Does the Media Impact Athletic Performance?

“It is not the critic who counts, nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again because there is no effort without error and shortcomings, who knows the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows in the end the high achievement of triumph and who at worst, if he fails while daring greatly, knows his place shall never be with those timid and cold souls who know neither victory or defeat.”–26th President Theodore Roosevelt

Introduction

Many books, articles, and papers have been published relative to the relationship between an athlete’s mental state and his or her performance. A point of consensus clearly stated in these sources is that athletic performance efficiency is reduced by distraction. It is believed that distractions interfere with an athlete’s ability to focus. Distractions evoke negative mood responses, detrimental arousal and anxiety levels, and stress, thus resulting in the consumption of mental energy. Mental energy is a vital element needed to be able to concentrate one’s attention and maintain a positive mental attitude. By concentrating effectively, an athlete can conserve physical energy by maintaining good technique and focus, executing skills properly, and pushing the body through pain and fatigue barriers. Time spent fretting over distractions drains mental energy so that performance suffers (Manktelow, 2006). As Haverstraw (2002) noted, distractions may arise from various sources including: the presence of loved ones you want to impress, family or relationship problems, teammates and other competitors, coaches, underperformance or unexpected high performance, frustration at mistakes, poor refereeing decisions, changes in familiar patterns, unjust criticism, and the media.

The purpose of this paper is to initiate an examination of the influence of the media as a distraction and its impact on athletic performance. For the purposes of this paper it is important to have a common definition and understanding of media, arousal, stress, anxiety, and mood. Media will be defined as individuals who publicly report or make public statements relative to an athlete’s performance. In this context, media can be newspaper reporters, paparazzi, television newscasters, or fans and critics who publicize their critiques of athletic performance through the use of public forums and blogs.

In order to differentiate between arousal, anxiety, and stress in this text, specific definitions will be used. Arousal will refer to a state of alertness as the body prepares itself for action. It is associated with increases in physiological and psychological activity, such as heart rate and attention (Landers, 1980). Stress is defined as a state that results from the demands that are placed on the individual which require that person to engage in some coping behavior (Jones, 1990). Anxiety results when one doubts his or her ability to cope with the situation that causes him or her stress (Hardy et al., 1996). Additionally, for this text, mood is defined as a group of persistent feelings associated with evaluative and cognitive states which influence all the future evaluations, feelings, and actions (Amado-Boccara et al., 1993). Now that there is a common understanding of these terms, it is important to understand their relationship to athletic performance.

Arousal and Anxiety

In the field of Sport Psychology, many models have been created to explore arousal and anxiety levels as they relate to athletic performance. Following criticisms of lack of support, popular unidimensional models such as the Inverted U-Theory and the Catastrophe Theory are being replaced with multidimensional-type models (Weinberg, 1990). The Multidimensional Anxiety Theory by Martens et al. (1990), for instance, focuses on the anxiety response that accompanies high levels of stress. It takes into consideration two different elements: cognitive anxiety and somatic anxiety. Cognitive anxiety signifies distractions which involve inability to concentrate, disruptions in attention, and negative performance expectations (Martens et al., 1990). Additionally, the somatic anxiety element signifies perceived physiological arousal such as elevated heart rate and increased perspiration (Martens et al., 1990). In general, The Multidimensional Anxiety Theory hypothesizes that as cognitive anxiety increases, athletic performance decreases. Also, it concludes that an inverted-U relationship explains the correlation between somatic anxiety and athletic performance. This inverted-U relationship illustrates that as somatic anxiety increases from low to moderate levels, there is an associated improvement in performance. Performance level decreases, however, once intensity levels either exceed or fall below this moderate range (Davidson & Schwartz, 1976).

Arousal and Stress

In sport competition, athletes must often think fast and make sharp decisions regarding the task at hand. For example, when a basketball player is receiving a pass from a teammate, he or she must complete necessary cognitive functions quickly in order to catch the pass. According to a model created by A.F. Sanders, one entity that may affect one’s cognitive functions is arousal level. If the basketball player exhibits a low level of arousal, his or her perception declines. However, the player’s perception is sped up with a high level of arousal. When the arousal level is too high, though, perception becomes less efficient. Additionally, Sanders proposes that stress commonly results from one’s failed efforts in correcting a level of arousal that is too high or too low. Moreover, high levels of stress accompany increased anxiety (Sanders, 1983).

