The Pressure to Perform

As female athletes experience a growing pressure to perform, it’s important that they have a trusted support system to lean on. Photo credit: Nebraska Athletics

There was a different energy in Memorial Stadium on August 30, 2023. Fans were on their feet, a sea of red making waves in the late summer air. The crowd roared as the women spiked the volleyball over the net. That night, women’s sports hit a historic milestone. And it happened in Lincoln, Nebraska, of all places. 

Over 92,000 women’s volleyball fans filled the stands to watch University of Nebraska-Lincoln face off against University of Nebraska Omaha. The volleyball game broke the attendance record for a women’s sporting event. And the packed stadium must’ve given the Nebraska-Lincoln Huskers an extra boost because they beat the Mavericks 3-0.

“The day was very surreal,” says Lindsay Peterson, director of operations for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln women’s volleyball team. “So many emotions of that day just to think how far our sport had come and we had come and to see what we accomplished not only just for Nebraska volleyball, but for women’s sports in general.” 

The attendance record for a women’s sporting event was broken at Memorial Stadium on August 30, 2023, when 92,003 women’s volleyball fans packed the stands to watch University of Nebraska-Lincoln face off against University of Nebraska Omaha. Photo credit: Nebraska Athletics 

The last time this record was broken in the U.S. was back in 1999. On July 10 that year, 90,185 people watched Team USA and China go head-to-head for the Women’s World Cup soccer final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. It has been more than 20 years since people in the U.S. cared that much about women’s sports.

Is the popularity of women’s sports here to stay?

Regardless of the metric, it’s been a banner year for women’s sports. Attendance is up. Viewership is up. Merchandise is selling like crazy. And yes, some of it has to do with superstars like Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese, who helped make this year’s Women’s NCAA basketball championship a must-see event. But other sports are also seeing the same bump. 

The Kansas City Current just got their own state-of-the-art soccer stadium, the first built specifically for a professional women’s sports team in the world. The National Women’s Soccer League also just signed a media distribution deal that runs through 2027 worth $60 million annually with CBS and ESPN. The Professional Women’s Hockey League inked a broadcast deal with Air Canada. Financial services company Deloitte estimates that elite women’s sports will generate $1 billion in revenue this year. Even women’s cycling is seeing massive spikes in viewership and interest, and none of the professional races are even held in the U.S. 

The question now is whether women’s sports can sustain that jump in interest over the long term. There are plenty of factors that contribute to that, says Dr. Dunja Antunovic, assistant professor in sport sociology at the University of Minnesota. She believes that demographics partly plays into it, with younger people raised on sports now converting from participants to fans. But direct access to fans via social media has also helped increase interest in women’s sports. 

“The sort of technological changes that allow for athletes and also teams to communicate directly with audiences have played a real role in bringing light to some of those [engagement] metrics and just how invested audiences are in women’s sports,” Antunovic says. 

Visibility has been a big issue for women’s sports. The argument often goes that, in the past, sports journalists “perceived women’s sports as less interesting than men’s sports,” something Antunovic’s research suggested. The research also showed journalists believed there wasn’t an audience for women’s sports. The natural result of this lack of visibility was less engagement from fans, creating a classic chicken and egg problem. No coverage equals no interest equals even less coverage and less interest.

But now with women’s sports getting premium coverage, fans are showing up. Just look at ticket sales for this year’s WNBA season. Stubhub recently released a report saying demand for tickets for games this year is up 93% compared to last season. Clark and her new team, the Indiana Fever, are part of the reason, of course. But the Las Vegas Aces, who also drafted another University of Iowa player, Kate Martin, this year, are the most in-demand team, according to StubHub. WNBA champions the last two years, fans are hoping for a three-peat and are willing to pay to see it happen. 

Yet, despite the numbers, Antunovic isn’t as bullish as some. She says that, while her colleagues are more optimistic about the future of women’s sports, she’s skeptical that there will be a sustained long-term investment. She questions how much audiences will engage with women’s sports as media and broadcast packages become more expensive. As popularity continues to rise, there could become an oversaturation of women’s sporting events. 

“I think it’s really important for us to recognize that there are still a ton of athletes in pre-professional women’s sports who are playing with minimal or no pay, where leagues don’t really have health insurance,” she says. “And so some of those working conditions still need to improve across the board for women’s sports to be sustainable long-term.”

Nebraska women’s volleyball hasn’t seen as many issues with interest in women’s sports in general. Peterson says that the Cornhusker faithful have long supported the team. Up until this year with the launch of the Pro Volleyball Federation, the first women’s pro volleyball league, Nebraska didn’t have any professional sports teams, so fans didn’t have to pick and choose what team to support. Now the Cornhuskers have to compete with the Omaha Supernovas for fans. But Peterson says the success of the Cornhuskers’ volleyball team contributes to the high volume of backers. 

“We’ve been able to draw the best talent to come here to play,” Peterson says. “Some of that’s because of the fan base—they want to play and they want to feel important, but it’s also just the resources and the experience they have here.” 

But there’s also a downside. When a team is winning, fans expect them to keep on winning. There’s real pressure to always be on top. That can sometimes feel like the hopes of the whole state are riding on the Cornhuskers’ volleyball team. 

