The pitfalls of sports stars using negative feedback as fuel for winning

While some can handle the emotion of revenge or spite and maintain their ability to function properly, others cannot, which can lead to long-term physical and mental problems

Coco Gauff took great delight in proving her detractors wrong by winning her maiden Grand Slam at the 2023 US Open. Getty
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Not long after Coco Gauff won a maiden Grand Slam at the US Open, the American teenager stood on centre court, took the microphone and gave a speech.

She thanked her parents, her brothers, her team, her supporters, then sent a message to her detractors.

“Thank you to the people who didn’t believe in me,” said the 19-year-old. “I tried my best to carry this with grace and I’ve been doing my best. So honestly, to those who thought they were putting water on my fire, you were really adding gas to it and now I’m really burning so bright right now.”

Gauff later added in her champion’s press conference that she closely followed the negative comments directed towards her on social media, and knows all the X, formerly Twitter, handles of those who were “talking trash” about her.

“I can't wait to look on Twitter right now,” she said with a laugh, the US Open trophy shining beside her on the dais.

Gauff’s words resonated with many players, including Maria Sakkari, who ended a four-plus-year title drought by triumphing at the WTA 1000 tournament in Guadalajara last week.

Sakkari’s six-match losing streak in finals and subpar record in semi-finals has been frequently mocked by tennis fans on social media over the past few years and the Greek top-10 star was well aware of it.

“We live in 2023. Social media is a part of our everyday life. You cannot avoid it. Coco said she knows the usernames [of her trolls]. I know them, too. I know the person with a YouTube channel who posts all my semi-final losses, all my final losses. I'm aware,” Sakkari told WTA Insider in an interview.

“The satisfaction now, I cannot describe it. When you prove all these people wrong, it's fuel. For me, it worked as fuel.”

That feeling of wanting to prove your doubters wrong or drawing motivation from the negative comments of your naysayers is nothing new in sport. Some would argue Michael Jordan built an entire career out of holding a grudge. Players like Daniil Medvedev and Novak Djokovic also tend to thrive in a hostile environment.

But with social media becoming ever-present in our daily lives, along with the online abuse that comes with it, it’s become almost unavoidable for an athlete to come across a negative comment, hateful statement, or general critique directed towards them on the internet. Whether they want to know about it or not.

And while some athletes find a way to channel that into motivation, one wonders if being fuelled by negative feedback, or negative emotions, can have its drawbacks, compared to being driven by something positive.

I once asked Iga Swiatek what was easier for her in a tennis match: to face someone she admired or someone she did not like very much?

“I don't like having all these kind of negative emotions when I enter a match against somebody I may not like as much as other players,” said the former world No 1. “So I would say it's a little bit easier [to play someone I like], because I don't like this negative motivation.”

Swiatek’s psychologist Daria Abramowicz, who travels with the four-time major champion almost full time on tour, has shared some insight into the topic and explained how the meta-analysis of 78 studies has shown that negative feedback has no significant impact on intrinsic motivation in comparison to neutral or no feedback.

Meanwhile, when comparing it to positive feedback, negative feedback was shown to lower intrinsic motivation within an individual.

“So this actually leads us to the conclusion that positive feedback, positive information, strengthening one’s strengths, resources, all that increases intrinsic motivation,” Abramowicz told The National.

“Intrinsic motivation is the one that is based on the fundamental passion towards anything we do in life. So for example with tennis, the player with intrinsic motivation will be the one that says they really enjoy the sound of the ball hit by a racquet, or the feeling that the ball goes wherever the player wants.

“It’s this fundamental passion towards the activity itself, the engagement and so on. So basically that’s something we really want to fire up within the athletes.

“Because especially in professional sports, when the crisis is coming, and it always comes; there is always an injury or a conflict or a dip in results and so on, the intrinsic motivation, this fundamental passion is what drives us and keeps us there.

