Elite athletes pressure to persistently perform

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We all know the media is an excellent tool to create excitement, build anticipation and help promote sporting events, but the media can also be a cruel unforgiving mistress in the face of sporting lows.

On the whole, sport in Britain is largely embraced by the media. Almost every weekend we are spoon fed incredible statistics, hype, predictions and interviews ahead of an event. In football, presenters set aside a whole hour before and after a match to discuss the game ahead creating tension between the two teams as well as in-depth analysis.

But while the media is often a vital tool for keeping the public gripped, it can also be the downfall for sport in our country.

As a sports fan from the arm chair, building pressure and jumping to criticise every move the athlete makes adds to the experience of watching live sport. But how does this affect the athletes themselves?

Time and time again we have seen athletes crumble under the pressure the media creates. England football team could be a prime example as the media builds deluded expectations which they are never able to uphold. Individuals rarely play with the confidence and ability they do every weekend for their club based on the fact the whole nation are watching as journalists look to falter every move made.

Is the obsessive approach the media take something elite athletes should learn to deal with or should journalists be told to take a step back?

Olympic 5,000 and 10,000m champion Mo Farah has dealt extremely well with media criticism in the build up to his World and Olympic titles after being constantly questioned following a fourth place finish at the world indoor championships in the build up to the Olympic Games. In order to escape the intensity of the British media, he has settled in America whilst occasionally training in Kenya to avoid any distractions the media may present. With a calming, inspirational setting in Kenya with little to do but train, Farah was able to focus as the immense expectation along with the doubts grew in the UK.

However, with every title Farah wins comes more media pressure and he is now expected to prevail every time he steps on the line. Following a second place finish in Eugene this year the media is now quick to jump on the “Has Farah lost it?” bandwagon.

But testament to his character, Farah has been able to overcome the adverse media in Britain due to the support of the best coaching staff in the world. Although with this in mind, how are athletes who are on their journey to the top expected to flourish with such a critical eye looming over their development?

Following an outstanding achievement by breaking the under 17 1500m British record formerly held by Steve Cram, young Matthew Shirling has had to face the pressures of the media and the ever expanding opportunities social media can present. In the season after his record, Matthew has had to face all sorts of criticism mainly in the form of social networking and internet athletics forums when a race doesn’t go to plan.

Whilst athletics websites such as VincoSport, Athleticos and Eightlane have embraced advances in technology by providing live coverage for family and friends who may not be able to make the event as well as Twitter updates from races and opportunities to raise the profile of athletes, yet I would argue that the internet could also be the downfall for the development of athletes in this country.

On athletics forums, users can anonymously discuss topical matters in the athletics world which without surprise can lead to heated debates and in a lot of cases false accusations and rumours. After speaking with Matthew he gave me an insight into the pressures he has received after running such a prestigious time.


“As soon as I don’t do something outstanding people are quick to jump to conclusions saying I’ve burnt out which is pretty much impossible considering my age and my low mileage. Things like this are particularly hard, especially when I’m trying to stay positive yet I’m receiving so many negative comments. It’s pretty hard to stay positive at all.”

Another example could come from Sale Harrier Ryan Worland who at 17 finished 7th at the North of England Cross country and 20th at the national cross a year young. Again through online forums he was criticised by what he described as a “mystery southern account holder” who had questioned the quality of the Northern field because he finished so high up as well as showing utter disrespect towards his 800m time in an attempt to criticise his talent.

“I think it affected me in a positive and negative way because on one hand I wanted to prove people wrong and I did this by training harder, upping my mileage for the Nationals. However I didn ‘t need to do this I was training perfectly and didn ‘t need to change anything which led to me burning out just after the National cross country, then dropping out at the English schools.”

Whilst such damaging criticism can drive many out of the sport Shirling added “the best way is just to ignore comments really, trust in myself and trust in my coach. It’s hard to ignore everyone and it does get to me, but I think it’s part of the job, and dealing with it is something everyone will have to cope with at the highest level.”

Whilst this mature perspective from such a young athlete rings true, shouldn’t it be our duty to protect and encourage our best athletes not only in athletics but in every sport? Whilst professional adults should learn to take harsh criticism as part of their job, surely athletes who are in their teens should be left to enjoy their sport and develop in their own time without extra factors that can so easily drive them out of the sport.

Ryan Worland went on to state “I feel a lot of unnecessary pressure is put on athletes typically aged between 16-18 about their body image, the emphasis on fitness and body building in global trends. Social networking sites put social pressure on the modern day distance runner.”

With this said it would be hard to put a hold on people’s and journalists ‘ freedom of expression and opinion, but steps must be made by athletics forums to remove the anonymous power people possess when posting mindless statements online if we want the youngsters of today to compete with the best in future years.

To add to an on-going debate, could the pressures created by the media and access to the internet be another difference between us and the athletic supremacy of the Africans who live a life of simplicity?