In many elite sports, it is considered common-place to manipulate one’s body weight and composition prior to a competition or tournament. This is typically achieved through a combination of acute and chronic practises which involve a state of negative energy balance and dehydration, commonly known as “drying out”. These strategies are typically employed by sports divided into weight categories such as boxing, wrestling, judo and taekwondo. Despite the common nature of these methods, weight regulation of these sorts has been found to have deleterious effects on health parameters through increasing cardiovascular and thermoregulatory strain, increasing the risk of infection, and attenuating mood as well as impairing sporting performance (Morton et al. 2010). For example, the data generated by Smith et al. (2001) provides evidence, albeit without significance, that acute carbohydrate restriction can reduce punch force during boxing. Their results show that under restricted food and fluid conditions, boxers produced a 4.6% reduced punch force output.
The rationale for undergoing rapid weight loss ensures that the athlete can compete in the lowest possible weight class, thus increasing their chances of success facing a smaller opponent. It is, therefore, speculated that this is an important component of an elite combat sport athlete’s mental preparation. However, this advantage is perhaps negated by the adverse physiological consequences associated with weight-making practises, such as dehydration or hypoglycaemia (Pettersson et al. 2012). Associated with this, mood states such as anger, fatigue, confusion, tension and vigour have been reported. Pettersson et al. (2012) propound the view that the combat sport athlete’s often experiences a multidimensional ‘fight’ whereby their sports nutritional needs are in direct conflict with their physiological needs and values other than those concurrent with the sport. That is, the conventional ideals of society and intrinsic demands of the specific sporting culture and body weight/appearance constitutes as a problematic balance.
The central role of nutrition in sport is to optimise sporting performance through the fuelling and enhancing the athlete’s recovery. However, Fletcher and Hanton’s (2003) findings lend support to the claim that nutrition frequently acts as a stressor to top level athletes as they mentioned “importance placed on diet”, “guilty feelings about food” and “poor provision of food” during their interviews. Although there has been relatively little research pertaining to weight related issues associated with combat sport athletes, Hall and Lane (2001) reported that boxers stated feeling angrier and suffering from lower vigour when in their final competitional preparation when at a low weight as compared to their natural weight. Further evidence supporting this claim may lie in the findings of Kristiansen et al. (2008) who stipulated that wrestlers considered weight control as being one of the most stressful aspects of their sport, but with a good routine and right focus then nutritional practises involved in weight loss were less stressful.
However, although extreme weight-making practises may be detrimental to the athlete’s mental and physiological health, Pettersson et al. (2013) have fostered debate that although the physical edge produced through weight regulation was considered important to combat sport athletes, the sense of belonging and other mentally benefiting effects experienced by athletes could offer some explanation of why these practises continue to be used. Furthermore, some athlete’s perceive the act of reaching their weight category limit to be a successful outcome in itself, lending itself to Nicholls’ (1989) achievement goal theory, whereby individuals demonstrate their competence and incompetence in achievement contexts. In this situation, the athletes may receive recognition from their teammates, as well as displaying their competence in being able to stick to their weight loss plans
Along similar lines, the concept of athletic identity construct can be used to explain the relationship between the athlete and the role they assume for themselves. As such, athletes may strive to take part in behaviours indicative to their sport as a means of showcasing superiority, boosting confidence and creating a perception of being a real athlete via their ability to endure extreme challenges and take risks (Coakley and Hughes, 2001). This idea can transcend into the ability to show superiority against their opponents, for example, an athlete will have physical evidence that they have battled hard to achieve their desired weight loss, and as a result, this is mediated into their surroundings as ‘mental toughness’. The advantages of this lie in research propounding that mentally tough people possess an augmented ability to focus, renewed determination and self-belief (Clough et al. 2002).
For now, it seems that weight regulation is so far embedded in the system that sport specific demands will continue to overrule the potential dangers. The only option is to provide quality nutritional education to the athletes and inform them of safer practises so that they might not need to restrict food and fluid intake or undergo dehydration techniques to excessive degrees. Another avenue worth exploring is to provide thorough psychological training and counselling as a means of finding alternative ways to attain their desired sporting identity (Pettersson et al. 2013). In addition to this, other investigators in the field have highlighted the advice of others close to the athlete such as family, friends, authority figures and accomplished athletes as playing a key role in influencing the behaviour of young athletes. However, it is essential for the nutrition counsellor to understand the complexity of weight-making practises, and investigate not only the determinants of the sport in hand but also the non-sport related areas of concern, thus allowing them to minimise possible stressors and make for a better-rounded athlete (Pettersson et al. 2012).