How Kelly Cheng deals with trolls on social media – NBC Los Angeles

Kelly Cheng tries to deflect criticism on social media the same way she would a volleyball thrown in her direction: by blocking it.

But sometimes, like a ball occasionally evading the outstretched arms of Team USA’s 6-foot-2 volleyball star, the negativity ends up in the sand.

“Those words hit me like knives when I listen to them and let them run their course,” Cheng said on an episode of “My New Favorite Olympian.”

Many professional athletes are subjected to insensitive and unwarranted abuse on social media, making scrolling through their mentions and DMs a torturous exercise on their mental health.

Cheng, a 27-year-old from California, said she has been targeted for everything from her religion to her body and her playing style.

“Everyone gets ripped online, but I’ve had death threats on Instagram,” she said. “They send me messages like, ‘I hope your plane crashes on the way home.’ Like, “I hope your whole family dies.” I’m like, ‘Wow!’”

Such hateful words, whether on social media or from a spectator just a few feet away, can affect performance, even for those competing on the sport’s most global stage.

“If it gets too fast, I can’t stop the train,” Kelly Cheng said.

“When I read that, I let it in,” she said. “So that really fuels the negative self-talk, because then that negative voice in my head starts repeating the things I’ve read, and I don’t need to give it any more ammunition. My internal negative voice already has enough ammunition, I don’t need any more to give.”

The ammunition occasionally comes from friendly fire, as a self-criticism that changes her mentality during the competition. Even in moments of success.

Cheng teamed with Sara Hughes in October to capture the United States’ first volleyball world championship since 2009. The win cemented their status as contenders at the 2024 Olympics in Paris, where the U.S. is trying to capture its fifth golden meal in six Games.

It will be the second appearance at the Games for Cheng and Hughes after finishing ninth at the Tokyo Olympics, where they became the youngest duo to ever represent Team USA in beach volleyball.

“Every match, every point, every touch felt like life or death,” Cheng said of her Olympic mentality. “I was mentally and physically stressed.”

Every moment and mistake was magnified in her mind. That pressure caused what she called “negative self-talk.”

“Sometimes when I’m so negative, it almost feels like a train is coming towards me,” she said. “And if it gets too fast, I can’t stop the train.”

To slow the train down, Cheng learned to clear her mind. That meant not reading comments on social media and volleyball forums, and learning how to ignore the crowd and her own negativity.

She began working with a sports psychologist to replace her “negative self-talk” with “neutral self-talk.”

“I push all those thoughts away and return to neutral self-talk,” she said. “Like, ‘Okay, next ball I’m going to stand there with my feet.’ Or, “I’m going to stretch my arms out early.” It’s like: be small if I’m going to do task-oriented communication with myself. And that’s how Sara and I communicate with each other. And that helped me enormously.”

In turn, Cheng has become super helpful to young volleyball players by starting a program called Beach Mentorship Camp.

NBC Sports’ Senior Olympics Editor Nick Zaccardi explains what Kelly Cheng should do to excite fans at the Paris Olympics.

Each January, eight teenage girls are paired with professional volleyball players in California for three days of mentorship on and off the sand. Mentors are asked to continue investing in their mentee after the program, as Cheng did with her first protégé, Grace Hong, who is now a beach volleyball player at the University of Southern California.

“I could go to her with anything,” Hong said on “My New Favorite Olympian.”

“I could go to her with something that had nothing to do with volleyball, and she would give you the best advice in the world. It’s like she has the ultimate knowledge about everything.

For Cheng, Hong has gone from mentee to sister — and perhaps one day, to a fellow Olympian.

“What if my last Olympic run is her first Olympic run?” Cheng asked. “Moments like these are so special… And they wouldn’t happen if we didn’t work hard for them now.”

Cheng was interviewed for My New Favorite Olympian, a series that tells the stories of Team USA’s most inspiring athletes and the causes they champion. Subscribe to My New Favorite Olympian wherever you get your podcasts.

Check out the second episode of the My New Favorite Olympian series, where you’ll meet some of Team USA’s most inspiring athletes.