The Buzz: Social Media and In-Competition Athletes


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

It was called “The Twitter Olympics.” It was the first major Olympic event where athletes could send messages in real-time via social media to the rest of the world. Messages from dorms. Messages from training camps. Photos and quotes and thank-yous and good luck shout-outs to competitors and friends. Fans ate it up. Journalists gained further insight into each athlete. The Twitter Olympics could also be called the “most accessible Olympics.”

But not everyone feels like The Twitter Olympics was really that great. Recently, Australia has banned their National Team from using social media during major competitions. This comes in light of news reports claiming that, perhaps, the usage of social media websites and apps affected performance.

“I just felt like I didn't really get off social media and get into my own head," Australian silver medalist Emily Seebohm said last summer, after finishing second to Missy Franklin.

So now, Australia is addressing what they perceive to be part of a problem: Swimmers should spend less time worrying about what’s happening elsewhere, and more time in the present, on pool decks, in the moment with teammates and competition. A few days ago, they banned social media use during competitions.

I understand where they’re coming from.

I once heard a great quote explaining how you can tell where people’s minds are: “Look at what people are looking at.” The person who said this quote was an older writer speaking to a group of younger people. He told an anecdote about walking around a college campus, and as he was walking about, he was interested about where college-aged minds were. He noticed every college-aged student walking on campus was not looking at the beautiful buildings, or the sky, or each other and saying hello – they were looking at their cell phones.

If our sport really is 90% mental as some have claimed, this is something to consider. In a digital age when anyone can send messages to Olympic athletes via Twitter – and some athletes read these messages during competitions – is it really beneficial? Is it a distraction?

When I first heard about what Australia was doing, I said, “That’s ridiculous. How can they be so authoritative?” But I realized that I fall into a similar category of the distracted: Instead of buckling down and working on that novel at night, I’m checking Twitter. Instead of having dinner conversations, sometimes, I’m checking e-mail. It’s a distraction. It affects your interactions with each other.

As a college swimmer, during competitions it was our duty to stand up and cheer for each other. When a relay was about to swim, it was our duty to look at each other in the eyes and say, “You’re going to do this, you’re going to win.” It was our responsibility to be involved in the moment of competition, to lift each other up with our spirit and cheering and companionship.

Anyone who has been on a team knows there’s more to performance than diving into the water and swimming. There’s momentum. There’s atmosphere. When you sit in the stands, you want to be engaged with your team. It’s difficult to do that when you’re posting photographs of each other, sifting through your responses, constantly looking at your phone.

I’ll use one more anecdote: In college, we used to go through training camps. These camps were oftentimes held in remote parts of the world. We traveled to Hawaii and Argentina -- places where there was no cell phone service and where, sometimes, locals couldn’t even speak English.

These were times we bonded most. These were times we came together. We were forced to because of that isolated environment. We practiced better because we were not in constant communication with the outside world. We bonded together as a team, we trained as a team, and we encouraged each other as a team. We existed within a bubble of a positive atmosphere and encouragement, and to this day, those camps were some of the best team-like atmospheres of which I’ve ever been part.

At a major competition, you want that cohesiveness. You want people’s minds on the moment – not on how many Twitter followers they’re acquiring. While it would be a devastating blow to swimming fans – myself included -- if the USA enacted a similar social media ban, I would understand it. (But that doesn’t mean they are even considering it.) Personally, I’d rather have our swim team win Olympic gold than saying things afterwards like they couldn’t get their heads into the race because of social media. Before competitions, and after competitions, I love social media. It’s a great way to connect to fans, to each other, to the world. But social media during actual competitions?

Whether or not an in-competition “ban” is necessary is certainly debatable. But you can tell what people are interested in by what they are looking at. And I’d believe that there is more to the Olympic Games than whatever’s happening on a cell phone.

Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @ MikeLGustafson.