The benefits of sport are well recognized: organized athletics builds self-esteem, promotes physical conditioning, enhances skills, teaches the value of teamwork and sets a foundation for lifelong physical activity. Athletic competition, however, can also cause severe psychological and physical stress that is amplified in individuals struggling with anxiety, depression, and perfectionism. When the pressures of sport competition are added to cultural ideals that emphasize thinness or a certain body type, the risks increase for athletes to develop disordered eating (irregularities in eating patterns and behaviors that may or may not develop into an eating disorder). Be mindful of your messaging, your athletes’ behaviors, and keep the following tips in mind.
1. Take warning signs and eating disordered behaviors seriously! Cardiac arrest and suicide are the leading causes of death for people with eating disorders.
2. If an athlete is chronically dieting or exhibits mildly abnormal eating, refer her or him to a health professional with eating disorder expertise. Early detection increases the likelihood of successful treatment; left untreated the problem may progress to an eating disorder.
3. De-emphasize weight by not weighing athletes and eliminate comments about weight. Instead, focus on other areas in which athletes can improve performance. For example, focus on strength and physical conditioning, as well as the mental and emotional components of performance.
4. Don’t assume that reducing body fat or weight will enhance performance. While it may lead to improved performance, studies show this does not apply to all athletes. It is not uncommon for individuals attempting to lose weight to develop eating-disorder symptoms, which can physically weaken the athlete. Performance should not be at the expense of the athlete’s health.
5. Instruct coaches and trainers to recognize signs and symptoms of eating disorders, (weight loss, fatigue, over-training, refusal to eat with the team, frequent injuries, etc.) and understand their role in prevention. Eating-disordered individuals often hide their symptoms out of shame and embarrassment.
6. Provide athletes with accurate information regarding weight, weight loss, body composition, nutrition, and sports performance to reduce misinformation and to challenge unhealthy practices.
7. Emphasize the health risks of low weight, especially for female athletes with menstrual irregularities or amenorrhea. Risks include low bone density, lowering of immunity and auto-immune illnesses. The athlete should be referred for medical assessments in these cases.
8. Understand why weight is such a sensitive and personal issue for many women. Eliminate derogatory comments or behaviors about weight—no matter how slight. Celebrate the athlete for talents and strengths beyond the physical; work on developing body, mind and spirit. If there is concern about an athlete’s weight, the athlete should be referred for an assessment to a professional skilled in diagnosing and treating eating disorders.
9. Do not automatically curtail athletic participation if an athlete is found to have eating problems, unless warranted by a medical condition. Consider the athlete’s health, physical and emotional safety, and self-image when making decisions regarding an athlete’s level of participation in his/her sport.
10. It is essential for coaches and trainers to explore their own values and attitudes regarding weight, dieting, and body image, and how their values and attitudes may inadvertently affect their athletes. They should understand their role in promoting a positive self-image and self-esteem in their athletes. Remember, if athletes do not take care of their bodies, they risk losing their athletic careers at a very young age.
Karin Kratina, PhD, MPE, RD, LD