The Importance of Social Support to the Triathlete

Group of D3 triathletes standing with Coach Mike Ricci
April 29, 2024

George Epley


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Team coordination and group support are the foundations for maximizing performance in many sports, such as football, baseball, and soccer. We often hear the terms like it took a team effort to win or the team did not perform at their best when addressing a loss.  However, as a triathlete, I understand that many of us choose to function as individuals in training and racing, with performance outcomes resting on our shoulders, never experiencing a team environment. The lack of a team environment or social support can make it difficult for us to cope with issues such as injury, burnout, poor performance, lack of sports education, and negative emotions. Research has shown that a positive social support network provided by coaches, peers, friends, and family has been identified as a valuable resource to us. Friends, family, and coaches can provide emotional support and encouragement, helping us maintain a positive mindset and resilience in the face of challenges. This caring support network can have a beneficial effect on our emotions and behaviors.

Sports psychologists, with their expertise in understanding the psychological aspects of sports, provide four primary parameters for defining positive social support for triathletes: emotional support, esteem support, informational support, and tangible support. Emotional support is when the athlete knows they are well cared for. This could come from a coach or family member, giving the athlete the sense that someone has their back and is there to support them. Esteem support reinforces and encourages the athlete’s sense of confidence. A coach can play a vital role in building an athlete’s self-confidence, pointing out the gains in training, or encouraging them to trust their training and hard work. Information and educational support providing guidance and advice. Some examples are training camps and sports-specific conferences with experienced coaches.  Many athletes ask their peer group and coaching staff questions on the D3 Facebook page about their experiences on a racecourse or equipment selection. This is an excellent example of informational support. Lastly, tangible support. This could come from your equipment, bike mechanic, running shoe salesperson, or sponsorships or discounts on equipment.  

However, the athlete should know that not all social support is positive. A lack of sensitivity or empathy to an injury or misinformed training advice can be viewed as negative support. Damaging and hurtful comments and social media posts should also be considered negative support. Social media can be a double-edged sword, providing false and misleading information surrounding nutritional advice or training techniques, leading to negative consequences for the athlete.

One of the most challenging issues an athlete may have to address is an injury that prevents them from training or racing, which may lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety. A strong social support network can ease the stress and anxiety associated with an injury by providing emotional support and empathy to the athlete. Also, social support can motivate the athlete during rehabilitation and recovery. Remember this: the next time you hear a fellow athlete is injured, a well-meaning note or phone call may improve an athlete’s state of mind and well-being after an injury and aid in post-injury stress.

There are many great opportunities to strengthen your social support system. Volunteering at a race can give you a sense of gratification and may help you form new friends with similar interests. Joining a master’s swim team or a Saturday group ride are great options for strengthening your social network. Additionally, consider contacting fellow triathletes on online forums or social media platforms. The fact that you are reading this article makes you part of team D3, which is an excellent example of a social support network. An effective coach can play a vital role in an athlete’s social support network by providing technical and strategic knowledge regarding how athletes execute skills and techniques and providing a positive emotional environment that fosters motivation in the athlete.

Research shows that a positive social support system can play an important role in an athlete’s ability to achieve their goals.  Expanding your social support system may involve forming new peer groups and building new friendships, but the benefit is worth the effort. Triathlon often involves long hours of isolated training, but athletes can surround themselves with a positive support network that provides vital support and reassurance. So, when your race is over and you have refueled, head back to the racecourse, cheer on your fellow athletes, and be part of their social support system. It may mean more to them than you realize.

Coach Geroge Epley has a passion for knowledge and believes it’s the key to maximizing your potential. He keeps abreast of the latest scientific studies, always trying to find more efficient and validated means of coaching his athletes. Knowledge in the form of communication is just as important. The more he knows about his athletes and the sooner he knows of changes in circumstances, lifestyle, or training, the greater resource he can be.

Coach George is a USA Triathlon Level II Certified Coach, USA Triathlon Youth & Junior Elite Certified, USA Cycling Elite Level, USA Cycling Cyclocross Certified, ACSM – Certified Personal Trainer, MBSC – Certified Functional Strength Coach, Training Peaks Coach and WKO4 Certified

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