Due to the pressure to be the best, meet a certain weight or achieve a certain level of body fat, athletes are at an increased risk of developing eating disorders. Whether or not an eating disorder develops is dependent on many things. However, a coach often plays a leading role in this process: in a way that can either encourage or discourage an eating disorder. Are you a coach concerned about creating a culture of restrictive eating and unsafe dieting practices? Being aware of this potential is an important first step. Here are some tips to prevent eating disorders in the athletes you work with every day.
1. First it is important to recognize that eating disorder behaviors are serious. The leading causes of death for people with eating disorders are cardiac arrest and suicide, so observing unsafe behaviors is not something to be ignored.
2. If you notice an athlete is chronically dieting or makes comments about restricting food, refer them to a health professional with eating disorder expertise. This might be a physician, therapist, psychiatrist or dietitian. Early detection increases the likelihood of success.
3. One of the best things you can do is to de-emphasize the importance of the number on the scale. Even if you have a number in your mind that you think is the goal, research shows that athletes who lose weight or drop body fat will not necessarily improve performance. Instead of focusing on weight, focus on controllable factors, such as performance in strength and physical conditioning or strengthening mental conditioning. Performance should be your main outcome when assessing success....not weight.
4. Educate yourself, other coaches and trainers to recognize the signs and symptoms of eating disorders. Then learn who you can refer to.
5. Provide your athletes with accurate information regarding weight, weight loss, body composition, nutrition and sports performance. If you don't know what is evidenced-base advice on these topics, it is time to bring in someone who does. Find health professionals in your area that specialize in eating disorders. Misinformation and unhealthy advice can start someone down the path toward disordered eating.
6. Emphasize the health RISKS of a weight that is too low. Many female athletes believe that the absence of a period equals success as an athlete. This is an incorrect and dangerous belief.
7. Understand that weight is a sensitive and personal issue for both women and men. Eliminate derogatory comments or behaviors about weight both in front of the team and individually to athletes. Any concern about weight should be referred to and addressed by a qualified health professional. Do not, under any circumstances, weigh athletes - especially in front of their teammates. There is no reason that you, as a coach, should be doing this.
8. Should you determine that an athlete has an eating problem, do not automatically prevent them from participating in the sport. Consult with the medical team to determine whether this is a good idea.
9. Explore your own thoughts and values regarding eating, weight, dieting, body composition and body image. How might be you projecting those thoughts and values your athletes?
For more information visit: www.NationalEatingDisorders.org
Source: Kratina, K. Tips for Coaches: Preventing Eating Disorders in Athletes. 2005 National Eating Disorders Association.