The pressure on today’s popular athletes extends far beyond their performance in their sport. In the social media age, fans want to know all about the ins and outs of leading athletes’ lives. There’s added demand to be present online to secure sponsorship deals and uphold a particular reputation. Despite this, there’s no real censorship on what the general public can say about a sports personality on social media, sometimes resulting in unkind or abusive comments.
Whether athletes choose to actively engage in social media themselves – voluntarily opening the doors of communication – or prefer not to have an online presence, it’s undeniable that social media can affect them either way. So, what sort of psychological impact can all of this have on those involved?
Social media forges a relationship between athletes and fans
To start on a positive note, social media benefits professional sports. Most people using social media platforms have good intentions and use social channels to sing their favourite athlete’s praises and share their support. This can help build an athlete’s confidence and self-esteem while forging a meaningful relationship between the athlete and their fanbase. Plus, from the athlete’s perspective, they also have the opportunity to represent themselves as authentically as possible instead of relying on their media portrayal.
Speaking on the topic for a recent study on Premier League fandom, cognitive anthropologist Dr Martha Newson says, ‘After several decades of football players’ lives being relatively private, due to the high risk of public scrutiny via print media, social media has offered players the opportunity to share their own stories, for which there is a huge appetite.’
‘But that comes with added expectations. Football players are there to do a job: play football well. While they need to use their platforms responsibly, not all players have the personality to live up to being a role model beyond their sporting achievements.’
Trolling can take its toll on mental well-being
In addition to the pressure to perform on social media and the sports ground, trolling is a big issue in sport and one of the hardest things that an athlete in today’s world has to deal with. Unfortunately, while social media can help with athletes’ careers and public image, it can destroy these just as quickly or cause dangerous stress levels.
Whether messages are sent directly or posted publicly, athletes frequently fall victim to offensive, threatening and derogatory remarks at the hands of social media users. Not only is this upsetting and distressing to read, but it can conjure up feelings of fear and anxiety that can have long-term effects.
In the UK, footballers are particularly vulnerable to online abuse. The aforementioned Premier League study looked into the sentiment of tweets received by Premier League clubs. Many teams receive more negative comments than positive, with Tottenham Hotspur faring the worst.
Trolling isn’t exclusive to football, however, with many professionals across all sorts of sports reporting similar experiences. A 2021 study, also investigating negative comments on Twitter, revealed that American basketball player LeBron James received the most negative comments that year (122,568) of all sports stars investigated, with British footballer Marcus Rashford coming in second (32,328).
Race and gender can impact the nature of trolling
Anyone in the public eye can be vulnerable to online trolling, though factors including race, gender and sexuality can play a significant part like the abuse. A 2020 BBC Sport survey found that 30% of sportswomen have been trolled on social media – up from 14% in 2015.
The comments received are often misogynistic or sexual in nature, leaving the women feeling objectified, belittled, and threatened. And when the vast majority of messages aren’t even about their performance in the sport, it’s incredibly hard for this not to take its toll on their self-esteem, body image and feelings of personal safety.
Black and minority ethnic sports stars are most likely to experience harmful comments online. The 2021 FIFA World Cup was a key example of this when the final between England and Italy sparked a torrent of racial abuse against Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho after they missed penalties shootout won by Italy. While this raised awareness of the problem and a public outcry to do better, there’s a lot to be done to stamp out this harmful behaviour.
Newson explains, ‘Social media toxicity can, at times, bring fans together in a rallying cry against that negativity and harm – this is potentially what we’ve seen following the racism against the ‘three lions’ at the 2020 Euros. But for players, this kind of bullying can have lasting, detrimental effects on psychological well-being and, relatedly, performance on the pitch: players are only human.’
What’s being done about it?
Sadly, there are still challenges in tackling social media trolling. Companies including Facebook and Twitter have vowed to crack down on hateful comments aimed at athletes and other public figures. Still, it remains the case that unless a user has their real identity linked to the profile they’re sending abusive messages from, it’s hard to hold them accountable.
So, while the source of the issue is being addressed, mental health support for athletes is more important than ever. For example, Team GB had a support hotline set up during the Tokyo Games, manned by psychologists and other mental health professionals. And, just this week, Liverpool FC reported that they had hired a therapist to help players deal with online trolling.
The general public should go without saying that they need to be kind and mindful about what they post. The impact of their words can be more significant than they’d imagine.