Monday, October 26, 2015

Athletes and Eating Disorders- Retired Athlete Problems

Throughout my athletic career I'd go straight to practice from class, quickly changing in a bathroom or in the car so I wouldn't be late. When I was 15, my volleyball club would track our weight and body fat percentages on a weekly basis before practice, which means Mondays were extra tight on time. One Monday traffic was particularly bad, and I ran into the bathroom to change in the farthest handicapped stall and saw some poor sick girl puking in the toilet. I felt for her, because coming to practice sick was a pretty regular occurrence. You were expected to be praticing unless you were contageious, and even then you'd have to sit on the side and watch. I quickly changed, weighed in, and went on with practice. I was about 10-20% heavier than the rest of my slender team, so needless to say this wasn't one of my favorite activities, but figured as long as my volleyball skills were also 10-20% better than those smaller than me, the two would cancel out and I'd be okay.

After practice I went up to my friend, and asked how she was feeling and asked how long she'd been sick since she was looking extra rough. When she replied "About 2 years" my heart sank, and in that moment looking into her sad and empty eyes, I knew she was suffering much more than just the flu. Remember, I was 15 years old, and if I could go back in time and tell her all the right things to say, I would have. But all I did was give her a hug and said I'm sorry, and spent the rest of the year looking around wondering who else was suffering silently.

The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) reports that about 5-10% of women are diagnosed with some form of an eating disorder, and suggests 19-30% of female college students could be diagnosed with one. How the media portrays beauty is not helping, and athletes participating in weight-class sports (like wrestling, rowing, horse-racing) and aesthetic sports (gymnastics, swimming, volleyball) have significantly higher rates of diagnosed eating disorders than non-weight dependent sports. From these two categories, 33% of male athletes are impacted by eating disorders, and up to 62% of females exhibit these habits according to NEDA. In sports where uniforms are revealing- like track, gymnastics, and volleyball the fact that people are watching in these body hugging outfits are not ignored. I'd like to think of myself as a confident individual, in fact I can proudly say I won't wear makeup for dates, class, work etc... but you better believe if we were playing on ESPNU I'd be throwing on some eyeliner and blush, just because the world is mean.

Throughout my athletic career I've had coaches get on me about my weight, and when I worked my ass off (literally) to lose the weight, was then questioned if I was doing it healthy. I've had coaches comment on what my teammates were eating, while these same teammates a few weeks later would be ordering food at team meals just to throw it away without the coaches noticing. 

Reading articles of athletes who suffer from eating disorders often blame something a coach has said, or the pressures mentioned before. They blame being told their body fat percentages and having it compared with teammates, and it's easy to blame coaches for putting so much emphasis on tracking athlete's weight. However I don't blame the coaches. Should they be more aware on the impact of their words? Probably. But no different than offering a silent hug when I was 15, when I'd witness a teammate throwing out food, or even bragging about how much weight they'd loss, I'd always be at a loss for words in my 20s. Why should coaches be responsible for MY friends? Why do I allow my teammates to hide these things from my teammates and coaches, while others discuss their issues while never confronting the individual. 

Teammates are supposed to be there for you and hold you accountable. I would get on my teammate if they skipped a summer workout, but why is it not as easy for me to get on them about skipping a meal? If someone's physical injury is preventing them from performing I have no issues telling them to go in early for rehab to get it taken care of, but I never considered my teammate's mental injury and telling them to go in and get help. It was my teammates, not my coaches, who I count on to have my back. My teammates are the ones I'm still in contact with today, and there's no reason for a teammate to sit silently and watch a teammate in pain. 

Early Warning Signs of Eating Disorders in Athletes
  • More frequent muscle strains, sprains, or fractures
  • Perfectionism
  • Preoccupation with one's food or other's foods
  • Frequent Weighing
  • Excess Exercising/Training more than the coach recommends
  • Avoidance of water or excessive water intake
  • Increased Isolation
  • Issues in School or Personal life
All I can encourage is to approach your teammate or athlete in a private, non-judgmental way and let them know you care and want to help. Katherine Beals, an associate professor of nutrition at Ball State University who also was a competitive athlete for 20 years has seen disordered eating firsthand in both teammates and competitors. Although directed at professionals, her book Disordered Eating Among Athletes : A Comprehensive Guide for Health Professionals is an easy read and goes way deeper than what was briefly touched on here. As long as the media continues to encourage athletes to look like the girl on the left vs. the right, we still have a long way to go. 


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