“So positive feedback helps to improve and maintain intrinsic motivation, which actually helps to build autonomy, self-efficiency, helps to build self-confidence and these are essential things towards building mental strength of course.”

Exploring the possible drawbacks of using negative feedback as fuel, Abramowicz looks at criticism and online “hate” as two separate things. While she notes that both can lead to negative emotions like sadness, anger, frustration or disappointment, “we actually are able to work with the criticism.”

“With criticism, we always try to identify the areas for improvement. This is a solid ground to change this negative feedback and criticism towards something positive and something positive might again improve intrinsic motivation,” she continued.

“I really like this quote from Serena Williams from the Vogue article she wrote last year right before ending her career. She said that she took every negative thing that happened and every negative thing that she heard or experienced and she built this career of hers on channelling the rage and anger that came from that and changing it into something positive.

“And I think that’s a good example of finding something to improve, to finding something positive in negativity. But it’s not common to everyone.”

When it comes to “hate”, Abramowicz categorises it as online abuse and says it is not rational and it is usually about the person dishing out the hate rather than the subject of that hate.

“But it’s really tough to use logic in the moment when emotions hit so hard, when we feel injustice, when we feel that something is not right. So with hate, we work completely differently. With hate we try to refocus, refocusing is a technique and strategy that we use often. Refocusing on resources, refocusing on strengths, refocusing on things that we can control,” she said.

“So it’s a little bit harder to gain motivation from hate because it’s not rational and it’s a little bit easier to reframe the criticism.”

Abramowicz stressed that not everyone can turn negative feedback into motivation and it is based on each individual, how they were raised, their environment, and their values. And while some are able to successfully do that, she sees many athletes, especially younger ones, struggling to handle it.

“Nowadays with social exposure, being judged and being raised to fulfil the expectations of others since the very early stage of their lives, it’s very tough and it’s actually my observation that it’s tougher to reframe in the moments of negative comments, hate, or criticism,” she added.

Mental toughness coach Hend Eissa, who has worked with some of Egypt’s top athletes across various sports, says learning how to handle criticism is one of the first things she addresses when working with an athlete, especially if they are at a stage of their career where they are growing and becoming more exposed to the public.

“When I start working with someone, the first thing I tell them is that not everyone is going to like you. If you try to please everyone, it’s a mirage, you’ll never reach that goal,” said Eissa.

“Depending on the personality, for some people, that ‘muscle’ of handling criticism is still weak, so I advise them to go off social media for some time, and don’t read what’s written about them.

“So some of them choose to refrain for a bit from social media so they don’t get affected. But some of them with time they learn, when they have a stronger ‘muscle’, that it could be taken as a way to humble you actually. So they don’t have a super inflated ego.”

Eissa agrees with Abramowicz in that being able to draw motivation from negative feedback depends on the personality type. But she also notes the potential pitfalls of continuing to do so on the body and the psyche.

“You can’t just look at it from a win versus loss perspective. Other factors come into play,” says Eissa.

“Did that feeling of holding a grudge or anything similar lead them to victory but also lead them to illness or injuries because they were extremely tense during the process?

“Sometimes it can result in an internal harm, be it in their organs or their nervous system from holding all those grudges. So they may have got the win, in the short term, but long term you don’t know how much harm it is causing internally.”

Eissa finds that while some people can handle the emotion of revenge or grudge or spite, and maintain their ability to function properly, others cannot and it adds too much stress to their lives.

“Then it doesn’t end up being about a game or a sport any more, it’s no longer about tennis or baseball or basketball or whatever. It’s become about ‘my reputation’ and ‘my image’ and all ‘my history and pain that I’m trying to overcome’,” added Eissa.

Overall, Eissa feels that more often than not, drawing motivation from negativity does not work but she always uses it as an opportunity to dig deeper with her athletes, and find out why a certain comment had such a big effect on them.

“It’s a good doorway to tackle issues within the athlete,” she says.

Updated: October 02, 2023, 4:45 AM