Social Media & Sport: Always On

Always on. Always connected. Always in the spotlight. Social media has benefits for athletes, but also creates a new level of pressure. For many sport parents, getting media coverage was fun back in your day. It meant getting your name in the local paper when you played well. Maybe your parents or grandparents would cut out the article so you could have it for your scrapbook. As we all know, times have changed.

By Linda Sterling, CMPC, LPC

Social media is great in that it keeps people connected. It allows us to celebrate sport. Sport fans and athletes get to witness all of the great athletic feats happening. Young athletes can be motivated by this. They see examples of what’s possible and set higher goals because of it. When athletes do great things, it’s shared for everyone to celebrate. That awesome race finish from last weekend? You don’t have to verbally describe it
to your friends and family, everyone gets to see it! Social media can lead to athletes feeling empowered. Not only do they get to share their stellar performance, they can also share their voice with the world.

This sounds amazing. Sharing happy times. Cheering on athletic accomplishments. Feeling empowered. Unfortunately, there is a downside to social media for athletes. But you knew that.

Psychological side effects of being always on.

Comparison. It’s hard to not compare when your inundated with opportunities for comparison. For athletes, this isn’t just social media, but other sites that track athletic stats or provide a ranking system. While sometimes it seems like helpful “research” into the competition, other times it can become an obsession, increasing anxiety and diverting focus. There is pressure to stack up, do more, or outwork those who seem to be always working. Constant comparison is exhausting and can increase the risk of burnout.

Criticism. Everyone on the internet has an opinion. This is especially true in sport. Monday morning quarterbacks are everywhere. It’s tough for athletes to survive a good performance without criticism, it’s almost impossible to escape a poor performance. It’s there for everyone to see, judge, and even comment on…over and over again. People are brave behind a screen. They can say harsh things that they probably wouldn’t say in person. Unfortunately, knowing that fact doesn’t make it sting any less. Even if most of the comments you’ve received are positive, research shows it’s tough to let go of the negative. This can lead to athletes doubting their ability and thus decreasing their confidence.

Pressure to create a personal brand. When you post on social media, you’re intentionally or unintentionally creating a personal brand. You’re posting what you’re passionate about which gives others perceived insight into who you are (or at least how you want to be seen). This might develop organically as you share about your sport, your love of dogs, and your travel adventures. Increasingly, this has gone from an unintentional, organic process to curating an intentional personal brand. This is especially true for athletes (and sport parents) with the potential to make money as a college athlete now. Athletes are influencers and “followers equal dollars.” The price of education is something athletes hear from a young age. It’s easy to see how they may start feeling the pressure to make money and how this seems like a good way to go about it. We’ll know more about the effects of this in the next few years, but right now we’re seeing sport parents becoming managers, which isn’t always a healthy relationship dynamic.

No time off or escape. With social media, athletes really don’t get a break from their sport. It’s always there. At any time, you can read or watch something about your sport. While it may feel like dedication, it’s actually limiting. Without a break, the negative effects of the comparison, criticism, and other pressures are multiplied. Adolescent brains need a break, they need a little down time to process and grow. That’s where the improvement actually happens.

Social media is not going away, but athletes and parents can learn to navigate.

Tips for Parents:

  1. Ask before posting about your athlete. 
    Make sure you check with your athlete before you post about them. Get their permission then keep it brief. Focus on how proud you  are of them. Never comment negatively on a teammate or an opponent.
  2. Keep an eye on your athlete’s posts. 
    Adolescents have developing brains and heightened sensitivity to social pressure which can influence decision-making. Social media posts don’t go away. They may have real consequences as an athlete’s career continues and the spotlight gets brighter.
  3. Implement a “check with me first” rule or at least a “think about it” rule before posting. 
    This will allow your athlete an opportunity to think about what they’re about to post and provides you an opportunity to support them or help them reconsider.
  4. Check in with your athletes. 
    Have conversations about how to handle social media in a positive way. Let them know they can come to you with social media concerns.
  5. Talk about the feedback.
    It’s important to know which feedback to take in and which feedback to let go of. Coaches and recruiters provide a useful perspective. The comments of random internet users, who may or may not know what they’re talking about, should be let go.
  6. Think about deactivating or taking a social media break when needed. 
    Many athletes will step away from social media when it becomes a distraction, when it’s negatively influencing their mindset, or when they know they need to focus on their upcoming competitions.
  7. Set an end time for social media each day. 
    Athletes need a break from the 24-7 information stream (even if they don’t see it that way).
  8. Have athletes put their phones in another room at night. 
    The pressure to check social media interferes with sleep. Night-time can also amplify the negative side effects of social media. That’s when doom-scrolling and anxiety tend to be at their highest.

Athletes are known to love a little glory and that’s okay. It can feel good to have your MVP moment! It’s being “always on” that takes a toll. Following these tips can help athletes and families enjoy the positives of social media without the draining downside.

LINDA STERLING, PHD, CMPC, a former collegiate softball player, has masters and doctoral degrees in Counseling Psychology and Sport Psychology and is a licensed professional counselor and Certified Mental Performance Consultant. To learn more about her approach, visit drlindasterling.com.

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