Don’t Put Paddy On A Pedestal: Social media’s negative effects on athletes

When I was just a lad, my old man and I would sit in front of the television every weekend and for three glorious hours we would renounce our introversion by screaming incessantly at a group of young men known collectively as the Carlton Football Club. All manner of obscenities — be they positive or negative — would be hurled towards those that represented our holy cloth. To us, they had no families, friends or feelings; they were cold blooded warriors designed to give us joy or (more often than not) break our hearts.

In the grand scheme of things, it mattered little as our voices were lost in the din of a baying crowd or simply bounced harmlessly off the TV screen. To those in the middle, it was simply a roar of approval of a job well done or a collective groan of disapproval after an unforgivable error. While of course personal opinions were shared willingly within the crowd or at one of the many after-game “social club events”; the players remained largely detached from the spite and/or reverence being heaped upon their shoulders. Then one day the internet came, and changed the whole ball game.

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As modern football reaches an unprecedented professional age, clubs are increasingly turning to new and innovative avenues in order to achieve a competitive advantage both on and off the field. “Digital marketing” and “online presence” have now become signature buzzwords within football clubs in a concentrated effort to communicate, engage and ultimately grow their fan base. This is being achieved by drawing on theories associated with the cooperative behaviour of relationship marketing. Whereas once sporting opinions were shared exclusively with other supporters in pubs and/or around the workplace watercooler, digital relationship marketing enables fans of sporting clubs to engage with each other and- most importantly- with their clubs like never before.

However, having a communicative platform that is so open in nature reveals concerns for not only the sporting organisations, but the athletes that represent them. After all, despite my previously stated one eyed views, these athletes are young human beings susceptible to real emotions (such as confidence and anxiety) which invariably has a monumental impact on their performance out on the field. In a recent study conducted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in America, it was found that 14% of their student athletes had been a victim of online harassment, ranging from angry fans messaging to cyber bullying. Instances such as these have sadly cut short the promising careers of many young athletes, such as 22 year old Canadian tennis player, Rebecca Marino. In other words, these behind the back opinions are finally being delivered head on.

Without disregarding the seriousness of negative comments directed at athletes online; positive comments and rapid rises in popularity can also be detrimental to the mental health of young, impressionable athletes. For the purposes of this article I would like to hypothesise on one player — the rising star and saviour of the Carlton Football Club — one Patrick Cripps, aged 19 years.

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In only his second year of professional Australian Rules football, Patrick Cripps has dramatically risen to become the most prominent player in one of the most prominent football clubs in Australia. In a team starved of success during the majority of the 21st century, Cripps represents the light at the end of the tunnel for many tormented and long suffering Blues fans, a group to which I unfortunately but most definitely belong. Cripps name has been championed time and time again within the official Carlton Football Club social media pages in an effort to engage with fans in order get them excited about future seasons, enticing supporters to fork over their hard earned cash in exchange for membership of the club.

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Blues fans seemingly agree, posting comments regarding Cripps as a future captain of the club and a guaranteed future Brownlow medallist. While players cop the wrath of notoriously impatient Carlton fans, Cripps is being placed on a pedestal so high that he may potentially start becoming dizzy.

While confidence appears as a key skill possessed by successful elite athletes, heightened expectations and associated anxieties can alter a player like Cripps’ ability to not only perform to the peak of his potential, but their general mental health as well. A case study highlights China’s 2004 Olympic campaign, in which early unexpected wins heightened the expectations of the countries other, more fancied athletes; ultimately leading to failure due to overconfidence which resulted in athletic incompetence.

It would be foolish to assume young players such as Patrick Cripps would not occasionally peer into online discussions regarding themselves (Hello to Crippa if he’s reading — love your work!), particularly as a need for recognition is causing a direct impact on a lot of teams and athletes. It must therefore be the responsibility of the organisations digital marketing managers and publicists to “understand the ramifications that come along with this use and to also be aware of how to properly avoid the potential negative exposure that social media can generate.”

In a quasi religion that engulfs millions around the world (and even more it seems, in Australia), players of all sports must heed psychological advice on handling the pressures and subsequent public scrutiny that comes with the territory of being a professional athlete. It is quite apparent that social media and online sports forums can be a black hole for athletes; let’s just hope it doesn’t swallow up our rising star.