Protect your athlete – Body image perceptions and consequences1 Opinion
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Tags:AnxietyBody dysmorphic disorderEating DisordersFeaturedPsychology of SportSport PsychologySports Psychology
About Leah Moore
Leah holds a Master degree specialising in Sport Psychology from Brunel University. She works as a Wellbeing Coach and Personal Trainer in the corporate sector in Dublin, Ireland, while she also works with teams on Sport Psychology
Anxiety surrounding body image and exercise is related to muscle gain, weight control and attractiveness leading to the question “Does this manifest in sport?” In short, yes it does, while athletes and coaches should be aware that personal sporting identity and body image are vulnerable to damage due to a perceived failure to meet the ideal body shape and physical self worth (Jones, Glintmeyer & McKenzie, 2005). This is developed though four forms of physical self-perception:
1) Perception of physical fitness
2) Perceptions of body attractiveness
3) Perceptions of physical strength
4) Perceptions of sport competence. (Fox & Corbin, 1999).
Although research does state that athletes are happier and more comfortable with their body image, anxiety increases with pressure to conform to leanness and muscularity or an aesthetic athletic ideal, which are socially correlated with athletic ability.
Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is important when dealing with athletes’ body perceptions as it engenders an excessive pre-occupation with an imagined or small bodily imperfection in the hope of improving body image (Alfano et al., 2011). To correctly monitor the evaluation of body image it is important to note how it varies between gender, with females more concerned with fatness, while males focus on the level of muscularity (Grieve et al., 2006; Alfano et al., 2011).
This often materializes in females through the checking of reflections to evaluate the degree of self-perceived fatness in clothing, while males evaluate the degree to which muscles protrude form clothing.However, female athletes, particularly elite and power-based athletes, resemble males in body checking for muscularity (Alfano et al., 2011).Yet male power athletes are distinct in interpreting the ideal body shape as 25 pounds more muscle and 8 pounds less body fat (Olivardia et al., 2004).
It is essential for coaches and support staff to maintain a positive and open relationship in order to identify these incorrect perceptions of muscle and body fat percentage in athletes, as extreme diets result in a very high prevalence of injuries among athletes. Eating as a pre-requisite to leanness engenders manipulating diets through an initial anabolic or muscle building phase through high food consumption. Consequently a catabolic phase follows which reduces fat and increases muscle distribution due to a diet restricted below normal energy maintenance levels thus increasing the body’s susceptibility to injury. (Caffri et al., 2005). Furthermore women are more inclined to engage in severe weight loss behaviours such as purging, fasting and use of diuretics and laxatives.
Coaches, support staff and athletes must be aware that traits of BDD resemble traits of disordered eating in sport, as individuals desire their appearance to reflect an athletic aesthetic model as outlined by society (Pavan et al., 2008).
In support, Ruffolo and collegues (2005) reported that 35% of those reporting BDD also suffered from eating disorders, 61.3% of which developed BDD before the onset of the eating disorder.
So, what sports is this most prevalent? Individual and weight class sports are predictors of disordered eating through an increase in anxiety, weight reducing diets, body weight measurment; and a decrease in self-regard and body satisfaction. As such disordered eating may be easily exacerbated through body image and BDD in the excessive drive to create an aesthetic athletic body shape. However this is rarely observed in team sports such as basketball as portrayed through research using the Eating Attitudes Test in Michou & Costarelli (2011).
To identify BDD and subsequent disordered eating it is important to be aware of the prevalence of athlete low self-esteem regarding the close relationship between performance and subsequent attention toward athletic appearance. The highly evaluative envornment of sport training and competition induces poor self-image from which an alteration in body image would improve the value of self-evaluations (Patterson et al., 2001). So for coaches, support staff and athletes alike, it is evident that body image is quite complex with serious side effects resulting in possible disordered eating which can cause decreased performance or injury. Therefore coaches, athletes and support staff should monitor stress levels, obsessive compulsive and repetitive behaviours of athletes to prevent initial BDD and subsequent eating disorders.