Do We Put Too Much Pressure On Our Athletes?


Australia’s elite athletes have hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons not only at recent sporting events such as Wimbledon, but also professional swimmers have come back into the headlines often portraying a negative attitude, even a year following the 2016 Rio Olympics.  

Recently in the media, Cate Campbell revealed she felt “betrayed” by the very sport she loves at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics; Bernard Tomic is “bored” with tennis, and Nick Kyrgios was booed off the court after retiring from the Washington Open.

Two questions remain:

Is there enough support available to athletes at this high level or does Australian society put too much pressure on its athletes?

Shayne Hanks, Director and Sport Psychologist at Perth’s Performance Boost, has worked with professional athletes from a range of sports including swimming and tennis, and has experience in management and executive coaching.

Mr Hanks says the media is often to blame for the negative reporting, and argues, “it’s not about the lack of support but it’s about the players actually accessing these resources.”

“I think the media will write what they want to write, in relation to writing something that will sell….

“I’m familiar with what resources are available, for instance at Tennis Australia, and they’re absolutely supported.”

Australian professional diver, Anabelle Smith claimed Australia’s fifth medal of the Rio 2016 Games, winning a bronze medal in the 3 metre synchronised springboard event.

Source: Victorian Institute of Sport

Like Mr Hanks, Ms Smith is aware of the resources and support available not only in the swimming arena but also “through life outside of sport”, including, “career transitions, study commitments and dealing with stressors of outside variables such as the media”.

However, Ms Smith believes that just because the support is there, it doesn’t mean every athlete will choose to use it.

“It takes the responsibility of the athlete to actually utilise these services when they feel they need to.

“It may also be the responsibility of the coach and program manager to encourage an athlete to seek support,” she says.

Dr. Chris Mesagno, from Federation University argues that “athletes in Australia generally do not appreciate the psychological services that are offered more than other sport science services such as strength and conditioning or sport specific training”.

Mr Hanks argues athletes face pressure both on and off the field. “Athletes take on an enormous burden, responsibility and expectation of the Australian public”, he says. 

The sport-loving Australian public can be quite judgmental about performance and the media reflects and often amplifies this. When an athlete underperforms they are not just facing their own disappointment and that of their coach and family, but it is also open season for arm-chair critics. 

Australian swimming sprint queen Cate Campbell said in an article dating back to the end of July that after her Rio Olympics disappointment, she felt that swimming had ‘betrayed’ her.

Dr. Mesagno’s research indicates a “positive correlation” between social media and sport anxiety, however contends that, “pressure to perform is an ‘illusion’ so it comes from within the person” and “ultimately falls on the shoulders of the athlete”.

Past Olympic Games, such as the 2012 London Olympics, saw negative media headlines such as “the greatest choke in Olympic history” and “a parlous performance in the pool“. Dr. Mesagno gives Emily Seebohm as an example of an athlete who  “allowed the potential pressure of competition to affect their performance”.

As for Aussie tennis ‘bad boys’, Kyrgios and Tomic; Mr Hanks blames much of the associated pressure and perhaps negative media headlines are a result of “juvenile maturity”. 

Mr Hanks said that Tomic probably believes if he tried hard he would become number 1 tennis player in the world, but to “protect his ego he’s not going to try and so he can turn around and say I got to World Number 17, and that’s really good for someone who didn’t try… rather than saying I gave everything I just wasn’t good enough to be number 1.” says Hanks.

Anna Rivett, graduate of the Australian Institute of Fitness and casual personal trainer, says that being an elite athlete, comes with the responsibility of representing themselves as role models.

“This is their choice…some of these athletes are not going to have the emotional maturity to deal with such pressure.”

Source: Anna Rivett, at the AIF 

Competitive sport is a pressure filled environment, however despite the resources available to these athletes, the support around them including their family and coaches also play a major role.

The difficulty of talking about the role of successful athletes’ parents, is that parenting styles are all different. In most cases, parents are supportive and want the best for their children. When parent’s start getting involved in the coaching, it can become difficult, as there becomes a whole set of new boundaries and responsibilities.  

A small proportion of parenting is overbearing and often occurs when they take on “extreme interest in the success of their child, which may be a product of their own need to be successful” or reliving their own dreams, which is likely to affect the athlete’s performance and behaviour, says Dr. Mesagno.

Bernard Tomic’s father, John is an example of a parent who has likely put pressure on his son, potentially affecting his performance and attitude. An online article on Sports Illustrated, revealed that ‘details emerged’ of the ‘volatile relationship’ with his father. The article states that Bernard had dealt with ‘physical violence, intimidation and emotional blackmail’ from his father.

While this lack of support and a destructive home environment is a rare occurrence, it is apparent in sport, and highlights that support not only at home but in the sporting environment is integral to the wellbeing of athletes and likely influences their behaviour outside of the competitions.

As Hanks concludes, “at the end of the day, that latter bit about whether or not they are a good person; it’s not a requirement and it’s not a requirement for good performance.”

The media’s ultimate aim is to grab the reader’s attention, however is this at the expense and overshadowing other Australians’ successes?







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