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What Can We Do to Help Elite Athletes Against Twitter Trolls?

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The recent racial abuse from Twitter trolls, most recently those directed towards Manchester United Footballer Paul Pogba after missing a penalty, has again raised questions about the ‘ethics’ of online platforms and athlete protection from online ‘abuse’.

High-stake performance outcomes that can only be determined by one outcome – either scoring or missing (and the consequences of missing are high) are clearly more risky times for athletes and it can be predicted that supporters are likely to experience high-intensity negative emotions when such misses happen. 

Research has started to understand online abusive behaviour using different psychological approaches and models. For example, researchers have considered the nature of online abuse from a socioecological theory perspective.

The socioecological model suggests that we need to understand the individual, social and cultural influences that bring about online abuse or bullying behaviour.

Research on the EU Kids Online model has been developed to outline opportunities and risks for adolescents using online platforms. This kind of research can be transferable to sport contexts and elite athletes.

In highly-paid and high-profile sports such as football, the viewers or ‘fans’ are generally financially (payment for televised matches, match ticket purchases), socially (many football fans incorporate their favourite team into a collective, shared identity) and emotionally (they feel a great sense of loyalty and emotional attachment to sport teams and players) invested in the performance of the players and team. 

In our recent research we are starting to uncover patterns of targeted criticism aimed at players in order to better understand the motivations of Twitter trolls and ultimately provide suggestions for athlete training and sociocultural approaches to increase our understanding of triggers for abuse, management of these ‘threads’ by online companies such as Twitter and also to better support athletes to manage this ‘dark side’ of fame associated with sporting success.

It would appear that athletes, coaches and sport psychologists are familiar with and often provide training, tools and insights for players to manage their own performance successes and failures and performance related emotions.

In recent years, moves towards a more holistic and balanced view towards professional sport has also been welcomed to support the longer-term development of athletes and consider their psychological well-being.

However, as more questions are raised over the mental health support provided to elite players in many different sports, it appears that the potential for and protection from abuse has never been more relevant and important. 

Researchers, Twitter and Facebook executives, sporting governing bodies, players, coaches and sport psychologists must do more to protect players from the negative psychosocial consequences of online bullying. More must be done to understand the complex nature of targeted bullying online and this requires a separate approach than typical face-to-face bullying.


Image credit: Freepik

Dr Jenny Meggs is Lecturer in Sports Psychology at Lancaster University. 

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