Athletes: How to overcome the fear of public perception

By Stefanos Gregoriou, The Sports Financial Literacy Academy    

Athletes experience stress from multiple sources. They must attend countless hours of practice each day, travel to distant competitions at various times, and maintain consistently excellent performance. This tension is compounded by the pressure of maintaining a positively perceived public image, when it comes to news media and fans. Having a large number of supporters along with the media constantly following and scrutinizing their every move can be tremendously stressful for athletes, having an impact on their performance and, in some circumstances, their mental wellbeing.

Recently, the Champion Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin opened up about the intense pressure she faced before and after the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. In an interview, the athlete discussed her personal agony after being disqualified from three Olympic races. Those losses, she stated, were caused by a severe emotional burnout related to her father’s recent death, a terrible back injury, a positive COVID-19 result, and increased public pressure demanding her to be flawless during competitions.

Similarly, Naomi Osaka is another athlete who faced media pressure, which eventually led her to withdraw her participation from the French Open. Osaka first stated that she will skip press conferences for the sake of her mental health before withdrawing from the event entirely. She talked about her struggles with anxiety and depression, and how she wants to “make it okay” for athletes to take a break from the relentless media scrutiny. Osaka’s words demonstrate how public perception can instill fear in athletes and amplify bad sentiments. Such feelings can have a negative impact on athletes’ attitudes, lowering their confidence, affecting their physical performance, and even damaging their mental wellbeing.

The majority of athletes do not externalize the fear and tension caused by public opinion. Mikaela and Naomi are only two examples of athletes that communicated their feelings and how they coped with public opinion and perception; that alone is an important step in the right direction of reversing the toxic environment created by media and public and the expectation from athletes to be constantly flawless.

An open conversation about mental health and the pressures of public opinion and perception is crucial. If you find yourself struggling, remember that you are not alone; there is always expert help available. Psychologists and mental health coaches are available to help you in improving your mental well-being as well as put boundaries in place to not allow your fear of public opinion and perception take over your life. There are also other ways you can help alleviate these pressures, such as meditation and watching relevant podcasts. Even opening up to friends and family about your struggles can help change your mindset.

Remember, communicating how you feel and focusing on learning from your mistakes and seeing them as developmental lessons, can be the key to overcoming the pressure of what others may think of you.

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