Australian Emily Seebohm, who won silver in the 100-meter backstroke at the London Olympics ten years ago and started the trip as a strong pre-favorite, externalized the reasons for her loss to social media by stating “I don’t know, I just felt like I didn’t really get off social media and get into my own head”.
In this blog post, I will go through the research information that has been accumulated so far in the field of psychology on how the use of social media during competition affects the performance of elite athletes. At the end, I have collected some of my recommendations, which I use in EMDR coaching of elite athletes.
In recent years, sports organisations in different countries have paid increasing attention to the use of social media by elite athletes during competition. For example, in Australia, the heads of national sports organizations have stated: ”We encourage them to not [use social media], as much as possible, if they’re not comfortable. Just come back from it, stay off it because that’s, for now, all we’ve got. We don’t have a better strategy to manage it presently.” (Hayes et al., 2021). The view expresses the difficulty of managing the situation, because elite athletes also need social media, e.g. for maintaining their brand, marketing themselves and their sponsors, and interacting with loved ones and fans (e.g. Browning & Sanderson, 2012). I personally think that every athlete would benefit from going over their needs and strategies related to social media management with, for example, a psychologist.
The first studies on the effects of using social media during competition on performance are worrying. They suggest that the use of social media usually causes the athlete additional stress, sleep difficulties, anxiety, performance tension and concentration difficulties (David et al. 2018; Encel, 2017; Kavanagh, 2016; Rice et al. 2019; Smith et al. 2018;). Especially when the athlete's competition performance does not meet expectations, he/she can also be exposed to bullying, threats and emotional mockery and sarcasm on social media.
Individual interview and survey studies have shown that elite athletes find the use of social media during competition to be disruptive, because it creates pressure to respond to posts and messages, exposes them to unwanted posts, increases competitiveness and comparison with other competitors, creates pressure for brand maintenance and affects mood. A study conducted among athletes participating in the Olympics showed that those who were able to focus on achieving peak performance during the events typically performed better (Greenleaf, et al. 2001). A study conducted among almost 300 athletes, which studied the connection between Facebook use and sports-related anxiety, showed that 68% of the athletes had used Facebook at least two hours before the competition performance. The closer the use of Facebook was to the competition performance, the more the athlete experienced concentration difficulties. Phone push notifications further increased difficulty concentrating, anxiety and worry (Encel, 2017).
The means of survival used by athletes from the challenges posed by the use of social media during competition are often related to increasing self-knowledge and confidence and stopping the use of social media or giving its control to, for example, a family member (e.g. Browning, & Sanderson, 2012). In the research literature, it is difficult to find other positive experiences of using social media during the competition other than keeping in touch with loved ones and diverting attention away from competitive pressures and passing the time. Overall, the risks it brings to the athlete's success in the competition seem to be greater than the benefits. However, every athlete is an individual and everyone's social media life is different.
- If you want to use social media during the competition, decide in advance what you want to achieve with it. If it's about building a brand and complying with sponsorship agreements, consider whether the use can be limited to that only.
- Consider whether you want to announce on social media before the tournament starts that you will not use social media during the tournament because you want to maximize the possibility of concentration and thank you in advance for your support.
- If you use social media during the competition, schedule it in your routine so that it is as far away from the time of your competition performance as possible.
- Do not follow the activities of your sport's Facebook groups during competitions. The risk of exposure to unwanted material increases significantly. Especially if your performance is not perfect.
- Do not follow your competitors' social media posts during the competition.
- Rather use the "add to story" function on Facebook than the actual publication, because others cannot visibly comment on the story.
- eep your posts short. Prevent the visibility of the publication from those of your friends who you do not want to comment on your publication.
- Use Messenger and WhatsApp's archive function and move the messages of people you don't want to contact you during the tournament.
- Do mental imagery exercises about your successes in previous tournaments. Activate the memory networks for them. If you have a mental coach and you can find material on the internet, you can agree with him/her that he/she will send you daily encouraging messages. Direct quotes from an athlete you admire in another sport are also well suited for this purpose.
- Focus on maintaining and promoting a positive, focused and determined mood. Don't do anything that might interfere with this goal.
- If you have bad competition experiences that have been influenced by social media, neutralize them as soon as possible after the competition with the help of EMDR coaching.
Browning, B., & Sanderson, J. (2012). The positives and negatives of Twitter: Exploring how student-athletes use Twitter and respond to critical tweets. International Journal of Sport Communication, 5(4), 503-521.
David, J. L., Powless, M. D., Hyman, J. E., Purnell, D. M., Steinfeldt, J. A., & Fisher, S. (2018). College student athletes and social media: The psychological impacts of Twitter use. International Journal of Sport Communication, 11(2), 163–186.
Encel, K., Mesagno, C., & Brown, H. (2017). Facebook use and its relationship with sport anxiety. Journal of Sports Sciences, 35(8), 756-761.
Greenleaf, C., Gould, D., & Dieffenbach, K. (2001). Factors influencing Olympic performance: interviews with Atlanta and Negano US Olympians. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13(2), 154-184.
Hayes, M., Filo, K., Riot, C., Geurin, A. (2021). Using communication boundaries to minimize athlete social media distractions during events. Event Management, 25, 683–704.
Hayes, M., Kevin F., Andrea G. & Caroline R. (2020). An exploration of the distractions inherent to social media use among athletes. Sport Management Review, 23, 852-868.
Kavanagh, E., Jones, I., & Sheppard-Marks, L. (2016). Towards typologies of virtual maltreatment: sport, digital cultures & dark leisure. Leisure Studies, 35(6), 783-796.
Rice, S. M., Parker, A. G., Mawren, D., Clifton, P., Harcourt, P., Lloyd, M., Kountouris, A., Smith, B., McGorry, P. D., & Purcell, R. (2019). Preliminary psychometric validation of a brief screening tool for athlete mental health among male elite athletes: The athlete psychological strain questionnaire. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 18(6), 850–865.
Smith, M. J., Arnold, R., & Thelwell, R. C. (2018). “There’s no place to hide”: Exploring 4 the stressors encountered by elite cricket captains. Journal of Applied Sport 5 Psychology, 30(2), 150-170.