Athletes need protecting from online abuse that impacts on mental health - Joe McMorrow

Sadly, Scotland is not represented at the World Cup in Qatar but most football fans will be eagerly anticipating tomorrow’s clash between Wales and England.

Off the pitch, the tournament throws a spotlight on mental health issues which can affect athletes and the need for sporting bodies to foster a culture, and develop underlying policies and processes, to support those impacted.

The need for action is demonstrated by the increasing number of high-profile athletes reporting mental health struggles, with root causes including online trolling and pressure from coaches, sponsors and the media.

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Athletes’ mental health needs are as important as their physical health needs. Both contribute to overall wellbeing and performance, so mental health needs must be protected and nurtured in the same way as physical health.

Joe McMorrow is a Senior Associate, Pinsent MasonsJoe McMorrow is a Senior Associate, Pinsent Masons
Joe McMorrow is a Senior Associate, Pinsent Masons

Athletes may have unique vulnerabilities associated with being in the professional sporting world, ranging from the time and energy they invest in training, to competitive failure, worries about ageing and declining performance, burnout or injury.

Many athletes are perfectionists as competitors and might struggle to feel satisfied however they perform. Pressure can also put severe strain on athletes’ mental health and wellbeing, especially where the pressure crosses the line into abuse.

Athlete wellbeing issues have been highlighted in the context of football before, perhaps most notably after the 2020 European Championships when England players Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford suffered racist online abuse after missing penalties in the final against Italy.

Issues have also arisen in the context of other major world sport events. US gymnast Simone Biles, tennis champion Naomi Osaka and swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, are among prominent athletes to share experiences of mental health problems.

While it is encouraging that high-profile athletes felt able to speak out on the issue, there is much more to be done to properly support athletes and raise awareness of difficulties they face, in particular because of the rise of online abuse.

The stigma attached to mental health means that disclosing such issues in the workplace can be difficult for anyone, never mind an athlete in the public eye. There is a need to create a safe, supportive space to facilitate such discussion.

Sports bodies need to be aware how to spot early warning signs. Charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness provide useful information, while there are a number of charities and organisations focused on mental health in professional sport, including Sporting Minds UK and The Michael Phelps Foundation.

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Online abuse targeted at employees is an increasing problem that all employers need to consider and employers can support employees subjected to online abuse by making use of available digital tools.

Pinsent Masons has developed a new feature for its brand and reputation management tool, Alteria, which helps clients manage the online reputation for their company and employees, including protecting staff from online abuse.

Searches can be tailored to identify inappropriate posts referring to sports organisations, or to a particular athlete or employee. Using monitoring software that identifies online infringements gives organisations the option to file a takedown request to remove posts via the platform at the click of a button.

By proactively monitoring major social media sites, identifying harmful comments, and requesting they be removed, employers will send a strong message that they embrace inclusion and diversity and will take steps to protect employees in the public eye.

Joe McMorrow is a Senior Associate, Pinsent Masons