Is the age of information a blessing or a curse? Kibwé Johnson from SPIRE Institute looks at the increasingly challenging issue of athletes’ addiction to screen time

For today’s developing athlete, technology is both a blessing and a curse. Too much tech can adversely affect athletic development, both on the field and emotionally. When used in a healthy way, however, these same technologies can benefit coaches and athletes alike.

Every day, at SPIRE Institute & Academy we embrace technologies and specific training methods that can improve athletic development and opportunities, including our popular esports division.

Obviously, tech isn’t dangerous by itself but, for developing athletes caught in the age of unprecedented tech addiction, coaches everywhere can agree that the struggle is real.

The very nature of blue light-emitting electronics, such as tablets, TVs, and smart devices, can result in disrupted sleep patterns from both the devices themselves as well as the poor sleep habits they encourage.

Getting out of rhythm

A lack of proper sleep can be devastating, potentially affecting performance, motivation, energy and self-esteem.

Screen time impacts circadian rhythms in unexpected ways. When we use artificial light, such as device screens, late at night we confuse our sense of night and day. This disruption of the body’s internal clock will lead to feelings of exhaustion but, more worryingly, it can also have devastating physical and emotional effects including depression, insulin resistance and cognitive dysfunction.

When a lack of sleep meets performance expectations, performance will lose every time. With today’s addiction to technology, it’s easy for the developing athlete to find themselves spending less time training.

In many cases, this lack of physical activity can go hand-in-hand with improper nutrition. The result? A sharp deviation between an athlete’s expected fitness level and where they are physically and mentally.

And there’s more

The ongoing tech addiction in today’s athletic landscape is a never-ending struggle between coach and athlete. Developing athletes who overuse technology may find they are suffering from more than just a decrease in energy and motivation; they may be causing long-term issues as well, including poor posture, eye strain, reduced peripheral vision, decreased reaction times and even withdrawal from peers and team-mates.

Prior to the age of information and its availability to anyone, there wasn’t very much external noise to distract an athlete from the training and healthy lifestyle necessary to grow in their sport. Increased tech distractions result in poor focus, and poor focus will directly impact performance and decrease the overall attention span they need to succeed.

In 2016, the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) released a study showing that the quality of social networking interactions can influence mental health. Poor interactions, such as comparisons to peers or reading negative comments, can have adverse effects including depression and anxiety.

When it comes to social media, it’s not just the quantity of interaction; it’s the quality of those interactions that can adversely affect a developing athlete’s mental health. Top-rated sports facilities like SPIRE stay ahead of these issues by addressing personal skills development that can keep athletes in touch with themselves, as well as the world around them, in healthy, real-life social interactions.

Kibwé Johnson

Meeting in the middle

Rather than fighting the enemy, a tech-savvy coach can use these technologies and platforms to meet the athlete in the middle. Online training videos, text training reminders and alerts, recordings of athletic performance and team chats are all ways athletes and coaches can open the lines of communication.

My approach to coaching this new breed of tech-addicted athletes is all about communication; not just hearing the athlete, but actively listening. In my experience, athletes and kids want to know you care about them. They want to know that they have a voice. When you earn their trust, the bond and their ability to learn grows exponentially. In other words, for this era of athletes, lecturing is not an option. The human desire to be seen is ingrained in our make-up as a species, yet technology is making connections between us increasingly more difficult. Without realising it, we crave it.

I consider myself a guide, a door the athlete can open to go wherever they want to go. I can’t force them through this door; they need to figure out their own path. I try to stay out of the way with my own experiences and beliefs because I understand that learning is far more effective when it comes from within the athlete.

I have learned to meet these developing athletes where they are and encourage them to unlock the secrets for themselves.

Part of this philosophy involves embracing tech and encouraging these athletes to form their own opinions about its usefulness. As a coach, I need to recognise the ever-changing landscape around me and let the athletes experiment and form their own opinions. I present them with the facts and let them draw their own conclusions.

Tech is not leaving any time soon; it’s continuing to evolve. As coaches, we need to accept and adapt. Communication is paramount and everything, including using or abusing technology, is a matter of perspective.

As a coach, I can see the destructiveness the age of information brings to the athlete, both physically and emotionally. I can offer advice and guidance, but ultimately it is up to the developing athlete to decide if their desire for success is more important than catching up on the latest TikTok video at 1am.

I love that working with SPIRE’s athletes gives me the chance to evolve my own coaching philosophy while working with these athletes on the field, in the gym and in the classroom. They learn skills, like mental fitness, health and nutrition, that will allow them to make wise choices.

In the end, I find that most of these athletes come to the right conclusions on their own without me getting in the way. All they need is the space to place their youthful confidence and a little nudge.

» Two-time Olympian Kibwé Johnson established himself as one of America’s best ever hammer throwers, winning five national titles before retiring in 2017. He is Director of Track & Field and Head Coach – Throws at SPIRE Institute & Academy in Geneva, Ohio

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