When Steffi Graf lost in the first round of Wimbledon in 1994, the “Twitterverse” didn’t exist yet. When Paula Radcliffe quit mid-marathon during the Athens Olympics in 2004 because she felt “empty,” she didn’t have 10 million Instagram followers commenting with opinions of her performance. And when Tonya Harding was at the center of one of the biggest scandals in sports history, there was no one there to meme-ify the moment.
Then came Naomi Osaka, who took to her feed to pen an essay on her mental health after she opted out of a press conference during the 2021 French Open. Like her, Simone Biles heroically exited the gymnastics competition at the 2020 Olympics last month. Within hours, she posted on Instagram to tell her fans that it felt like she had “the weight of the world” on her shoulders. For every message of support these women received, there was another one calling them out for failing their fans.
Social media has granted us unfiltered access to athletes at all hours of the day. We can follow Laurie Hernandez into the gym, see how Tom Daley trains (and knits), and double-tap photos of Serena Williams’s adorable daughter. Our generation’s sports legends are at our fingertips, which means we can like, comment on, and critique their every move.
Given that we have these behind-the-scenes looks, the gap between fans and athletes has become narrower and narrower. While, on the one hand, it’s given players a chance to connect with their communities in an entirely new way, it’s also created an added layer of pressure on top of all of the other expectations that have always been associated with competing at an elite level.
Social media has created a constant feedback loop between fans and athletes
The concept of performing in front of an audience is hardly a new one in the sports world. Since the advent of broadcast television in 1927, professional athletes have competed on the global stage with millions of people watching their every move. What has changed, though, is the constant feedback loop they’re subjected to from social media and the 24-hour news cycle.
“With social media, athletes have a closer proximity to fans, so they’re getting immediate feedback on themselves, their brand, and their ability to perform,” says Leeja Carter, PhD, executive board member for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “It puts athletes under the spotlight and opens them up for criticism not only about their ability to perform, but also about their daily life, which absolutely impacts how they see themselves when they’re playing their sport.”
When an athlete’s skills are superhuman—Biles’s Yurchenko Double Pike did defy gravity, after all—it’s easy to forget that they, themselves, are not. “There’s [this idea] that because we’re strong, we’re bulletproof and nothing can affect us,” says Lindsey Vonn, a former World Cup alpine ski racer on the U.S. Ski Team who has partnered with Allianz to raise awareness about the mental health impact of competitive sports. “While that may be the case during competition, it’s not always the case when you get home.”
How “couch criticism” weighs on athletes’ mental health
Athletes work from a young age to be able to compete at an elite level; however, we don’t see those years of sacrifice, because by the time most of us even hear about a new star, they’re already established. Instead, all of that hard work gets boiled down to a 90-minute soccer game or a 90-second floor routine.
For Michelle Carter, an American shot putter who currently holds the world record in the sport, staying away from social media is a critical part of her training regimen ahead of a big competition. “Every move you make can be criticized, and in those moments you’re very vulnerable, and you want to protect your mindset and your emotions and mental game,” she says. “I’ve seen so many athletes time and time again crumble under the pressure of getting to the Olympic Games because they can’t even enjoy it—or actually be their best—because the pressure leading up to it due to social media was too much.”
This proximity has created the sense that athletes “belong” to their fans, as if they owe spectators a gold medal or game-winning goal every time they compete. “For some reason, people feel like they own the athlete and like the athlete has to perform for them. And that really takes a toll,” says Carter. As Biles told reporters when she walked away from her Olympic competition, “I wanted it to be for myself when I came in, and I felt like I was still doing it for other people.”
To be clear, social media isn’t all bad. “One pro is that [athletes] have this connection with the fans and the media, and people can really understand who they are behind the scenes,” says Dr. Carter. Before the advent of social, fans relied on the media and post-game press conferences to communicate with their fans off the field. But as Osaka showed earlier this year when she bowed out of these press conferences for the sake of her mental health, that traditional format is far from perfect. When players have platforms of their own, they’re able to control the narrative around the version of themselves that they want to present to the world.
Black female athletes are leading the narrative shift
For Black female athletes, in particular, the experience of these external pressures is further exacerbated by the misogynoir that clings to sports and society at large. “We need to recognize that racism, sexism, and classism creates a different pressure, and that this significantly impacts Black women in how they’re critiqued and how they’re treated in the media,” says Dr. Carter. “The intersectionality of those forces 100 percent impacts an individual’s mental health.”
As public figures, Black female athletes are often faced with being representatives for entire communities and speaking out for what they believe, says Carter, which carries emotional weight. “It’s hard to find your role in things as an athlete when you’re competing and trying to be the best in the world at what you do, but you’re also representing all of these other things—I represent the Black community in aquatics,” says Ashleigh Johnson, two-time Olympic gold medalist and Team NordicTrack athlete. “That’s a big part of why I do what I do in the water and why I speak on what I do outside of the water.”
In an ultra-competitive landscape, it can be another way that the pressure lands disproportionately. “It’s an added pressure on athletes to update the world quickly if something happens,” says Carter. “That doesn’t lend itself to athletes being able to hold themselves, protect themselves, and do things in a manner that really works for them.”
So where do we go from here?
An estimated 35 percent of professional athletes suffer from mental health issues at some point during their careers, and until athletes recently gave voice to it, it remained a silent statistic. While we still want to be able to witness underdogs overcoming all odds and see superstars shave milliseconds off World-Record-breaking sprints, we can also stand to let increased empathy for athletes wash over us like Gatorade being dumped before the trophy comes out.
Sport has always been a way that we—the fans—can understand and relate to the world. When we witness acts of greatness, we’re inspired to show up more enthusiastically in our own lives. When we watch players struggle, we remember times when we also felt worn down. And now, as we see athletes tie the impacts of mental health so tightly to their own physical performances, we can also understand the ways that stress, anxiety, and pressure show up in our own lives.
Because of Biles and Osaka, and surely more athletes to follow, we’re pivoting the conversation surrounding sport to be a more holistic one that acknowledges a person first and an athlete next. We’re better for it.
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