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19 April 2017

How dating apps and Instagram became the unlikely tools for improving sporting performance

If players are hooking up on Tinder rather than in bars, that might have an advantage - they'll drink less and get more sleep. 

By Ed Smith

“Lager or bitter?” That was the question every player was asked at the end of play when I started out as a professional cricketer. Protein shakes and vegetable juices weren’t on the menu. In the good times, players drank to celebrate; in the bad times, they drank to forget. Professional sport still drew its motifs from macho working culture, and the ideal that was pushed on young players was to live hard and compete hard. “Man at night, man in the morning,” one coach used to tell us.

During my career, from 1996 to 2008, player lifestyle underwent huge changes. In 1996 about half the team smoked, many drank heavily, few visited the gym (except under duress) and excessive attention to body image was distrusted as unmanly – or “gay”. The important conversations happened in pubs, curry houses, nightclubs. If you didn’t like those places, you positioned yourself outside the inner circle. It was a risk: to stay in the team, you had to get more runs than a more sociable drinker.

That culture is now often remembered with nostalgia – when players talked cricket over a drink and hard-earned truths were passed on to the next generation – and there is some truth in that convivial narrative. But it’s also true that the old conventions were set up to make company for near-alcoholics. Drinkers like someone to drink with.

Here is the central point. In the 1990s, “laddish” (that is, approved) behaviour was generally bundled together: the players who drank heavily and stayed out late were usually also the philanderers. Act I, boozy and communal, might (or might not) develop into Act II.

By 2008, however, the two categories – drinking and sex – were separating, and perhaps even becoming inversely correlated. Sex was increasingly being arranged privately, by text message. At the end of a game, young players didn’t rush to the pub. Instead, they longed to be reunited with their phones. It was the older players who persisted with the communality of the bar. For the emerging generation, hooking up had gone digital. Alcohol, with its public spaces and implied sociality (and, crucially, its tiring late nights) was being circumnavigated.

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A second theme reinforced the trend. The gym and physio’s room were replacing the bar as the focal points of team news. Players worked out together, usually with their phones next to the weights machine. Gossip and storytelling happened between reps, as they used to happen between rounds.

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It’s easy to forget that, until quite recently, there was only a moderate overlap between gym culture and professional sports. Practitioners of disciplines in which extreme fitness has always been essential – say, boxing – arrived at honed bodies by default. Yet even in aerobic sports such as football many players did not have ­ultra-conditioned bodies. When you watch sports footage from just a few decades ago, the striking thing is how many players look out of shape.

Now the sculpted body is a kind of luxury good, professional sport being both the beneficiary and an agent of this new entanglement of fitness with status. Elite sport and the ultra-gym have converged, with social media acting as the catalyst. What started out as an element of fringe gay culture in San Francisco has become ubiquitous and global: it has become cool to be in great shape. And when your job is in professional sport, narcissism has its benefits.

Athletes have relished sexualising and commodifying themselves for PR. The footballer Cristiano Ronaldo reportedly has a personal hairstylist, make-up artist, masseur and moisturiser – all allowed inside the dressing room, once the inner sanctum of blokeishness. Instead of “Fancy a beer, Cris?” a young player hoping to get closer to the superstar would be better advised to recommend a new shade of tinted moisturiser. Rather than a team bath followed by eight pints, it’s now an eight-pack abs workout and a selfie of a hairless torso posted on Instagram. Athletes make a lot of their money this way: brands encourage their players to connect directly with fans on social media.

It’s easy to mock digital narcissism, but there is one professional group applauding: coaches. An article for ESPN by the American sportswriter Tom Haberstroh has got those working in professional sports talking about this theme: the “Tinderisation” of today’s National Basketball Association. The phrase was coined, apparently approvingly, by the general manager of an NBA team: “Like the dating app. No need to go to the clubs all night any more.” Apps have done for sex in the NBA, Haberstroh reports, “what Amazon has done for books. One no longer needs to leave home to find a party. The party now comes to you.”

In the age of dating apps, players estimate that they are getting two extra hours of sleep a night on road trips before away games (in the past, this was when players across all sports lived hardest). Drinking less and sleeping more seem to be helping their on-court performance. In 1987-88, which was near the high-water mark of the hard-living lifestyle, away teams won 32 per cent of NBA matches. This season, away teams are winning about 43 per cent. From a management perspective, Tinder beats nightclubbing hands down.

I dislike smartphones, as I wrote here in February. Beyond a broad antipathy, there are specific concerns about dating apps. A growing body of evidence suggests that a dating culture dominated by split-second yes/no “screen swipes” (and all the quantification that follows) works against fulfilling relationships. So I can’t completely follow the morally neutral – or professionally pragmatic – position of the NBA managers. Besides, coaches will revise their endorsement of sport’s Tinderisation when a new type of ailment starts to hit their players: the repetitive strain injury called “Tinder finger”. Where’s the data on that?

This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue