Athletes’ mental health and social media

Neither Twitter nor the “Twitterverse” existed back in 1994, when Steffi Graf lost her first round match at Wimbledon. Paula Radcliffe did not have ten million Instagram followers commenting on her performance when she left mid-marathon at the 2004 Athens Olympics due to feeling “empty.”. As a result, no meme-maker was around to celebrate what was arguably the greatest scandal in sports history.

After deciding not to attend a press conference during the French Open 2021, Naomi Osaka penned an essay for her Instagram account about her mental health. The 2020 Olympics gymnastics competition ended heroically for Simone Biles as well. Within hours, she told her fans that she felt the weight of the world on her shoulders on Instagram. In addition to the messages of support, there were also those saying they failed their fans.

Throughout the day, athletes can be seen on social media, unfiltered. Laurie Hernandez can be followed into the gym, Tom Daley can be seen training (and knitting), and pictures of Serena Williams’ adorable daughter can be double-tapped. It’s easy to like, comment on, or critique our generation’s sports legends, because they’re at our fingertips.

The gap between fans and athletes has narrowed with the availability of behind-the-scenes looks. Despite offering players a unique opportunity to connect with their communities in a brand new way, it has also added a layer of pressure to what has always been associated with competing at a high level.

Fans and athletes are constantly communicating through social media

Performers in sports are accustomed to performing in front of an audience. Thousands of spectators have followed the lives of professional athletes since broadcast television was introduced in 1927. Social media and the 24-hour news cycle have changed, but the constant feedback loop is not.

“Athletes have a closer connectedness with fans now thanks to social media, so they get instant feedback on themselves, their brands, and their abilities to perform,” says Leeja Carter, PhD, executive board member for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. As a result, athletes are pushed under the spotlight and subject to criticism not just about their athletic ability, but also about their everyday lives, which makes them think differently when they’re playing their sport.”

It is easy to forget that Olympic athletes aren’t superhuman-after all, Biles’ Yurchenko Double Pike did defy gravity-when their skills are superhuman. “There’s [this idea] that because we’re strong, we’re bulletproof and nothing can affect us,” says Lindsey Vonn, a former World Cup alpine ski racer on the U.S. Allianz is partnering with the Ski Team to raise awareness about competitive sports’ impact on mental health. Although this might be true when competing, it isn’t always true when you get home.

An athlete’s mental health is affected by “couch criticism”

The path to becoming an elite athlete is long and arduous; however, we are rarely privy to the years of sacrifice, since most of us are already aware of new stars before they gain recognition. We are then reduced to 90-minute soccer games or 90-second floor routines.

A vital part of Michelle Carter’s training regimen is staying away from social media during the weeks before large competitions. The American shot putter holds the current world record. “In those moments you are very vulnerable, and you want your mindset, your emotions, and your mental game to be protected,” she says. “I have seen so many athletes crumble under the pressure of getting to the Olympics, because they were preoccupied with social media stress leading up to it.”

The proximity of athletes to their fans has created the sense that they are “belonging” to them, as if they owe spectators a gold medal or a game-winning goal every time they compete. The athletes feel they are their property and have to perform for them for some reason. This is very taxing,” Carter says. As Biles told reporters after her Olympic competition, “I came in wanting to compete for myself, and I still feel like I’m competing for people.”

The internet isn’t always a bad thing, though. “The fact that [athletes] have this connection with fans and the media, and everyone can see who they are on the inside, is one pro,” says Dr. Carter. Fans used to communicate with their fans off the field by using the media and postgame press conferences. In spite of this, as Osaka demonstrated by withdrawing from these press conferences earlier this year, that traditional format is far from perfect. With their own platforms, players can tell their own story according to how they see themselves in the world.

The narrative shift is being led by black female athletes

This experience is further exacerbated by the misogynistic nature of sports and society, which clings to Black female athletes in particular. As Dr. Carter states, “racial, sexist, and classism create a different pressure, and that significantly impacts Black women in how they are critiqued and how they are treated by the media.”. A person’s mental health is 100 percent impacted by the intersection of these forces.

As public figures, Black female athletes often are called upon to speak for entire communities and often carry a lot of emotional weight as well, says Carter. As an athlete, it is hard to find your role in things, whether you represent the Black community in aquatics or compete at the highest level. “I represent the Black community in aquatics,” says Ashleigh Johnson, two-time Olympic gold medalist and Team NordicTrack athlete.

Another way to disproportionately land pressure is in a highly competitive landscape. As a result, athletes are under additional pressure to provide information as soon as possible. As a result, athletes are unable to take care of themselves, protect themselves, and perform in a way that truly works for them.”

What are our options now?

The number of athletes who struggle with mental health issues increases over time, and until recently, the issue was largely ignored. Underdogs will continue to beat the odds and superstars will continue to shave milliseconds off World-Record-breaking sprints, but we can also let greater empathy wash over us like Gatorade being dumped as the trophy is unveiled.

Fans have always found that sport provides a way to connect with the world and to understand it. Our own lives are made more exciting when we witness acts of greatness. We remember times when we felt tired as well when watching players struggle. We can also understand the ways in which stress, anxiety, and pressure manifest in our own lives as we see athletes tie the impacts of mental health so closely to their own physical performances.

The conversation about sport is pivoting to be one which acknowledges a person first and then an athlete, thanks to Biles and Osaka, and more athletes are surely to follow. It made us stronger.

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