Mood

Sport psychologists, coaches, and others are eager to learn how to tailor athletes to perform at the highest level possible. In their attempts to accomplish this, mood in relationship to performance is being studied. Lane and Terry (2000) created a conceptual model of mood and performance. In this model, the authors focus on mood during pre-competition and its effects on subsequent performance. It is suggested that pre-competitive mood influences athletic behavior. Depressed mood, specifically, acts as a catalyst for reduced vigor, increased anger, confusion, fatigue, and tension, thereby debilitating performance (Mellalieu, 2003). These depressive symptoms involve negative cognitive views individuals have of themselves in relation to their past, present, and future social experiences.

To examine influences on elite athlete performance, Greenleaf et al. (2001) interviewed Olympians from the Atlanta and Nagano Olympic Games. Although positive factors existed, the Olympians cited many negative factors influencing performance. One such factor noted was media distractions. It was found that factors, such as media distraction, are psychological in nature, thus, demonstrating the importance that mental factors play in elite sport performance (Greenleaf et al., 2001).

The theoretical and empirical data regarding arousal, anxiety, stress, and mood will be used to explore the influence media may have on athletic performance. In order to apply this information, it is necessary to first provide the following individual examples where media may have impacted athletic performance.

Media’s Influence on Athletic Performance

Many athletes are targets of media prey. Win or lose, their performance and life is publicly dissected by the media. Winning brings about media glorification and expectation, and/or jealousy and criticism. Losing brings forth negative judgment and more criticism. Howard Ferguson (1990) in his book, The Edge, said, “Criticism can be easily avoided by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing. Mediocre people play it safe and avoid criticism at all costs. Champions risk criticism every time they perform.” One such athlete who risked media criticism was Miki Ando.

Miki Ando was a two-time Japanese national figure skating champion and 2004 Junior World champion. She also became the first female skater to successfully complete a quadruple jump in competition. Ando is very popular in Japan and receives a lot of attention from gossip magazines and other Japanese media. Ando’s athletic performance struggled in 2005 and 2006, and media coverage turned negative. When the Japanese Skating Federation (JSF) selected her to be on its 2006 Olympic woman’s figure skating team, the press said she did not deserve to go to Torino. They also frowned on her for wearing mini skirts. The JSF was so concerned media coverage would negatively affect Ando as she prepared for the Olympics, they sent formal written requests to several magazine publishers asking them to cut back on their coverage (NBC, 2006).

The JSF was not the only organization concerned with media impact on their 2006 Olympic athletes. The Canadian Olympic Committee (2006) recognized the potential of the media as a distraction to their athletes as well. In an effort to divert any negative media influence, the Committee publicly announced the following communications objective in their victory management plan: A media training section emphasizing the notion to support athletic performance by removing media as a distraction (Canadian Olympic Committee, 2006).

Were these concerns founded? Some in the Republic of China believe so. After China won the first gold medal in the 2004 Olympic Games and had some major unexpected wins during the first few days of Olympic competition, Chinese newspaper and television stations touted predictions of gold medals their athletes would claim. The predictions, however, did not come to fruition. Athletes the media advertised would take first, such as the Chinese male gymnasts, did not even make it to the award stand. Badminton player Lin Dan was beaten in the first round of competition and Ma Lin, China’s top table tennis player, was defeated by 20th-ranked Swede Jan-Ove Waldner (China Daily, 2004).

On August 19, 2004, China Daily blamed the losses on exaggerated hypes of gold made by the media. The editorial claimed the hype caused the athletes to become overconfident and resulted in athletic incompetence. Chinese diver Peng Bo agreed. After his partner’s last-minute error cost the men’s springboard double gold, Peng Bo said, “We’re ordinary people. We feel pressure, and sometimes we can’t help having some distracting thoughts. Please understand us” (China Daily, 2004).

At the 2006 Torino Olympics, Ando did not quite meet the gold medal goal coveted by all Olympian athletes. She placed eighth in the Ladies figure skating short program and 15th in the freestyle competition. Canada’s athletes, however, exceeded the expectations of many by leaving Torino with a best-ever 24 medals, the third-most of any country (CBC, 2006). Whether or not Ando’s less than expected performance was a result of media distraction, or the Canadian athletes’ successes were a direct result of media discipline is hard to say, but should be explored further.

