Athletes are two to three times more susceptible to eating disorders than the general population.  And their eating disorders are often triggered by a few words from their coach.

Coaches can help their players by being aware that eating disorders are a potential problem and by approaching weight-related issues cautiously.  Coaches can also help their players by being educated on the subject; for example, most coaches are likely unaware that anorexia is the deadliest of all psychiatric illnesses.

Coaches need to recognize that telling an athlete he or she is overweight, and needs to lose weight can trigger or exacerbate an eating disorder; it is better to be supportive and to talk about “fitness” and “nutrition.”

Gymnast Christy Henrich developed anorexia after being told by a judge she needed to lose weight.  Gymnast Kathy Johnson developed anorexia after being criticized about her weight by a coach.  Ballet dancer Heidi Guenther was told by her ballet company that she needed to lose five pounds; she developed anorexia and died at age 22.

Coaches can help by approaching weight issues tactfully.  They should consider referring their athletes to a nutritionist, who can help them develop a healthy diet.  It may also benefit coaches to be aware of the symptoms of the most common eating disorders, including:

      • Anorexia, in which patients fear and avoid food.
      • Bulimia, in which patients binge on food and then purge, often by vomiting.
      • Binge-eating disorder, in which patients lose control over their eating habits and continue eating long after they are full.

Athletes need to be in top shape to compete effectively.  An athlete with an eating disorder will be unable to compete effectively, if at all.  It is in the coach’s best interest, almost as much as it is in the athlete’s best interest, to help prevent eating disorders.

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Dr. Stuart Koman

Stuart Koman, Ph.D. is President and CEO of Walden Behavioral Care and the nonprofit Walden Center for Education and Research, both in Waltham, Mass. He has 30 years of experience leading and developing behavioral healthcare companies.