Success in sport is clear- If you win, you are the best (even if it’s just for a season). Winning is also pretty clear most of the time. As an athlete, I had conditioned myself to believe that as long as I am winning in Judo, I don’t need to focus on anything anyone else says about me. This was easy for me because I had a small circle of friends in Judo, at school and in the apartment block where I grew up in Mumbai. If I didn’t like someone or had disagreements with friends, I could easily stop talking to them or have no interactions with them for some time. Anything said between two friends was simply words exchanged that would eventually fade away. Also, arguments on the playground dissolved quickly because the majority of the children did not want to interact with those who’d argue all the time.
In the early 2000s social media was not a big thing. I remember having an account on Orkut and another on Yahoo for chat rooms. Facebook grew popular when I was about 15 years old. Posting a picture of yourself on Facebook was not common even though having many friends on Facebook proved how well-liked an individual was. Seeking social validation is a typical teenage trait but when we are connected to the whole world, we are seeking this same validation from people who are from different cultures, age groups, genders, and most importantly, different mindsets, attitudes, and behaviors from ours. The vast differences are difficult to please. While globalization through the internet is inevitable, is seeking social validation and being forced to please so many different kinds of people as easy as it used to be?
A performance of a lifetime
Athletes are just as human as you and me. Most athletes are very good at not caring about the wider world’s opinion of them but the competition isn’t getting easier. In this day and age, performance is not simply over after a post-match interview, it is carried on forever on social media. Random people who were never interested in sports now have the power to have an opinion about athletes’ performances. People who would’ve never watched the match or understood the context of competition have an opinion about athletes’ behaviors and reactions from 10 seconds to 1-minute videos uploaded on Instagram and Twitter. You cannot erase that performance or disconnect with that many people like I did during those blissful times in my teenage years. One mistake made by an athlete becomes a performance of a lifetime.
I chose to write this article after watching ‘The Social Dilemma’ on Netflix. Some research added below for credibility (because no one believes you unless you produce some evidence. We need evidence to think for ourselves these days. That’s my ramble done.)
Interviews conducted with 15 elite Australian athletes showed that social media use was linked to several elements associated with distraction, including positive and unwanted messages, branding pressures, and competitor content. Athletes reported two key practices that assisted in overcoming distractions, including switching off and handing over the control of their social media accounts (Hayes et al, 2020). My suggestion to most athletes who ‘have to engage in social media for brand endorsements is that you let someone else handle your social media. Don’t look at social media at least 2 to 3 weeks before important competitions. If you want to connect with people, meet friends (in person or online) who can facilitate meaningful conversation, meaningless laughs, and a trustworthy relationship. Social media love from fans will never fully give you what you need- people who love you no matter what, people who understand you, and people who you can fully be yourself around – Not just your ‘athlete self’.
There are two sides of every coin. Another study conducted on 57 athletes across 20 major international tournaments revealed that social media enabled athletes to communicate with family and friends and having a connection to home through social media made athletes feel relaxed in a high-pressure environment (Hayes et al, 2019). My suggestion here is that you use social media ‘intentionally’. Simply scrolling through social media when you are feeling anxious about competition might make you notice information that exasperates your anxiety. Be aware of how you ‘feel’ when scrolling through social media. If you want to check up on friends and family, go ahead and do it but don’t get caught in the mindless scrolling cycle.
I am the brand- I need to be perfect!
Athletes are not only brand ambassadors; they are the brands. Personal branding has allowed athletes to make millions through endorsement. The sports world has boomed because of social media and many endorsement opportunities for athletes who tell a story while maintaining their authenticity. Emma Raducanu recently signed a £2M deal with Dior and Naomi Osaka has earned a total of $55 million through brand endorsement deals. However, these athletes are at a stage where every single performance defines their popularity on social media and then impacts future brand deals. The competition now is not simply about who wins but who will attract and maintain their brand deals after a certain performance. The pressure is constantly rising.
Brands can provide the athletes with monetary support but great performances come from self-belief, hard work and perseverance. Athletes in the limelight have to face criticism from the whole world after every ‘not close to perfect’ performance. Every fan, commentator, colleague, coach and person on social media has a different expectation of their ‘perfect performance’. They cannot switch it off just like that and neither can they please every one of them. They cannot show their weaknesses or vulnerability to maintain the authenticity and image for the brands they are endorsing. We scroll through this image-building content that makes us form a certain image about an athlete. We buy the brands they endorse because of this image created by management companies. The image is not unreal but just a part of them that we get to see. This image is so ingrained in our minds as a whole person that we blindly start seeing them as superhumans who are performing, fighting for causes and making millions. We don’t get to see the normal everyday human behind that image. The human who is disciplined, follows a strict diet, trains 3 times a day and doesn’t get time to be spontaneous and do whatever they feel like for long periods of time.
Many people criticized Naomi Osaka for not wanting to speak to the press after her matches. We don’t realize the amount of pressure she faces before each match, both from those close to her and also brands that she endorses. I am proud of her for speaking up. I am proud of Simone Biles. No, they are not perfect and we need to love them and support them for who they are. We need to start seeing beyond what social media shows us. We need to become aware of what we don’t see! Social media is not the real world but there are real people behind these images.
Hayes, M., Filo, K., Geurin, A., & Riot, C. (2020). An exploration of the distractions inherent to social media use among athletes. Sport Management Review, 23(5), 852-868.
Hayes, M., Filo, K., Riot, C., & Geurin, A. (2019). Athlete perceptions of social media benefits and challenges during major sport events. International Journal of Sport Communication, 12(4), 449-481.
About the Author
Sarah Majid is a Sports and Performance Psychology Coach who uses a Person-Centered approach to help her clients. She believes in an empathetic and compassionate approach which allows her clients the space to explore their human aspect and redefine success by prioritizing what they ‘want to achieve.
Sarah has worked with individual and team sports athletes ranging from 11yrs to 75yrs. She supports GB, Pro, and recreational athletes to improve their performance in balance with well-being. She encourages her clients to grow as individuals and free themselves from the mental constraints of ‘impossibilities’ and help them to immerse into all the possibilities for them to become their ‘ideal self’.
You can write to Sarah at email@example.com for speaking engagements and workshops.