Public perceptions of an athlete are usually that they are fit, well-trained machines capable of accomplishing the impossible. When viewed either from a seat in a stadium or on the television, their honed bodies and muscles, which complete intricate and demanding moves are aspirational for many people. These types of physiques are cultivated over years of intense and specific training, focussed on producing the best outcome for a particular sport.
Disordered eating affects not only the general public, but also some athletes with statistics showing that females participating in aesthetic sports are more likely to be affected by this illness. It has been acknowledged as covering all aspects of abnormal eating patterns which in turn, can lead to clinical eating disorders (Sundgot-Borgen & Torstveit, 2010). Sports such as figure skating or gymnastics and also those where the apparel is revealing, for example, athletics or swimming have a pressured environment to look great when competing.
Sports which have a spotlight on the physical appearance of an athlete alongside the technical attainment are quite often early specialisation sports. This means that young children and adolescents grow-up within a sport environment and changing bodies are noticed. Puberty may also mean that technical aspects of their performance may start to falter (particularly in sports where jumping and rotation is key) which can be mentally difficult to cope with. Often these elements return, but some athletes may not, in the long term, cope psychologically with this, begin comparisons between team mates and start the downward spiral to overly-disciplined eating patterns.
Aspects which can lead an athlete to take such control over their dietary intake are a pressure to “fit in” with expectations within a sport, a need to gain control over an aspect of their life, technical elements which may be perceived to be easier with altered body weight, a perfectionist attitude or personality, negative self-image and low self-esteem. These are just a few issues which can lead to disordered eating patterns but their effects can be devastating both physically and psychologically.
Research has identified four risk factors:
Sport task: fear of being physically assessed, wearing specific uniform for the sport
Sport environment: comments from teammates, coaches, parents or judges
Biological characteristics: individuals metabolism and physical size
Psychological characteristic: self-esteem, body image, anxiety, stress levels
These can all combine to produce anxiety and stress and lead to abnormal eating behaviours. When this occurs it can lead to a lack of focus from the performing athlete and completion of technical elements compromised, thus possibly leading to injury. Recovery times can vary depending on the injury sustained and therefore can heighten anxiety and the need to have control over some aspect leading to further eating issues.
When an participant is experiencing problems with their diet over an extended period of time, it can lead to other issues such as:
- Reduction in bone strength
- Reduced cognitive functioning
- Reduced menstruation in females (NCAA, 2008)
- Negative self-perception / self-image
- Emotional issues / mood swings
- Heightened anxiety and stress levels
- Secrecy and isolation
- Reduction in energy intake
- Lack of progression in the sport / leaving the sport
There is responsibility to all involved within a sport to be open about this issue and to recognise signs where disordered eating could become a problem. Recommendations to help combat negative perceptions towards food and dietary intakes are:
- Coaches need to be open regarding this issue and be positive when addressing athletes, never critical (Muscat & Long, 2008). Remove the focus on physical appearances (looking good) and reinforce building strength, power and endurance relevant to the sport. Never criticise a person for their weight or physical appearance as everyone is an individual.
- Realise that people who experience this are not seeking attention – providing support can help increase confidence
- Bring in psychological skills training to build confidence, self-esteem and mental toughness which are needed when competing.
- Support from parents, judges and coaches is invaluable to help build self-esteem, particularly with younger athletes.
- Introduce education regarding nutrition and the demands that sport places on the body: if there is a lack of energy intake then technical skills will become increasingly difficult to complete leading to a lack of progression.
- Make the athletes environment positive and an exciting place to be.
- Ensure that an athlete knows that their wellbeing and happiness are paramount.
- Older athletes and coaches should be positive role models for younger aspiring sports people.
- Refer people to the relevant professionals who can assess, diagnose, monitor and treat any athlete with an eating disorder.
American College of Sport Medicine (1997) Managing the female athlete triad [PDF]
Muscat, A. C. & Long, B. C. (2008) Critical comments about body shape anew weight: Disordered eating of female athletes and sport participants. V20 (1), 1-24
NCAA Coaches Handbook (2008) Managing the female athlete triad [http://www.femaleathletetriad.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/NCAA-Managing-the-Female-Athlete-Triad.pdf]
Sundgot-Borgen, J. & Torstveit, M. K. (2010) Aspects of disordered eating continuum inn elite high-intensity sports. V20, 112-121
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About Dannielle Starkie
FdSc Sports Science graduate, ex-British champion & international figure skater.