe and won’t nearly be as vocal when the goals are scored or the challenge overcome.

Sam Mutimer of Think Tank Scout, a Melbourne-based athlete social media consultancy, says about trolls:

“Never engage with a troll, the reason they do it is to gain attention, the more attention you give them, the more you fuel the fire. You can report a troll via the social network or block them. Don’t buy into their opinions, only look at the facts. James Blunt is a good example of a celebrity who deals with trolls well, but you have to be able to use humour tactfully”.

Here’s James Blunts’ responses to trolling.

Accept it and manage it. 

For all of us, social media can be compelling, annoying, time-consuming and anxiety-causing – all at the same time. More and more studies show that the lure of the phone or tablet can affect our ability to sleep, our mood, our recovery time, our confidence and our self-esteem; all elements that an athlete needs in spades in order to compete at the top of their game. The social media world needs to be managed rather than eliminated. It is as ingrained in our society as sugar and alcohol. More so recently because it is now seen as an essential tool of success in many walks of business. Sport being a major one.

From the beginning, athletes took to social media like ducks to water. Fans were given instant front row access to their training plans and feelings pre, during and post competitions. Some athletes and sports such as the UFC have used it to promote fights that have earned them billions in a very short space of time. For example, Conor McGregor with his four million twitter followers, is a master of using social media to conjure up hysterical reactions from the fans and media to promote his next fight and to even influence his power within the UFC. However, McGregor is also a master of handling the pressure that comes as a result. Many athletes don’t possess that mastery.

Athletes can fall into the trap of using social media to ramp up their profile but many have found that it only works if their stocks remain high. A single loss can result in the social media animal turning into a snarling dog that has a bite far worse than it’s bark. Many people fall into the trap of having a personality on social media that is much more confident than their real personality. However, they can’t differentiate the two when the attacks come. So the true self takes a hit that the ego created. This is where the problems begin for many.

How do athletes make it work for them without losing their mind and soul? How do they mix the two worlds and tame the beast to a level where their performance and mental health doesn’t get compromised? How do they ride the social media wave for its obvious professional benefits without getting sucked down its negative rabbit hole?

“Know why you’re on social media, when you know this, you’re rock solid in every move you take on the platforms. Every athlete, and brand to that point, needs to know the purpose of them playing in the space and what they want to achieve from it.”

“It all comes down to choice,” says Mutimer. “You can choose to interact with the person who’s bagging you out. You can choose to post content hourly. You can choose to log on in the middle of the night. You can choose to showcase your whole life. The more an athlete is educated about the power this medium has and why they are using it, the better resourced and prepared they are to fully leverage it to it’s full potential.”

Be yourself. 

Whatever you post, be prepared to own.

Conor McGregor reacts after defeating Jose Aldo during a featherweight championship mixed martial arts bout at UFC 194, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

In order to keep up with social media and keep performing well, it sounds like athletes need to bring their training discipline into their social media usage. Athletes who are serious about performance and wellbeing need to educate themselves on the pitfalls of over-usage and in turn, apply the focus they have in sport and take it away from the social media screens when they need to. On the flip side, they need to use their platforms to reach their fans and sponsors if they wish.

Being forewarned is being forearmed! Proper, rounded, social media education for athletes is looking like it is becoming as necessary as skill acquisition in sport. To teach athletes how to use it to their benefit as well as preventing them from falling down the rabbit hole.

Above all else, if you are going to use social media as a positive tool then just be yourself and speak the truth. If you aren’t a Conor McGregor offline, don’t try to be one online.

Think Tank Scout help athletes manage their social media for their benefit during and after their sports careers. 

You can also check out this webinar on social media management, with social media strategist Claire Austin,  or this webinar on Digital Nutrition with psychologist Jocelyn Brewer