The Impacts Of Social Media On Preparation And Performance

* Runners make their way down a crushed dirt road in Nevada

Photo Credit: Jason Bean/Reno Gazette Journal via USA Today

Jessica Stratton - Old Saybrook (CT) High School, Class of 2019

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    Have you ever thought about how social media may be impacting your performance as an athlete?

    As increasing research emerges on the topic of social media and mental health, we know that when used incorrectly or excessively, social media can have a negative impact on mental health.

    Knowing this, how does this play into performance?

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    One of the most common consequences of social media for just about anyone is being vulnerable to comparison. As an athlete, this can deeply affect your view of yourself, your competitors and maybe even your body image related to your sport.

    The key to managing this is to be mindful about who you follow. Ask yourself, Do the people I follow elevate me? Do they make me feel good about myself?

    Or, on the other hand, Do they tear me down? Do they make me feel like I'm not good enough?

    Everyone is affected differently, and for some, following the habits and training of professional athletes may be inspiring. But for others, the influence of such an athlete may also set unrealistic and unattainable expectations of body image or training that isn't suitable for the level of lifestyle a person is currently in.

    Personally, this impacted me. Previously, I let the influence of some professional athletes' social media set a body image ideal for me in running; I thought I had to achieve a ripped body in order to be fast. Later in my career, though, I realized that I'm not supposed to look like a 25-35 year old woman as an 18 year old.

    I also did not realize the perspective. At that moment, I had not dedicated myself to my sport at the level for which the professional athlete had been for years. It was unrealistic to expect myself to look the same way.

    Those are important distinctions to consider. As it stands now, I am inspired by the professional athletes that I follow, but I know it is not an applicable comparison.


    Social media can also create a false reality. Many athletes tend to only share their successes: A winning race, a great workout, a particularly good training day, or one singularly helpful meal.

    But how about when they're injured, or when things aren't going well? Is that athlete quiet? There's nothing wrong with this; but part of this behavior is because of the culture and standards around success. For athletes whose lives have been defined by successes, there is pressure to be hush about failures or losses.

    What about for their fans, though? For younger athletes, athletes who are more on the outside, this may create a false depiction of the athlete; it may make it seem like everyday has to be a good day. That perception creates a false reality. It makes people feel like the expectation is to not be human; to sustain a "grind never stops" type of mindset, to never fail, to never openly express feelings because that's not what winners do.

    In 2021, a study done on the effects of social media on the mental health of student-athletes found that 21-percent of athletes reported depression, a number which also is skewed based on the number of those who chose to participate.

    The research suggested that one of the reasons for this depression is the culture of athletics that emphasizes "being mentally tough, showing no sign of weakness and fighting through the pain" (1. Brougham, 2021).

    It's important to realize that social media plays a huge role in shaping this environment, whether you are a spectator or a contributor.

    The consensus then? You can't judge someone off of one singular thing they share, like a meal or a workout or a race. You have no idea what is really behind the camera, or how many helpings that person had, or what their eating patterns are, or what that workout looked like relative to others.

    It's really easy to get caught up in judging yourself based on only a glimpse of someone else's life that you may see on social media. A lot of the running world has been undergoing a culture shift in this regard, where people are being a lot more vulnerable and open about injuries, eating disorders, mental health struggles, failures, bad races and things they are working on.

    I think this has been really helpful for younger audiences who need to be inspired to be open and honest about the natural ups and downs that come with sport. Things are never going to be perfect; your training and diet does not need to look like your teammates or your competitors.

    Only you know what's right for you!

    All of this being said, social media can also play a positive role in sports. It can support positive communication with other athletes, facilitate recruitment from coaches and inspire and motivate athletes.

    I've formed and maintained some of my best relationships via social media, stayed in communication with people who motivate and support me and have continued to be inspired by some of my role models who I only get to see post on social media.

    For some athletes, taking a break from social media has also been shown to relieve stress.

    You can't judge someone off of one singular thing they share, like a meal or a workout or a race. You have no idea what is really behind the camera, or how many helpings that person had, or what their eating patterns are, or what that workout looked like relative to others.

    However, I think it is important to remain aware of how social media is impacting you and what small changes you can make to help shape your feed into a positive environment. There's no one-size fits all requirement. 

    Many athletes use their social media platforms for great use. It is a tool for many professional and college athletes to promote public appearances and build a brand, or speak out on important topics.

    For some, following a professional athlete on social media is inspiring, empowering, educational and comforting. It's all about how you shape your social media and how you assess the people you follow and how they impact you.

    Social media has many pros and cons. It may not be the first thing you consider when it comes to influences on performance, but it sure does impact how we perceive ourselves related to our sport, which most definitely impacts our mentality in training!

    The biggest takeaway here is to remember not to overlook the effects of social media, and to reflect on how you can make it a positive addition to your training.

    And here's one more little tidbit to take with you: Remember, comparison is the thief of joy!


      1. Brougham, J. (2021). The impact of social media on the mental health of student-athletes. Illinois State University Research and Data. Link.

      Jessica is a 2019 graduate of Old Saybrook (CT) High School and a senior at the University of Delaware.She was a multiple-time CIAC State Open and CIAC Class Class S Championship qualifier and placer, and held PRs of 2:22.78 in the 800m and 5:07.42 in the 1,600m. This past spring, she was named on the CAA's Commissioner's Honor Roll. This is a monthly series where Jessica writes about important and wide-ranging subjects involving young and developing runners. 

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