What steps can footballers take to shield themselves from the constant barrage of negativity on social media and enhance their mental well-being?
Is it realistic to expect footballers to completely tune out the noise that surrounds them around the clock? Probably not. After all, isn’t it human nature to be curious about what others are saying about you, while there may be a subset of professional footballers with the resilience to disregard online commentary, based on my experience, most players tend to pay attention to both positive and negative sentiments directed at them.
Social media has ushered in a significant transformation for both players and clubs. In the past, after a game, my immediate reaction was to call my mother or girlfriend, sharing details of the match and my performance. Nowadays, it’s a constant stream of real-time updates posted on various platforms, encompassing both positive and negative feedback.
Players have had to evolve and find ways to navigate and coexist with this new reality and it’s not limited to their on-field performance; players now face scrutiny of their private lives, off-field activities, and even their families, with instances of abuse becoming more common. On a personal level I vividly recall a particular “fan” from an opposing club shouting obscenities about my then 2-year-old daughter during a match. Though my gut reaction urged me to run off the pitch and confront the person, I somehow managed to restrain myself. This is just one example, and players today often endure similar experiences daily.
So, what is the answers? How do footballers protect themselves?
At the Qatar World Cup 2022, the players union FifPro launched a social media protection service(SMPS), aimed at protecting the mental health and well-being of the players, in the words of the FifPro president.
“It is football’s responsibility to protect the players and other affected groups against the abuse they increasingly face in and around their workplace. This type of abuse has a profound impact on their personalities, their families, performance as well as on their overall well-being and mental health. Through SMPS, all players from all 32 participating member associations at the FIFA World Cup will have access to a dedicated monitoring, reporting and moderation service designed to minimise visibility of hate speech aimed at them on social media and, therefore, protecting both players and their fans from online abuse during the tournament”.
The report and analysis on this can be read here and makes for very interesting reading.” FIFA Social Media Protection Service – Threat Matrix (fifpro.org)
Extending this support system to the broader professional game makes perfect sense. Having a dedicated employee responsible for managing social media and shielding players from hate speech can be a proactive approach and this individual could filter out harmful content, minimise the visibility of abusive comments, and create a safer online environment for players. It not only helps in protecting players’ mental well-being but also contributes to fostering a positive team culture.
Implementing a warning system for users when they type abusive messages could be a valuable step. It may serve as a deterrent, prompting individuals to reconsider their words before posting. Tougher consequences for users who engage in abusive behaviour could also act as a deterrent, however this largely depends on the enforcement of social media policies and legal regulations.
Developing a mindset of resilience and self-discipline is crucial for players. Understanding that many online abusers are likely to remain anonymous can help players detach from the negativity. Focusing on the opinions of those they respect, such as their manager, family, and friends, allows them to prioritise constructive feedback and support. Building a mental barrier to filter out unwarranted criticism and concentrating on the positive influences can contribute to a healthier mental state amidst the challenges of social media scrutiny.
Whilst most footballers are very well paid indeed that doesn’t negate the emotional toll that constant abuse can take. While fans have the right to voice opinions, it becomes an issue when it transforms into abusive behaviour the pressure and scrutiny players face on social media can impact their mental well-being, irrespective of their earnings. Acknowledging the line between expressing opinions and engaging in harmful abuse is crucial for creating a healthier online environment for players. It’s a complex challenge that requires a multi-faceted approach from both social media platforms and the broader sports community.
Education is a powerful tool to address online abuse. Integrating lessons about responsible online behaviour, empathy, and the consequences of cyberbullying into the curriculum can help shape a generation that understands the importance of respectful communication. It not only promotes digital literacy but also contributes to creating a more inclusive and supportive online community. Empowering young individuals with the knowledge and skills to navigate the digital world responsibly is a proactive step toward fostering a safer online environment for everyone.
In the end, it boils down to the player’s capacity to tune out the noise, achieved either by abstaining from engagement on social media or having someone manage their media presence. A collaborative effort involving education, regulatory bodies, social media platforms, and the players themselves forms a potent arsenal to counter this persistent threat.