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Understanding Eating Disorders Within Athletes

Understanding Eating Disorders Within Athletes

Being an athlete is not easy and challenges each individual on different levels. When struggling with an eating disorder as an athlete it can become very challenging, especially when coaches or athletic trainers don’t understand what you are going through or what may trigger you or your thoughts.

Sports Range From:

  • Swimming
  • Soccer
  • Football
  • Baseball/Softball
  • Tennis
  • Track and Field/Cross Country
  • Karate
  • More

Others to consider that have HIGH correlation with EDs:

  • Dance
  • Gymnastics
  • Cheer
  • Wrestling/boxing- which requires an individual to usually cut a significant amount of weight to fight/compete in certain division, weight class
  • Body Building
  • Volleyball
  • Figure Skating

Coaches and Trainers:
When creating an environment focused on weight, appearance, and focusing so much on the “win” it can become difficult for individuals who may be struggling with eating disorders. This can build a toxic relationship within the sport they’re playing because they are wanting to be the best. If you as a coach or trainer are telling these athletes they need to weigh “this”, or you have to look a certain way, that can cause negative thoughts and feelings for someone in recovery.

Comments/Feelings They Take Home: 

  • Shameful/Uncomfortable
  • Embarrassed
  • Mad
  • Sad
  • Hurt
  • Triggered
  • ‘Not good enough’ perfectionistic vs. growth mindset
  • He/She is better than me because they’re this ‘weight’

Boundaries/Teaching moments:

  • If someone says no to checking weight, respect their request. (If weight is mandatory, have doctor/dietitian send it over if needed)
  • If someone is making comments about someone else's weight or body image, as coaches/trainers, you can navigate discussing comments as a whole with individuals in various ways.
  • Leading/supporting the team with healthy attitudes towards size and shape
  • Being compassionate and understanding
  • Learning how to touch on health outcomes without being focused solely on weight/body
  • Saying something may be shaming/harsh on an individual, so pulling individual aside and educating them on why this is problematic
  • Physical injury vs. ED which is a metabolic injury, (Dr. Nickols, iaedp 2022)
  • Ways coaches can mention/speak on the importance of nutrition
  • Not being calorie focused
  • Being positive around ALL foods
  • Not shaming/ criticizing for food choices
  • Being knowledgeable of the benefits of each and all macronutrients and micronutrients (meeting with a dietitian, sports dietitian, eating disorder dietitian, etc. to build the knowledge around nutrition/food)

What can coaches look out for in players potentially struggling with eating disorders:
On the NEDA website, they provide incredible resources for coaches and a great tool kit for you to use as well when leading your team/your players! Check it out because it reviews both the risk AND protective factors when working with or looking out for people who have an ED which is vital.

Things to look/for potential red flags for the coach, family, or team:

  • Going above and beyond what the coach or team instructor outlines for them
  • Working out when not adequately fueled
  • Not listening to their body/training through pain/sickness/injury
  • Feeling anxious or guilty for missing a workout
  • Not taking rest days
  • Prioritizing exercise over family, work obligations, etc and displaying emotional distress if exercise in impeded on
  • Body image distress
  • Comparing self to others (Dr. Nickols, iaedp 2022)

How Do We Connect Providers and The Sports Industry:

  • As coaches/athletic trainers/directors, you can start small to make a huge difference
  • Identify a provider who is knowledgeable about eating disorders and athletes (medical team, dietitian, therapist, etc.) and invite them to come connect/educate you and your team
  • Consider having a registered dietitian with specific knowledge/background on ED support come and chat with the team about the importance of nourishing their body with all sorts of foods
  • Check in with the language you use with your team around food, body, weight
  • Identify ways you can focus on outcomes without correlating performance to weight/thinness/dieting
  • Talk to your team about EDs and have an open door policy (come and share what is going on with ANY mental health struggle- ED also includes others struggles likes depression, anxiety, etc. so let’s start the conversation around mental health being important just as physical health is)

As a coach if you don’t have a dietitian or therapist who is educated in eating disorders, at Sinnergy we have an amazing group of providers that are here to help! Check out our team:

Here is a great link to Riley Nickols, Ph.D., CEDS Eating Disorders in Athletes:

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October 4, 2022
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