Athletes could be the most under-rated assets in sport. Not only do the media and public often treat them as if they’re two dimensional, machine-like movie characters, but they are too often treated as expendable. Such an attitude cannot be anything but detrimental to the pool of talent within elite sport in Australia. Providing mental support to the actual people involved in elite sport - any sport - is essential and does not occur nearly enough.
Mental support can come from friends, family, fans and media just as easily as it can come from team mates, team management, coaches and trained sports psychologists. Despite what people may like to believe, athletes are not machines. They’re human. Some may be paid handsomely to do a job, but that financial reward is usually a result of the financial value the individual brings to sponsors, investors and other related entities.
Whether or not an athlete reads what’s written about them in the media, they can’t stop their friends, family and the public from reading it. The gist of media opinion is clear in the eyes and attitudes of people that athletes interact with in their everyday lives. To avoid it, they’d have to go and live in a cave.
An athlete who is able to completely and permanently ignore public opinion (good or bad) and pressure, to focus on their performance is a very rare individual.
Matt Giteau commented that as a result of the Brumbies’ recent losses there had been a lot of talk, and he’d let that talk get to him. Geelong’s Gary Ablett said, “The media can be great and pump you up one day but they let you down the next”. London Broncos captain, Mark McLinden, commented in response to a personal attack by the media on one of his players, “I think I speak for all professional athletes, certainly rugby league players, in saying that we expect those who write about us just to show some common decency and respect”.
Athletes don’t live or perform in an emotional void. As McLinden says, a bit of good-natured banter is expected, but there are lines that should not be crossed.
Everyone’s entitled to an opinion - but punters need to remember that opinion based on what you learn from the media is just speculation, not gospel.
Elite athletes generally have larger than average egos, which is almost essential for outstanding performance. The larger size also often means there is more surface area for hits to be taken, so the ups and downs of self-confidence will frequently be reflected in ups and downs of sporting performance. Having a developed skill set and performance history in any particular sport may help stabilise confidence - but even then mental support is absolutely essential - not false praise, but genuine support.
We’re being told by the media that there isn’t much riding on the Brumbies remaining season games. Garbage. There’s income, there’s future Brumbies and Wallabies selection, but very, very important, there’s pride - both public and private.
Don’t write athletes off just because they aren’t winning. Don’t assume the cause is what the media or general public would like it to be.
Athletes by their very nature are “tall poppies”. Everyone loves a winner, but winning consistently brings an increased level of scrutiny and criticism to an athlete's personal and professional life.
Assuming that elite athletes are equipped to deal with such pressure, or expressing the opinion that they should just realise it comes with the territory, is not an attitude that will help Australia deepen its pool of sporting talent.
We've seen some talented athletes leave sport altogether as a result of indiscretions that have nothing to do with their athletic ability or performance, but may have something to do with their self-image that is a result of their sporting prowess.
Better management and understanding of the mental side of sport may result in a greater pool of flexible and emotionally robust athletes in Australia. It may prevent some athletes becoming disillusioned and quitting sport.
I’m not suggesting that athletes need to be babied, or handled with cotton wool, but I am suggesting that it should be acknowledged that they’re real people 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s possible to provide support to make our sporting assets stronger and more robust, or we can neglect them. No matter whether your team wins or loses on the weekend, you don’t want to see them go down without a fight.