Because there have been no empirical examinations on the influence of the media on athletic performance, the following will provide examples of some famous athletes who have been subjected to intense media scrutiny, provide their reaction to the media attention, and present the impact, if any, the media had on their athletic performance.

The Stones that Critics Hurl

Kenny Rogers

Baseball player Kenny Rogers has had a volatile relationship with media. During the 2005 season, Rogers refused to talk to media after they published a report saying he would retire if the Rangers did not give him a contract extension. Then on June 29, 2005, while walking onto the field for a pre-game warm-up, he had an altercation with two cameramen. Rogers first shoved Fox Sports Net Southwest photographer David Mammeli, yelling at him to get the cameras out of his face. Next, Rogers charged cameraman Larry Rodriguez, wrestled the camera from him, threw it to the ground, and kicked it.

As a result of the tirade, Rodgers was suspended and fined. Before all of his run-ins with the media, Rogers was having a career best season. However, following the suspension, in his August 11, 2005 return to the mound, Rogers allowed five runs and seven hits in five innings, on the way to a 16 to 5 loss. He also gave up a two-run homer in the all star game where he was booed by the crowd.

This indicates a possible causal relationship between stress and the media influence on Rogers. His adversarial relationship with the press caused him to publicly lose his temper and become violent, which cost him playing time, salary, and the respect of the fans. Moreover, it affected his performance and his season’s statistics declined (ESPN, 2006).

Ricky Williams

David Swerdlick’s editorial Ricky Williams – Just Let Him Be, discusses how the constant pressure of the media drove collegiate and professional football standout, Ricky Williams, to quit the sport he loved. According to Swerdlick (2005), Ricky Williams suffered with a debilitating social anxiety disorder and extreme shyness. The aggressive media attention was uncomfortable and frightening for him. In his early pro years he dreaded doing interviews so much he wore his helmet and an eye shade inside his face mask.

The article claims that in order to cope with all the unwanted media attention Williams smoked marijuana. As a result, he failed three NFL drug tests and experienced further embarrassing press. Superstar NFLer, Ricky Williams, loved the sport, but couldn’t handle the media attention that comes with greatness. Swerlick asserts that the media negatively impacted this athlete. Ricky Williams walked out on the Miami Dolphins; lost millions of dollars; lost the respect of his teammates and fans; and still finds himself as media fodder (Swerdlick, 2005). Many disagree with this conclusion, however, as is indicated on numerous blogs. One such blog critic instead credits Williams’s early departure with his overriding desire to smoke marijuana (Sportscolumn.com, 2004).

Mike Tyson

Iron Mike Tyson’s quick rise to the top of professional boxing made him one of the most publicized and admired boxers of all times. His personal turmoil, however, such as being convicted of raping Miss Black America and his volatile escapades such as biting off the ear of opponent, Evander Holyfield, made him one of the most media criticized boxers of all times.

Up until the early 1990s, Tyson, to many boxing enthusiasts, seemed unbeatable. He earned numerous championship titles such as: World Boxing Council (WBC) Heavyweight Title, World Boxing Association (WBA) Heavyweight Title, and International Boxing Federation (IBF) Heavyweight Title. However, as his personal life became mired in legal difficulties, the media had an increased negative focus when reporting about him, and concurrently, Tyson lost all of his previously earned professional boxing titles. His sudden decline in performance may be tied to negative and excessive media attention, effecting his training and mental state. Days prior to a comeback fight, in an interview by writer John Raygoza, Tyson was asked if it bothers him when the media writes negative things about him. He responded, “It’s my job to beat people and win fights…and it’s their job to sell papers. Everything that could’ve been said about Mike Tyson has already been said. I don’t take it personally like I use to.” Here, Tyson admits that the media criticism did impact him but he is beyond that. One has to wonder, though, as Tyson was knocked out in the fourth round of that fight, and his boxing career ended on that night (Raygoza, 2004).

Only the Mentally Strong Survive

The above were examples of athletes whose performance was negatively impacted by media. Tony Dorsett, legendary NFL halfback, said: “You can turn the negative around and use it as a motivating force in your life. One of my biggest desires has always been to prove certain people wrong-to prove to them I can do it despite what they think or say” (Ferguson, 1990).

