Friday, November 20, 2009

Athletes and Eating Disorders: Discussing the unique issues surrounding athletes with eating disorders.

When we think of athletes, typically we envision individuals who strive to maintain a healthy body. However, there are those athletes who take weight control and physical appearance to extremes and develop eating disorders as a result. It is important that we as parents, coaches, teachers and teammates are able to recognize the issue and provide support for the athlete as they work to overcome their eating disorder.

A variety of factors put an athlete at risk for developing an eating disorder, including: outside pressure to keep up athletic abilities, maintaining a healthy weight for optimal performance, and the type of sport (individual vs. team, and whether or not it focuses on physical appearance). The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) lists some risk factors here.

Coaches and parents should be aware of symptoms of eating disorders, such as having an intense fear of gaining weight, refusal to maintain a minimally healthy weight, believing that simply weighing less results in improved athletic performance, and increased exercise or obsession with exercise. More symptoms can be found on the NEDA's Web site. Anytime an athlete exhibits these signs, it is important to take immediate action before any severe physical damage occurs.

When assisting an athlete with an eating disorder, start by addressing the athlete's feelings first. These emotions can range from feeling lonely, isolated, and depressed, to feeling overly pressured to excel in athletic performance and setting unrealistic expectations for themselves. Athletes should have a safe environment in which they feel comfortable talking about pressures related to weight and performance, their self-image, and their self-esteem or perceived ability to perform well.

Being proactive in the prevention of disorders is essential, as it can help reduce their occurrence. Remember that talking about eating disorders does not necessarily mean an athlete will develop one. Take time to educate your athlete about the risks of an eating disorder and emphasize the importance of maintaining a healthy body for athletic competition. With these steps, hopefully the athletes you work with will develop a well-grounded view of what it means to be a healthy athlete.

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