“If we don’t make it to a Final Four, some see it as a bad year for us,” Peterson says. “I think that’s been the biggest change [over the years].”

The added pressure of social media on female athletes

Like Antunovic says, social media plays a huge role in the growing popularity of women’s sports. Not only do these platforms inform users about upcoming games and events, but they also help foster a connection between athletes and their fans.  

“Some of the athletes have a higher number of followers than their teams,” Antunovic says. “So, there’s definitely that potential for celebrity status where athletes use social media to provide background information about themselves, promote their own training regimes, or maybe bring visibility to their sponsors. So, there’s that branding component as well.” 

Athletes gaining more attention is exciting. It can bring more funding, and with that more opportunities for teams. But the attention also comes with mounting pressure for athletes. This added stress can be intimidating for young athletes who are just starting college and taking their first steps of independence. Not only that, but social media and online harassment go hand-in-hand. 

“Backlash, gender stereotypes, and violent responses to women’s sports and to athletes who engage in social issues is still a really big problem. There doesn’t seem to be a solution for how to control for that,” Antunovic says. “I think we need to kind of account for the fact that heightened visibility also comes with the persistence of misogyny and racism on online platforms.”

Gymnast Simone Biles’s experience at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics shines light on the mounting pressure young athletes cope with. After missing her 2.5 twisting vault, Biles knew something was wrong. So, she put herself first and decided to drop out of the women’s team final and the four subsequent individual finals. 

She had a case of the “twisties.” As she tried to complete moves, her mind and body were working against each other. She was having a hard time knowing where she was in the air, which is extremely dangerous. But instead of worrying about her safety, Biles’s mind was elsewhere when she landed her messy vault. 

“As soon as I landed, I was like, ‘Oh, America hates me. The world is going to hate me, and I can only see what they’re saying on Twitter right now.’ That was my first thought,” Biles told Alex Cooper on an episode of the “Call Her Daddy” podcast that aired on April 17. 

And while “twisties” are a gymnastics mental block, athletes of all sports may experience their own “twisties.” Pressure can prevent athletes from finding focus and may hinder their performance during matches. And that pressure is only amplified on social media. It can feel impossible to turn down the volume because of the constant feedback. 

“It takes a lot of bravery to go out and open yourself up to that amount of criticism,” says Andrea Vignovich, licensed mental health counselor and owner of Cognizant Counseling. “And it’s not easy to do that in a way that makes you successful in your sport because you really should play very locked in and focused on the moment and the attention. But quite frankly, as soon as you make an error and you know you’re going to get feedback, it’s terrible.”

Easing the pressure

Luckily, there are ways that athletes can work through their sports performance anxieties. Talking to people they trust can help athletes sort through the emotions they’re feeling, Vignovich says. Instead of bottling up negative feelings, recognizing them and voicing them is the first step to working through them. 

But working through sports performance anxieties doesn’t just fall on an athlete’s shoulders. When coaches implement a psychosocial approach, athletes are treated more according to their age than expectations of their ability, Vignovich says. A psychosocial approach recognizes how psychological factors and the social environment influence an athlete’s physical and mental health. Essentially, it recognizes that athletes are also young adults. They can have a social life and take part in college experiences. Just because they excel in a sport doesn’t mean athletes don’t experience the same growing pains as other young adults. 

“When we get to this point of constantly idolizing these people, we hinder them from reaching their potential, not only as athletes, but as humans,” Vignovich says. 

Sports teams can also include counselors as members of their staff. Having mental health consultants as team members makes mental health services more accessible to coaches and athletes. 

How a university tackles mental health

Since transferring to Des Moines’s Drake University in 2019, Grace Berg—a graduate student women’s basketball player—has seen more of a focus on mental health. Last summer, Kayla Bell, the director of Drake’s Counseling Center, spoke to the team about breaking down the mental health stigma and building team camaraderie. Berg says it was a great way to “get the conversation going.” In the last few years the team has also implemented mental health advocates, which are two players that people can go to talk about any problems or get advice.

Berg has learned that just talking about her issues and not letting them build up is important. 

“Things happen, and that’s life. Even if you don’t go to therapy, just having [an] accountability buddy, someone you can talk to that you trust [helps,]” Berg says. “Just finding different communities is super, super important and impactful.”

While there isn’t a direct correlation to performance, the Drake women’s basketball team did win back-to-back Missouri Valley Conference regular season titles and the Hoops of the Heartland Conference Tournament Championships, landing them a spot in this year’s NCAA Tournament. If there was more research put into sports psychology, though, it might be easier to say one directly impacts the other. As it stands, according to Vignovich, gaps exist. The solution? Put more funding into the field.

“I think if we can just put more mental health resources in people’s hands, make them accessible, make it not so much of a barrier to get to them, I think it’d be huge,” Vignovich says. “Even the volleyball club I work with, all those kids get access to me and it’s helped them. However, they still have to be able to pay to go to the volleyball club.”

She thinks it’d be amazing if every college had trained mental health professionals accessible to athletes. Only then would female athletes have the tools they need to cope with challenges that take place during and after a game. Regardless of whether they are breaking attendance records or engaging with people on social media, the pressure to perform will continue to rise. And mental health resources might be the answer to achieve success. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *