Social Media Smarts: Tips for Teen Athletes
How they can create a positive online presence that works to their advantage
Brooke Hanshumaker remembers exactly when she discovered the power of social media.
During the summer before her junior year at Apex High School, she attended a university camp for volleyball recruits. During a break, she was hanging out with a group of friends and noticed another athlete taking a video of herself complaining about how the camp was tiring and a lot of work.
The girl posted the video on her “Finsta” account, a private Instagram account intended for close friends. Somehow, it went public.
“I was in the background of the video, laughing,” Hanshumaker says. “I wasn’t in the conversation at all. I wasn’t talking about what she was talking about, but if you were watching the video, it did kind of look like I was laughing at it or I was participating.”
A few days later, the university discovered the video and had the camper remove it from her account.
“I thought it was a really interesting learning experience,” says Hanshumaker, now a college freshman who plays for UNC-Wilmington’s indoor and beach volleyball teams. “I wasn’t even doing anything bad — I wasn’t really involved.”
Such are the potential pitfalls of social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. They can complicate the social lives of any teen, but for high school athletes pursuing an athletic career in college, the stakes are higher. A 2015 study by Cornerstone Reputation, a social media reputation management company for students, found that 97% of college coaches and recruiters believe a negative online presence could harm a recruit’s prospects. Not only do coaches want to avoid problematic players, but universities want to protect their reputations.
Own Your Successes and Failures Online
Paul Pogge, a UNC-Chapel Hill associate athletic director, helps Tar Heel football players present themselves on social media. He believes it’s smart for athletes to take a long-term view before posting something they may regret later.
“There are incidents every year of people posting comments on social media that may not be offensive or in really bad taste, but maybe not their best representation of themselves, by their own calculation, when they look at it in the future,” Pogge says.
While stories of posts mired in bad judgment serve as cautionary tales, savvy athletes and advisers have begun emphasizing the positive impact of social media. Used properly, the various platforms can help secure a scholarship, raise an athlete’s profile and even help them get a leg up on a future career.
“What you can control is the message you put in front of your coaches and teammates,” says Laura Tierney, a former aSll-American field hockey player at Duke University and founder of The Social Institute in Durham, which helps students manage their social media accounts. “You don’t only show what others expect to see; you have the confidence to share things that truly represent who you are,” she says. “It sounds cliche, but it’s the confidence of being yourself and owning your successes, and being proud of them.”
While winning is often easy to handle, Tierney believes college coaches look favorably on high school athletes who take a mature approach to social media posts after a loss.
“It’s owning your failures and being able to share a lowlight, even if you didn’t win the championship game,” she says. “Instead, maybe it’s giving kudos to the whole team for making it to the championship game. Using it positively is not only sharing the positive things that happen in a student athlete’s life, it’s also showing that you’re OK with adversity.”
Pogge says he believes most UNC-Chapel Hill athletes embrace the positive outcomes social media can provide.
“I think more and more young men and women are starting to understand the extraordinary potential that social media can have in a positive way,” he says. “By showcasing their character, by positioning themselves as role models and providing glimpses into their daily life, that can serve as inspirational examples for other kids or other people.”
At most universities, members of the coaching staff and athletic department carefully monitor enrolled athletes and recruits for posts that reveal bad character, intolerance and inappropriate comments. After all, the posts reflect on both the athlete and the school. When Hanshumaker steps onto the larger stage of college athletics, she will continue using common sense to guide her decisions.
“I honestly just think before I post,” she says. “My coaches follow me, so they’re going to see this. If it’s something offensive, then I just won’t post it. I just err on the safe side. I would hate to put something out there and someone sees it and then [I] get in trouble for it. I mean, what’s the point?”
Read more tips for guiding your athlete to make wise social media posting decisions in this month's Tech Talk column and at thesocialinstitute.com.
Kurt Dusterberg of Apex is a father of two teen athletes and covers the Carolina Hurricanes for NHL.com. He’s also the author of “Journeymen: 24 Bittersweet Tales of Short Major League Sports Careers.”
Social Media Tips for Athletes
While sound judgment goes a long way, here are some important social media posting tips you can share with your student athlete from Laura Tierney, owner of The Social Institute in Durham; Paul Pogge, a UNC-Chapel Hill associate athletic director; and Brooke Hanshumaker, a college freshman who plays for UNC-Wilmington’s indoor and beach volleyball teams.
1. Choose the right followers and friends. “Surround yourself with people who encourage you to be the best you can be,” Tierney says. “The question I pose to all students, but especially student athletes is, ‘Who are you following in your feed that encourages you to be the best version of yourself, who raises the bar for you each day?’ Induct some of those people into your feed if you don’t have them already.”
2. Be cautious with your whereabouts. College athletes are exposed to the public and gain followers, including rival fans. Pogge says he strives to help UNC-Chapel Hill athletes understand the risks they expose themselves to when they voluntarily put information about themselves out there in the public domain. “We urge them to exercise caution in what they’re willing to share about where they are and what they’re doing,” he says, and to “think through how the post might be used to their detriment by people who don’t have their best interests in mind.”
3. Consider the potential reactions to your posts. “If you share something, people look at the comments too,” Hanshumaker says. “People may comment on your picture. It’s not necessarily you saying something (inappropriate), but if it’s on your picture, it reflects badly on you.”