Like Dorsett, some athletes are able to strive under intense media scrutiny by using it as motivation to achieve success. The following are several reports of athletes who have been able to survive and thrive in spite of the media.

Venus And Serena

In the world of tennis, two standout sisters have received more than their share of negative press. Venus and Serena Williams are not your typical small, cutesy, white, female tennis players. They are black, muscular, and solid. They win with their hard hitting, hard return, power-games. Not only does the media write and talk about them due to them not fitting the stereotypical construct of the usual tennis player, Venus and Serena are also known and criticized for the exotic, colorful, and tight fitting attire they wear on the court.

The two girls grew up in a poor, Los Angeles neighborhood. They could not afford tennis lessons or even tennis balls. Their dad taught them the game from books; they used worn equipment; and they practiced on rundown tennis courts. To illustrate, Venus and Serena’s father comments on the environment and conditions his daughters experienced during practices in East Compton Park, California: “It’s a radical neighborhood. A lot of dope is sold. We play on two courts — that’s all there is –and they look like trash, they’re so slippery” (Sports Illustrated, 2006).

Instead of being commended for overcoming disadvantage, Venus and Serena are criticized and negatively portrayed by media. Those in the tennis world and media constantly criticize that Venus and Serena are not skilled athletes…just hard hitting. Through all of the media attention, however, Venus and Serena have proven tremendous mental toughness that has served them well in their progress and maturation. The girls countered the media by rising to the top of their games and raising the bar for all (Loving, 2002).

Colin Montgomerie

Colin Montgomerie, one of Europe’s top golf pros, has had his share of ups and downs. Among his many accomplishments are victories at the European Tour Order of Merit every year from 1993 to 1999. During this era, he was consistently ranked in the top 10 in the Official World Golf Rankings, reaching the number two ranking at his peak. Then in 2003 and 2004, he began having personal and performance problems, and his ranking slumped to the eighties. To make matters worse, he became the victim of media and fan abuse. Media publicly questioned his ability, and fans called him names, such as Mrs. Doubtfire, because of his noticeable weight gain.

Initially, the negative media and fan criticism had an impact on him and his performance. According to an article written in Golf Today, not only was he performing really badly in an Open Tournament, he was so upset by media criticism he threatened to pull out of the Scandinavian Masters (Lexus Internet Limited, 2002). Moreover, Martin (2002) reported that because of negative media coverage Montgomerie even considered taking a break from the sport.

Eventually though, Montgomerie overcame the criticism and made a comeback in 2005, where he won another European Tour Order of Merit and returned to the top ten in the World Golf Rankings.

Clinton Portis

Washington Redskins running back, Clinton Portis, during the 2005-2006 season, was known for wearing outrageous costumes and playing odd characters during media interviews. In one such costume, he dressed up as a made-up character named “Sheriff Gonna Getcha”. He wore a long, black wig, glasses with oversized eyes, a Led Zeppelin T-shirt, a star-shaped badge, and an unusual necklace. In another interview, he showed up in a black cape, black Lone Ranger mask, clown-style oversized yellow sunglasses, a shaggy black wig, and fake gold teeth. He also created outrageous names for his costumes such as: Dr. I Don’t Know, Dolla Bill, Rev Gonna Change, Kid Bro Sweets, and Coach Janky Spanky (Solomon, 2006).

The stand-out athlete started this charade of characters after being traded by the Denver Broncos to the Washington Redskins in 2004. He was uncomfortable on this new team and had trouble scoring touchdowns. To deflect negative press questions he began dressing up in costumes, and had fun with the press. Five of his teammates got in on the act as well. During one interview, they joined Portis by dressing up in crazy get-ups calling themselves “Clinton’s” Angels. Many may view these stunts as foolish, however, Portis’s tactics proved successful. Instead of negative reporting by the press, the press had fun with the parade of characters and concentrated on this instead of the team’s performance. Portis not only started scoring touchdowns, he broke the Redskins’ record for the most rushing yards in a season in 2006 and became the third runner in league history to reach 1,500 yards in three of his first four seasons (Solomon, 2006). With media criticism gone, the team went from a losing record to playoff contenders. This is a case where media impact could have contributed to poor performance on the field. Instead, Portis used the media to have fun, loosen up the team, and motivate himself (Solomon, 2006).

