In recent times sport and especially football has seen a flurry of young sporting ‘wonderkids’ being shot into the media spotlight. With Real Madrid’s acquisition of the 16 year old Martin Ødegaard from Stromsgodest, Norway being the most recent and high profile due to the global reach of Madrid. The 16 year old has signed a contract set to net him £40,000/week with the possibility of the figure rising to £80,000/week with bonuses. While this is an extreme example of a young player being propelled into international sporting fame, for want of a better word, it does raise the question: will he be able to handle the pressure? This piece will look at the importance of a sports psychologist’s role in helping these ‘wonderkids’ not only survive but thrive under the pressure of media stress.
Obviously the media now goes hand in hand with elite sport, and the clubs are now more than just a sports club they are now international brands. Mellalieu et al. has identified media expectation as a ‘potent source of stress for athletes’ (2009. Quoted in Brown 2014, p.20). Due to the growth of social media over the past few years players are now finding their personal lives scrutinised as well as their performance on the pitch. Therefore sports psychology’s role in making sure these young players are able to cope with the pressure of the media spotlight and continue to progress at the same rate that got them to where they are is even more important..
The reason these players shoot to prominence is because they possess ability above their age, but becoming a sporting success is not down to purely ability. Sheard (2012, p.2) believes that there are two qualities essential for success in sport: ability and mental toughness. Therefore it is the sports psychologists’ role to support these young players in becoming mentally tough, to allow them to reach their full potential and become the world beaters they are billed up to be. Being able to cope with the stress of the media is integral to mental toughness due to the fact that low levels of negative emotional states have been linked to high levels of mental toughness (Gucciardi and Jones, 2012). Working with players from a young age on how to cope with the media should be a goal for all sports psychologists as an ‘athletes personal beliefs about his/her own competence… play important roles in how he/she deals with the environmental stressors such as media’ (Kristiansen, Halvari and Roberts, 2012, p. 570). Coaches and managers should be looking to create a mastery climate (focus on mastery of skill rather than result) as this has been found to allow players to utilize their mental preparation routines in a consistent manner allowing them to cope with the stress of the media (Kristiansen, Halvari and Roberts, 2012, p. 577). Focusing on the skill itself rather than the result goes against the result based nature of football, but in terms of coping with stress it will allows players to focus on the positives of their performance when negative results occur. It also allows them to answer the negative probing of media correspondents following a loss. Kristiansen, Roberts and Sisjord conducted research into the coping mechanisms used by goalkeepers to deal with media content, they identified three strategies for coping; social support, avoidance behavior and problem-focused coping (2011). It is the job of sport psychologists to help find the strategies that work for each individual. These may be social support, which is a multidimensional construct that can help manage the negative effects of stress (Kristiansen, Roberts & Sisjord, 2011), or problem-focused coping which involves attacking the problem through working on it through training, or a number of other strategies.
Whatever the strategy, whoever the player, it is undeniable that the ability to deal with media pressure/stress will be influential in whether these ‘wonderkids’ are successful in fulfilling their potential.