In media interviews, it is not only negatively-oriented questions (i.e. questions about match-changing mistakes, private life indiscretions or controversies at the club) that can threaten an athlete’s image. The seemingly innocuous, positively-oriented questions after good performances also provide the potential for image damage.

The ones I’m talking about here are the questions-dressed-up-as-praise variety, the ‘you must be pleased with your performance tonight’ or the ‘how satisfying is it to score the winner’ type questions that athletes regularly need to field. These questions, when not dealt with well, can threaten an important value in professional sport – modesty.Steven Adams

While modesty is a value many sports players aim to signal, it is a particularly important one for New Zealand athletes. One New Zealand athlete who has had a few positively-oriented questions to deal with of late is Steven Adams. Oklahoma Thunder’s New Zealand born centre has become a sensation in the NBA, which has seen his profile develop in his native New Zealand and around the world. He has developed a reputation as a strong aggressive player, has generated a cult following (also driven by his distinctive moustache) and has received a considerable amount of praise from team mates, opponents and pundits.

Naturally, journalists are interested in what it means for him to live through this development. In a recent interview, at the end of the Western Conference playoffs, Steven Adams was asked to reflect on this state of affairs. Specifically, he was asked if he himself had a sense of how his stock, fame and people’s interest in him and the NBA had risen in his native New Zealand.

It appeared that he had a little bit of trouble finding the words initially to deal with the praise implied in this question. Typically, athletes will draw on well-weathered phrases that help them to deflect praise and reposition themselves as hard working, team-oriented players. However, these strategies are not always appropriate, particularly when the praise directed at an athlete is hard to deflect or deny. For Steven Adams, his stock has risen, he is more famous, and his progress has been followed religiously by the New Zealand (and global) media. For him to deny this could create associations of false modesty which can potentially threaten another positive value for professional athletes – authenticity.

What is needed in these situations are strategies that help to acknowledge success but to do so in ways that help the athlete to continue to present themselves modestly. It’s a complex skill, but there are a number of strategies athletes can employ to achieve this effect. How does Steven deal with it? Below is a transcript of his response to this question (but watch the video first).

Interviewer

  1. do you have a sense of how your stock has risen in New Zealand your fame and people’s interest in the NBA?

Steven Adams

  1. no- OH YES um + dude told me um
  2. yeah one of the fans came over and said ah that basketball + it’s just yeah the
  3. I’m not sure about the fame bit but like the um basketball is now becoming um really popular sport in New Zealand which is great which is really good
  4. cos then obviously a lot of things come out of it um get scholarships and stuff like that easy head start in life
  5. so that’s that’s why what I’m pushing so that’s the only thing I care about {nods}
  6. it’s good to see that progress

Firstly, he introduces a conversation with a fan, or unnamed ‘dude’, who is said to have broached the topic of his rise in New Zealand with him. While this may seem a bit arbitrary or out of place in response to the question, it is not a random utterance. By ascribing the comments of his impact in New Zealand to a fan (or dude), Steven is able to get a bit of personal distance from these positive assessments of his fame. Essentially, it is the fan who is evaluating his impact, and Steven is just reporting on it. This action helps him to softly acknowledge the hype raised by the journalist (an authenticity move) while at the same time manage the potential modesty threat that could come from personally accepting he is now a superstar in New Zealand.

He also carefully chooses what aspects of the question to acknowledge and which to avoid or redirect. In this case he avoids the idea of his rising ‘fame’ (a potential modesty threat), but aligns with the idea of his impact on basketball in New Zealand. By using the ‘I’m not sure about’ phrase, he respectfully acknowledges the possibility that others (i.e. those in the audience) might feel his fame level has risen (authenticity move), but disassociates himself with this idea (modesty move).

Finally, after acknowledging his emerging career has had an impact on basketball in New Zealand (authenticity move), he works to clearly outline what this means to him, leaving less room for alternative (and potentially less favourable) inferences to be made by members of the audience and media. This is where he more modestly addresses his impact. He doesn’t explicitly link his emerging career with the rise of basketball in New Zealand (line 3), but he strongly associates himself with the potential good the game of basketball can do for youth. He states that this is his primary concern in relation to any impact his career has on the basketball scene in New Zealand (lines 4 to 6), and this goal implies a star with positive intentions for the use of his status.

Balancing modesty and authenticity can prove challenging for professional athletes. They are both positive attributes, but they can sometimes be thrust into competition with each other by particular questions. Finding ways to acknowledge personal successes and simultaneously modify them so as to maintain a modest stance is a complex but important skill for professional athletes to acquire. The strategies outlined above – (re)attributing and distancing, selecting, redirecting and clarifying – are just some of the ways in which this can be negotiated.

When the message is important, you need a greater awareness of the tools. Reactive Sports Media can help prepare your athletes with communication skills for the difficult world of public presentation.

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