Application to Theory

Throughout this paper there have been examples of athletes whose performance was impacted by media. Some let media distraction impact them negatively. Kenny Rogers’s ordeal may be explained by Lane and Terry’s (2000) conceptual model of mood and performance. In Roger’s case, media distraction triggered his increased anger and tension, a result of depressed mood. Lane and Terry’s finding that depressed mood is debilitating to performance is evident as Rogers’s potentially career best season quickly declined following the media incident. Ricky Williams experienced much stress as he struggled with the constant pressure and media attention. According to The Multidimensional Anxiety Theory, by Marten et al. (1990), the anxiety responses Williams encountered may be due to elevated stress levels. Specifically, Williams’s increased cognitive anxiety response, due to disruptions in attention and concentration, led to decreased performance. However, Williams tried to counteract his increased cognitive anxiety with the calming effects of marijuana. In Mike Tyson’s situation, The Multidimensional Anxiety Theory and Lane and Terry’s conceptual model of mood and performance are essential in explaining the impact media had on Tyson’s drastic change in performance. Following the extensive media criticisms relating to many of Tyson’s problems and controversial incidents, Tyson’s legendary boxing performances rapidly declined. Decreased concentration, a result of increased cognitive anxiety, affected Tyson’s training prior to competition. Also, during performance, Tyson experienced somatic anxiety levels above a moderate range, thus decreasing his performance. This is evident from the inverted U-relationship. Furthermore, Tyson’s mental state prior to competition, negatively affected his performance. Tyson may have exhibited depressive symptoms which include negative cognitive views individuals take of themselves in relation to their past, present, and future social experiences. If Tyson possessed depressive mood, the effects of increased anger, heightened fatigue, increased confusion, and reduced vigor immensely hindered his performance.

Other athletes, however, used media distraction as inspiration to succeed. Venus and Serena Williams, Colin Montgomerie, and Clinton Portis employed their own coping strategies to deal with the media while flourishing in competition. There are many techniques an athlete can use to overcome the media hurdles. Many hire sports psychologists or counselors. Sport psychology consultants can work with athletes to strengthen their mental preparedness in order to enhance and improve athletic performance. Sport psychology consultants are trained to help athletes understand how pressure affects them, and then introduce them to strategies to help them overcome the effects of pressure. The consultant educates athletes on mental techniques such as goal setting, motivation, confidence, relaxation, focus and concentration, team cohesion, and communication (Dunn, 2005). Moreover, sport psychologists are interested not only in helping athletes use psychological principles to enhance athletic performance, but also to achieve optimal mental health when facing tough situations brought about by sport such as pressure from family and fans, harsh comments from coaches, or media criticism.

Positive Vibes

While media has potential to negatively impact athletic performance, this medium can also be used to cultivate or bring out the best in an athlete. In an excerpt from the book, Coaching Wrestling Successfully, Dan Gable, a gold medalist in freestyle wrestling in the 1972 Olympics and former head wrestling coach for the University of Iowa, discuses various ways to motivate wrestlers. Of specific note is his view on using the media as a tool to positively motivate wrestlers. He believes athletes get pumped up from positive media, and media forums should be used extensively as a tool to motivate athletic performance. One specific media outlet he references is the collegiate team’s annual poster. He suggests that if athletes know they will get their picture on the poster if they become an All-American, they are motivated to excel and attain some deserved recognition. He also discussed the advantages of having a media day before the first competition each year. He says this not only serves as a good motivator, but also assists to enhance the athlete’s communication skills in responding to the media. Most importantly, Gable stresses the importance of a coach’s statements to the media and how they can serve as motivators. He believes athletes are inspired when they hear their coach’s positive comments about them (Gable, 1999).

Conclusion

The examples and cases above support the premise that media does impact athletic performance. The cases also reveal or recognize that athletes have two choices: 1) they can succumb to the challenges of media distractions, or 2) they can meet the challenges of media.

American poet Arthur Guiterman wrote, “The stones that critics hurl with harsh intent – a man may use to build a monument”’. As evidenced above, we suggest that a champion can use those stones as momentum to win. Research into the specific mechanisms of how the media influences athletic performance is warranted.

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