Player sidesteps dangerous trap of social media

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Nik Stauskas had a pretty rotten afternoon on Sunday. When he boarded the team bus, it got worse.

The Michigan sharpshooter, who gained an Internet following with his YouTube video where he hit 45 of 50 3-pointers outside his Canada home, did not make any 3-pointers in Michigan's loss to Ohio State. The Wolverines, undefeated on the season to that point, lost by –what else – three points. Stauskas, who has been a revelation this season in hitting more than 50 percent of his treys, played 23 minutes and didn't score.

Then he boarded the team bus back home and checked Twitter. He scrolled through his messages and found nearly two dozen negative comments directed at him, telling him he didn't show up when the team needed him. After a few seconds, he had to stop.

But first he sent his own tweet:

Then he shut off Twitter for the rest of the day.

It wasn't intentional, but Stauskas actually provided a perfect example of preventing something called "social contagion." It's a relatively new phenomenon in which feelings expressed on social media (or through email) are internalized by the person receiving them. Translation: When Stauskas checked his Twitter account, it was like inviting dozens of critics onto the team bus and giving them all megaphones. The negativity seeps in quickly. In fact, it's possible social media is even more powerful than face-to-face negativity because 15 criticisms against zero positive tweets seems like a chorus of rejection.

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And while an opposing arena can contain thousands of loud jeers and a few choice comments about your mother, Twitter allows a fan a direct line of communication to the player. And when a long list of people think you can't shoot straight, it's hard not to think, "Does everyone feel this way?" Stauskas even wondered who his assailants were.

"I was kind of surprised these were Michigan fans," he said Monday.

This drives coaches nuts. They try every day to quiet the voices in an athlete's head, and Twitter gives everyone a voice. How can a coach compete with a world of anonymous "experts" telling a player to shoot more, shoot less, shoot threes, shoot mid-range jumpers, etc.

"The downside," says Michigan coach John Beilein, "is that not all followers will be with you through thick and thin."

LeBron James didn't tweet at all during the NBA playoffs last year, and perhaps it's no coincidence he shed his choking reputation.

Stauskas says his greatest temptation was to explain himself. There were, after all, good reasons for his subpar performance. But he quickly realized that was a trap to avoid, if for no other reason than it would give other teams a digital blueprint on how to get him off his game. Never mind the fact that fans on Twitter probably don't want to hear his side of the story. "If you start to explain yourself," Stauskas says, "you kind of look stupid yourself."

A lot of coaches and administrators would rather college athletes not be on Twitter at all. The psychology of a teenager (Stauskas, 19, is a freshman) can be wobbly to begin with, and the advantages (interacting with fans and friends) are far outweighed by the perils (any number of horrendous outcomes).

The most subtle problem, though, is the contagion effect, which can put all sorts of disruptive thoughts in a player's mind.

"What we are about is the people in the locker room and the people close to us," says Stauskas' teammate, Corey Person. "Fans are going to be your best friends when you win and walk away when you lose. The danger is you start to play for the fans instead of for the people in the locker room."

Michigan does not prevent student-athletes from using social media. But Beilein says "everybody" in the athletic department chimes in with advice on how to use Twitter and Facebook. Some players are even encouraged to have a friend vet a tweet before it's sent.

The best input, though, seems to come from teammates. "We have to make sure we say the right things on Twitter," says Person. "Once you hit the send button, it's out there forever."

Stauskas hit send, but his message was one of acknowledging the disappointment and putting it behind him. (Sounds like something a coach would say, right?) His tweet from the bus got a lot more words of encouragement than his bad performance got in the way of static. Stauskas' response set off a different kind of social contagion – the reassurance that lots of people out there in the Twittersphere believe in him.

"I use Twitter all the time, and this was the first time I've dealt with negative feedback," Stauskas says. "But to get 200 positive messages today, that was really nice to see."

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