“My high school coach told me I was too heavy and needed to lose 10 pounds before the season.”
“I didn’t look like my teammates, so I thought something was wrong with me.”
Do you or someone you know express similar sentiments? The above statements are a few of the many I have heard while working with athletes in the GOALS Program at Walden. Whether an athlete is faced with external pressures, is involved in an aesthetic or weight class sport, or is conforming to the norm of their sport culture, athletes face complex risk factors associated with increased body image concerns. It is important to understand that eating disorders and negative body image are not caused by one sole risk factor, but rather a compilation of many challenges that athletes face.
Risk factors that may increase an athlete’s body image concerns include:
- Team/sports culture and “sport body stereotypes”
- Weight metrics
- Weigh-ins, BMI tracking
- Normalization of disordered eating and extreme training
- Relationships with coaches
- Fear of not playing or not making it into the lineup
- Verbal statements that one is not the proper body type to play their sport
- Uniform pressures
- Revealing uniforms, sexualization
Each of the above risk factors may negatively impact an athlete’s body image and cause them to manipulate their body through disordered eating or excessive exercise in hopes to perform better or meet the needs of their sport culture.
Protective factors that may help reduce an athlete’s body image concerns include:
- Relationships with coaches
- Coaches who understand the needs of their athletes to both improve their performance and maintain proper health
- Supportive family and friends
- Being on a team
A Double-Edged Sword
While there are distinct risk and protective factors that may improve or negatively affect an athlete’s body image, many protective factors can also serve as risk factors. Many athletes identify as being committed and tough, willing to push through the pain in the pursuit of excellence. These traits often serve as protective factors for athletes who want to become better at their sport; however, they can quickly become risk factors that justify manipulating their body through unhealthful practices and behaviors. Being committed, tough, and in the pursuit of excellence can turn into asceticism, perfectionism, and denial, which can cause disordered eating due to the need to please their coach and having the belief that weight manipulation would improve performance (Steward, Kilpela, Becker, & Wesley, 2015). When working with athletes as a provider, a friend, or a loved one, it is important to understand the motive behind one’s behavior.
Is the athlete trying to lose weight because their coach told them they would start? Or because their physician said it would benefit their health?
Is the athlete overtraining to lose weight and “look like an athlete?” Or is the athlete trying to improve their skills?
Protective factors such as coaches, family, friends, and being on a team are only as protective as the messages that come from them. Family and friends can claim to be the athletes “#1 fan” and can unintentionally make comments that trigger body image concerns for the athlete: “you’re in season, are you sure you want to eat that? It’ll go right to your thighs.” Similarly, the idea of being on a team and having great social connections can turn into a competition within the team. Who has the lowest BMI? Who has the flattest stomach? The above messages have the potential to negatively impact the way an athlete views themselves.
It is important that we educate ourselves in regard to what can serve as protective factors for athletes and body image versus those that can serve as risk factors. If you notice an athlete beginning to manipulate their body and/or practicing other eating disordered thoughts/behaviors, we can be a resource to guide them through. The interdisciplinary team of the Walden GOALS Program consists of former athletes who understand the unique pressures that athletes face.
Dara Spital, BA, MA is the primary clinician for the GOALS Program at Walden’s Hickory Drive Clinic in Waltham, Mass. As an All-American soccer player at Brandeis University and as a prior Division I NCAA athlete, Dara understands the pressures of being a competitive athlete. These years taught her a high level of commitment to all of the dimensions of a team sport. In addition, Dara navigated her third ACL tear as a freshman and worked through the recovery process, allowing her to fully understand the psychological component of athletic injury. Her passion for helping others, combined with her love of sport and previous experiences, led to her pursuit of a Master’s Degree in Counseling, with a concentration in Sport Psychology at Boston University. While attending BU, Dara developed clinical and sport consulting skills. Dara previously worked as a Community Residence Counselor at McLean Hospital. This dual interest has allowed her to work with eating disorder patients inside and outside of sport. She blends a skills-based approach with traditional clinical psychology frameworks to support a recovery process marked by resilience, optimism, and balanced living.