Money Smart Athlete Blog

Athletes, mental health and social media

May 11, 2022 | Mental Health

By Iacovos Iacovides, The Sports Financial Literacy Academy

Social media are online platforms that help you connect with people from all over the world, upload family pictures and like your friends’ vacation photos. You can find people from all over the world who share your interests and follow your favourite athletes. There is, however, the flip side to all that which we’d rather not talk about that much; up until the moment it affects us. Bullying, body- shaming, hate, abuse, racism, sexism and a host of other -isms have crept their way into the day-to-day reality of social media.

Celebrities are the most frequent targets of these attacks which has turned into an epidemic. Try the comments underneath something posted by an athlete; there is no chance that you won’t find something negative. The consequences according to research are plenty: depression, anxiety, memory loss, poor athletic performances and the list goes on.

Social media platforms are designed to be addictive. There is an army of engineers and psychologists whose purpose is to answer the question “How can I get this person to stay on Instagram/ Facebook/ Twitter for longer”. These multi-billion-dollar entities managed to find a way to trigger our brain’s reward system through dopamine hits, with the use of like buttons and flashy friend/ follow requests. The problem is only real human interaction can ease stress, anxiety, and depression, curb loneliness and give us comfort and joy.

Athletes and especially those enjoying international recognition cannot afford not be online due to financial considerations, commercial opportunities, pressure and visibility. For some solo sport athletes, it is their primary source of income. The reality is, these superstars find themselves constantly under siege due to poor performance or for saying something that they shouldn’t have or for phrasing something poorly. It is hard to sympathise with some of the richest and most privileged people in the world, but what we tend to forget is that most of these people are no older than 25 years old and some of them are still teenagers.

When Maradona scored his (in)famous goal against England in 1986, there was no Facebook for English fans to send him death threats. When Andriy Shevchenko missed his penalty in the 2005 Champions League final against Liverpool there was no Twitter for bigots to ridicule and abuse him. The worst you could get in the early 2000s was some stick from TV pundits and journalists.

Now contrast these cases with what happened with the three England internationals – Rashford, Sancho and Saka – who missed their penalties against Italy during the Euro 2020 [2021] final. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram had to remove thousands of comments, posts and other racially abusive content directed at the trio. Imagine the mental impact. Not only did they have to cope with missing the most important penalty kick of their lives, with letting down their teammates and coaches and the fans in attendance, but they also had to put up with the abuse of internet “warriors” throwing insults and slurs at them.

Sadly, we don’t have to go back decades to find examples; just the cases from 2021 are plenty for 20 articles. South Korean archer An San who won three gold medals for her country, was mocked on Twitter for her short hair. Japanese table tennis champion Jun Mizutani received online death threats.

You might receive hundreds of positive comments throughout the day, but just one abusive and ill-conceived message is enough to ruin your day. Pickswise has analyzed tweets sent to athletes. The results were astonishing vis-à-vis online abuse. Indicatively, in the span of 12 months, LeBron James received approximately 123,000 abusive messages, Tom Brady 28,000 and Cristiano Ronaldo 12,000.

Phil Jones of Manchester United opened up about mental health and social media a few months ago in an interview with UTD podcast. “I stepped away from social media a long time ago, but it’s difficult because all your friends read it, your family read it […] I know as a young player, that’s the first thing you do: you come off the game and you want to see what people are saying about you [on social media]. But when you strip it all back it doesn’t really matter what they say because they’re not picking the team”.

Phil Jones knows a lot about this as he used to be a weekly target for trolls. But he has a point. There are ways to protect yourself. First of all, there are software programs that can help delete or hide such messages. Secondly, you can turn off notifications and/ or avoid social media right after a bad game/ performance. West Ham Untied captain and England international, Declan Rice, admitted doing this before and during the European championship last summer and felt that it boosted his confidence. Thirdly, you can hand control of your social media to your PR team; not always, but during periods where hateful messages are more likely to surge. Most importantly, if you’ve experienced abuse, anxiety, depression or any other mental health related issues, do not hesitate to seek help. As Naomi Osaka said, “it’s ok not to be ok”.

The Money Smart Athlete® Blog is established and run by the Sports Financial Literacy Academy® (SFLA).  Through its education programs the SFLA has the vision to financially educate and empower athletes of all ages to become better people, not just better athletes.  For more information on our courses, our SFLA Approved Trainer Program®, and how they can benefit you and your clients, please get in touch with us at [email protected].