For bulletproof athletic performance, curb social media

Guest writer Alexis Christodoulou gives us food for thought as we discuss athlete focus and the impacts of social media on performance.

My journey in competitive sport began before the explosion of social media. Loss of focus in training and racing and poor recovery are dangerous issues. Does technology contribute to this problem? If so, how can we guard against this? We cannot overlook the relationship between social media misuse and the development of athletes.

For around 20 years, I was a part-time amateur coach of runners, rowers, and triathletes — all for the love of the sport. I had a racing career in all three of these sports spanning 23 years, complemented by a degree in engineering, and, applied psychology. I have omitted scientific research, in favour of my personal experiences. Nowadays I no longer coach. Family and my training take up all my time, but I desperately wanted to impart one thing: athletic performance can be improved if we rid or minimise the effect of social media.

Here is my first observation: the apparent failure (or difficulty) of a lot of young (and old) athletes to disengage from their phones even during training. So, how does this impact athletes?

The most striking area athletes find hard to deal with is in the mere act of focusing.

Why would the attention span of an athlete decline? Might the rise of the smartphone and social media have something to do with it? It’s a reasonable assumption to make due to the distractions caused by the constant flow of notifications and the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) effect.

Do athletes lose focus with constant distractions and miss the chance to be subsequently able to perform?

Do athletes lose focus with constant distractions and miss the chance to be subsequently able to perform?

If athletes are suffering from an inability to stay focused for long periods, effects can include mental and physical fatigue, finding instructions hard to follow, and, a decline in performance in training or racing. Cognitive overload of any kind helps neither performance or recovery.

While I no longer coach I still speak with coaches who note how their athletes struggle to focus compared to past generations. The impression (and sometimes agreement) is athletes are less able to pay attention to their coaches’ directions, recall feedback, and, stay in the moment. They find it hard even to stay focused during the entirety of a session. I recall in the latter years of coaching young athletes: the most common complaint was trouble focusing followed by trouble sleeping (and therefore recovering). It was a constant battle for athletes to focus during training. They readily admitted to being prone to making mistakes in competition due to a lack of focus. Even when trying visualisation techniques with them (mentally rehearsing scenarios which might play out in a race), sustained focus was a challenge.

Trouble visualising was especially evident in the most basic of scenarios: imagining run cadence at mile 20, thinking of swim stroke etc. In an in-depth and honest discussion with them, they would lament how their minds would drift off. Also, they found it hard to ‘snap out of it’ and regain focus.

But why am I talking about focus so much? Well, the capacity to focus is the base of everything associated with harmonious athletic achievement. It creates efficiency and enjoyment. Focus influences learning: only with a capacity for continued focus will athletes remember what they are working on (technically or tactically). When they lose focus, the mental system of learning collapses and in come the old and bad habits. Only with focus can athletes get enough quality replication which will enable effective new skills and habits to settle and grow. Focus is crucial during competition: an athlete’s ability to focus impacts details of planned race strategy. Without focus throughout the race and its constituent parts (technique, tactics, enjoyment) athletes diminish their chances of performing optimally. All that training goes to waste! I would always find it tough to get my athletes to control their use of social media especially when they were at home. But, education, discussion, and incorporating in their training plans tech-free times (before sleep) were all crucial to athlete performance, recovery, and wellbeing.

I appreciate that smartphones capture precious moments for posterity and it’s all part of the beautiful experience or training and racing. Music too, as a mental weapon on race day, to stay positive, set a great mindset, and to keep distractions at bay. I completely understand this. But when it comes to training, one has to ask: do I need to listen to music during the workout? Is my recovery better without updating social media? Does my mind settle faster with a good book or even yoga, stretching and meditation?

Athletes ought to ask coaches about their policy on such issues. What does your coach suggest?

The last time I completed a coaching qualification, I learned about biomechanics, nutrition, training plans. Nowhere was technology’s effect on focus mentioned. Athletes should insist on some direction from their coaches about social media use in the context of focus, performance, and recovery.


Alexis Christodoulou works in the private sector industry and is also a writer on  upgrading our human operating system through self-improvement and applied psychology 

Alexis holds a BSc in engineering from Imperial College, London and an MA in psychology from the Open University. He has competed for Imperial College at Henley Royal Regatta in the Temple Challenge Cup. Before completing five Ironman races and numerous shorter courses, he was a Greek Army Ranger and platoon commander during the Balkans' crisis and the first Gulf war. He has coached cross country runners to national standards and rowing crews to Henley. Read more of his work

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