Athletes nowadays handle not just the stiff competition on the field and critical analyses, but also the awful trolling on social media.
In a recent incident that grabbed headlines and airtime, India left-arm pacer Arshdeep Singh was trolled severely for dropping a crucial catch in an Asia Cup match against Pakistan. India lost the match.
This isn’t the first time an Indian sportsperson has been trolled for his performance or views. Cricketers Virat Kohli, Mohammad Shami, Mohammad Kaif, Irfan Pathan, Yuvraj Singh, Kedar Jadhav, and Harbhajan Singh among others have all faced trolling and so has badminton star Jwala Gutta.
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It is not just the online anonymous trolls that haunt the players. Ambati Rayudu who triggered online trolling against cricketer Vijay Shankar ahead of the 2019 World Cup cricket, after the former had lost his place to the latter in the India squad for the mega event.
Jwala, one of India’s ace badminton players whose achievements spawned Indian women’s badminton success story, says social media is unavoidable nowadays. She asks players, especially young athletes, to not take everyone seriously and be selective in accepting opinions.
“During my time, whatever criticism I faced made me thick-skinned. I feel, earlier it was constructive criticism. Now it (trolling) is [by] people who are jobless”, Jwala tells Patriot.
“You’ve got to understand that not everybody from social media needs to be taken seriously. If you understand that, then you don’t need to worry anymore. You really need to identify these people. That (social media) is part and parcel of your public life [nowadays]. Once you have accepted it, things become easier. I have accepted it, so it doesn’t bother me”, adds Jwala, who has 1.5 million followers on Twitter.
The ace badminton player has perhaps been the most trolled athlete in India.
She was trolled last year after her marriage and a year before that – in 2020 – she was trolled for her comments in support of migrant workers during the Covid pandemic. Back in 2017 too, she was trolled and termed anti-national, due to her mother’s Chinese lineage.
“I was very clear that I will not let this affect me because my priorities, my aims in life were different. So, it did not distract me. I was very, very firm. I was already established”, she adds.
She elaborates, “Easier said than done, but I was very clear on one point – so and so people’s opinion matters to me, and that majority will not matter to me, no matter what. Only my parents, my family, my coach, what they thought of me, mattered to me. Apart from that, I tried to keep the opinions limited.”
Former India cricketer Irfan Pathan, who too has faced trolling, and like Jwala, has not been shy in responding to them, advises people to have fun with Twitter and not get emotionally connected with it.
Besides facing trolling, Pathan was in the news recently in his defense of Mohammed Shami.
The left-arm pacer, who is now a commentator, tweeted in support of Shami after he was trolled following his poor performance against Pakistan in last year’s World Cup T20.
“Social media can’t be avoided totally nowadays. It is everywhere”, Pathan tells Patriot. “Use it as per your style and convenience. There is no need to reply to trolls. Have fun with it. If someone is trolling, don’t take whatever they write to heart”, adds Pathan, who has 5.9 million followers.
Pathan, like Jwala, has seen both worlds. When they took up their respective sports professionally, there was little or no social media. But as the years passed, the influence of social media increased. So, most newcomers are largely introduced to the world through their social media accounts.
The common notion is that the more the followers, the merrier. A lot of sponsorship nowadays rides on the amount of social media following, experts say.
Jwala says, “Accept it that you are living in this age. You also need to empathize. There are a lot of unemployed people. There is a lot of frustration in the masses, you need to understand that.”
The best way for an athlete, Jwala says, is to train one’s brain. “You are a sportsperson, you can train your brain in a certain way. I would probably ask youngsters like Arshdeep to train their brain. Don’t let such things affect you. As long as you are performing well, all these things should not matter,” she explains.
She adds that there should be balance. “Today’s need is to be on social media. So be on social media and don’t do anything extreme,” she says.
Clinical psychologist Prerna Kohli says unwarranted personal remarks can sow the seeds of self-doubt in an athlete.
“With people being perpetually online, public figures have become more accessible to their fans, where they are just one tweet away from supporting their favourite team or athlete. This also has some downsides, like higher exposure to trolling and online bullying. Poor performance is often a dampener on the spirit of the athlete by itself, but I can imagine that the negative reaction and mocking they get subjected to must be even more challenging. These unwarranted personal remarks about the skill and the assumed deficit in effort can be offensive at best and can sow the seeds of self-doubt and amotivation at worst,” the psychologist tells Patriot.
According to Kohli, the self-identity and self-esteem of the sports fan can be blurred with the identity of the team or player they support to a great degree. “They will celebrate and take pride in the wins as if they had a role in it, and when the team or any team members performs poorly, they will get angry, disappointed, and blame the sportsperson – either due to a perceived unfairness, or due to a belief that losses are always avoidable if the preparation was adequate,” she adds.
Angry sports fans may take a poor performance as a personal attack on their own self-worth, she explains. “It is important for the athlete to be aware that these reactions are not an accurate reflection of their skills, and to be able to separate the mindless criticism from helpful remarks”, says Prerna.
But should an athlete avoid social media immediately after a poor performance? Kohli says yes. “An athlete will already be in an exhausted and overwhelmed state of mind after their unsatisfactory performance. He won’t be in a proper state of mind at that time. So, it is better to avoid social media as it will worsen the situation. I’d suggest they get back to social media once they are in a better and calmer state of mind. It will be easier to deal with the trolling by then”, she concludes.
In an earlier era, when there was no social media, players did face pressure. But it was from the press and the on-field audience.
Former India and Delhi cricketer and World Cup winner Madan Lal, who comes from that era, says that modern-day cricketers have to learn to handle the pressures of social media.
“If you can’t handle it, the best way is not to get involved in social media, delete all accounts. If you want to use it, then you have to learn to face it,” Lal tells Patriot.
Lal, who quit playing in the 1980s, himself is on Twitter and had recently tweeted in support of Arshdeep after the youngster had copped severe criticism.
“Criticism is a part of the game. It was there in our days too. With it, you always improve your game. But there is a way to criticize. You don’t taunt. [Unfortunately], on social media, everybody is an expert which wasn’t the case in our days,” he adds.
“But social media is here to stay and you are playing international cricket. So you can’t avoid it. You don’t have to bother about everybody,” he says further.
Arshdeep, to his credit, appeared to set trolling aside and performed with efficiency and focus as he bowled two good last overs under pressure in two of India’s Super 4s games at the recent Asia Cup.
Even though India lost both those games to crash out of the tournament – first against Pakistan, in which he had dropped the catch, and then against Sri Lanka – he was praised for his temperament by ex-cricketers.
For those who have seen him grow, it isn’t surprising. Mohinder Singh, the secretary at the Guru Nanak Public School Cricket Academy in Chandigarh, where Arshdeep was mentored, said that the left-arm pacer is a tough cricketer partly because he was moulded that way.
“He is tough mentally. We always made him bowl to cricketers who were senior to him. And in tournaments, including inter-district, we would hand him the ball and ask him to bowl the last over while defending the opposition total”, explains Mohinder.