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English player Bukayo Saka is comforted by teammates after missing a penalty in the England v Italy final of the Euros 2020
English player Bukayo Saka is comforted by teammates after missing a penalty in the England v Italy final of the 2020 European football championship. REUTERS/Carl Recine

How best can fans support young athletes?

After withdrawing from the 2021 French Open to protect her mental health, tennis player Naomi Osaka called for privacy, empathy and that sportspeople be allowed to take time out for personal reasons. “Athletes are human,” she said.

Osaka’s statement was an important reminder that elite athletes are not immune from mental health problems. They are just as likely as non-athletes to experience symptoms of depression or anxiety.

What is not highlighted enough, though, is how young many of these elite athletes are. Whether it’s 18-year-old Emma Raducanu pulling out of Wimbledon due to performance anxiety or the racist abuse levelled at, among others, 19-year-old footballer Bukayo Saka in the wake of England’s loss at the Euro 2020 final, they are still teenagers.

Team GB, meanwhile, is prepping the country’s youngest summer Olympian ever, skateboarder Sky Brown. Brown will be 13 years old when she competes in the Tokyo Olympics.

So what do fans need to bear in mind about these star athletes at the beginning of their international careers? How best can they support them?

A young girl in a helmet, black sports clothes and white socks and trainers does a jump on her skateboard
Skateboarder Sky Brown is set to become Team GB’s youngest Summer Olympian ever, at 13 years old. REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

What do fans need to remember?

Like their peers, young athletes are still developing physically, psychologically and socially. They are finding their way through the world, gaining experience, both personally, as young people, and professionally, as athletes.

From challenging training obligations and competition demands, to tiring travel schedules and fulfilling academic requirements, not to mention being away from family and friends, they have a lot on their minds. And the mental health risks and pressures that elite athletes of all ages face, not to mention the added stresses of competing in a pandemic, are compounded by their youth and relative inexperience.

The younger the athlete, the less experience they’ve had. They might not yet have undertaken the training in psychological skills to deal with all these demands. It is no wonder that younger athletes are more likely to experience anxiety than older athletes.

On top of the stresses and pressures of performing at this level, elite athletes are public figures. And as such, they often face harassment and abuse online.

Research shows that young athletes view social media both positively and negatively. It is a means to reach lots of fans quickly, advocate for important issues, and gain moral support from lots of people.

But it also involves dealing with hostile, unwelcome, critical and toxic comments. Of the 537 sportswomen who responded to the 2020 BBC Elite British Sportswomen survey, 30% said they had been affected by social media trolling.

The level of media and social media training young athletes receive depends on their sport, level of play, league affiliations and personal resources. Some will simply be better prepared than others to dealing with the pressures that social media may throw their way.

Healthcare professionals attend to tennis player Emma Raducanu during a Wimbledon match
Extreme anxiety led Emma Raducanu to withdraw from the 2021 Wimbledon tennis tournament. Abaca Press / Alamy Stock Photo

What can fans do?

There have been calls by athletes, sporting organisations, politicians and even the Duke of Cambridge for social media platforms to deal with the abuse and harassment posted by the media and members of the public. Companies including Facebook and Twitter have vowed to crack down on racist and hateful comments aimed at athletes and other public figures.

Team GB are taking matters into their own hands. They have set up support hotline manned by psychologists and other mental health professionals that athletes can call if they receive online abuse during the Tokyo Games.

A lot of responsibility for monitoring, reporting and addressing abuse and harassment online comes down to the fans themselves. People on social media should remember that they can flag and report any abuse and harassment they see being thrown at the athletes they support. Some fans are also pushing for changes to the way people can open social media accounts. They are calling for verified identification to be made a requirement to prevent harmful anonymous activity online.

Outside of social media, other fans have taken action too. The defacing of the Marcus Rashford mural in Withington has resulted in hundreds of fans covering the graffiti with messages of solidarity. A crowdfunder has also been set up to help finance repairs to the mural. Marcus Rashford has responded on Instagram saying that he is overwhelmed, thankful and lost for words for the support that he has received from his fans.

Rashford’s response illustrates perhaps the most important thing for the audience to bear in mind. When fans engage with young athletes, they are effectively engaging in a relationship, only one that is mediated through social media.

Of course, athletes can have a huge effect on their fans through their behaviour and action. But so too can fans. What we write and what we do affects the athletes we follow. Take, for instance, the gratitude expressed by Raducanu to her fans. She noted that it was their support that helped her learn to make sense of what happened in the tournament and helped her to continue to persevere in the future.

People need to be kind and mindful about what they post. They will need to ensure that what they post is not unsportsmanlike, derogatory, demeaning or threatening. No matter how big or how small the message of support is to young athletes, it matters to them. So put yourself in their shoes.

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