The most serious
side effect from the pressures females face in their athletic
careers is eating disorders. Eating disorders have risen drastically
in the last ten years, especially among young female athletes.
Athletes obviously have to perform publicly in highly competitive
situations, but this is something that, for the most part, they
enjoy. But too much outside pressure can lead to many negatives,
including eating disorders. One reason female endurance athletes
are so susceptible to eating disorders is that they are lead to
believe that there is only one body type that will be successful
- the 12 year old look. Therefore, they must have very low body
weight in order to be competitive.
Eating disorders, however, are not that simple. It is far more
complicated than just wanting to be thin. "Anorexia nervosa
is much more than just a diet gone awry and the sufferer more
than an obstinate, skinny person refusing to eat. It is a complex
problem with intricate roots that often begins as a creative and
reasonable solution to difficult circumstances, and is thus a
way to cope." When pressures become too much or get distorted
they can lead to psychological issues that can be life threatening.
To make matters
worse, many athletes have A-type personalities. The very traits
that make them so successful in the first place, perfectionism,
high achievement expectations, self-disciplined, competitive and
driven characteristics are also associated with eating disorders.
These young women expect a lot from themselves and they are willing
to put in the time, the work, and the sacrifice to get what they
want. They don't mind sacrificing much to accomplish their goals.
They are take-charge, driven, disciplined young women, evidenced
by the things they willingly give up for their sport and the hard
work they do day in and day out. They feel empowered by being
in control of their life and accomplishing their goals.
that A-type personality can sometimes be a double-edge sword for
some of them. Their need for control and perfectionism can lead
many down a dangerous path. When they feel like things are getting
out of their control they feel desperate and insecure. In order
to try to get the feeling of control back, they sometimes resort
to desperate measures such as not eating. The ironic thing about
these young achievers is the control they do have over themselves.
They would not or could not accomplish the things they have without
having self-control. They were in control but they didn't realize
it or came to believe they no longer had it because of too much
pressure, whether from within or outside of themselves. The control
they were desperately seeking is totally lost in their eating
have nothing to do with food per se, but with the need of feeling
in control or the need of controlling something they feel will
harm or has harmed their performance level, entering into womanhood,
or too much outside pressure from coaches or parents. For whatever
reason, emotional and/or psychological, they feel desperate in
their need to control this aspect of their life. Sadly, eating
disorders have the opposite effect--they lose the very control
they so desperately want and need. The very thing they desperately
needed during this period of their life is now in control of them.
They no longer have the control they once had.
huge demands placed on young athletes today. They are expected
to specialize at a very young age, leading many to heartbreak
as the sport they excelled at as a prepubescent youth no longer
holds for the now young-adult athlete. Their strengths and abilities
shifted. What once worked well for them as a child is no longer
working for them as a young adult. Their new body is better suited
for another sport than the one they specialized in when just a
child. But since they specialized so young they were never given
the chance to know if they possibly could have been better suited
for other sports as well. This specializing as children can be
very limiting as young adults.
They are also expected to perform at a high level at a very young
age, and perform a lot. Society hates losers, and they know it!
It is not good enough to be their best--they must be the best,
especially if they are gifted, and have already had success. They
know they are not being judged on the effort of their performance,
but on the outcome of their performance. We live in a society
where it no longer matters how or what you have done to be successful,
only that you be successful. The end, not the means, is what is
important. And to many young athletes this spells disaster. If
you don't believe me, take some time to go around and be a spectator
at sport competitions and listen to the parents and coaches. It's
We must educate
ourselves in all aspects of youth coaching and competing, especially
eating disorders. The warning signs are sometimes subtle, but
can easily be spotted if the coach or parent is aware and educated.
Here are some of the warning signs that an athlete may be feeling
too pressured in their sport -- performance stagnates or drops,
they lose the love for their sport they once had, they start making
excuses for poor performances, they never feel good before competition,
they harbor anger or resentment towards their coach or parent/s
and sometimes both. Their running goals lessen dramatically or
they no longer talk about running in their future. They do not
want to discus running at all with either their coach or parent,
especially when it personally involves them. They resent advice
or constructive criticism, and are overly sensitive in issues
regarding their sport. They have reached a point where the reason
for participating in their sport no longer exists, or they no
longer find joy and fulfillment in their sport. They are at a
point where they feel their sport is serving everyone but themselves.
If your child or athlete has reached this point, it is best for
the parent or coach to take a giant step back and really look
at the situation honestly, closely and clearly. Ask yourself if
you are too close, expecting and pushing too much.
It is vital
that you let them be the captain of their ship, that they are
in control of their sport, and that they have the right to succeed
or not. It is their success or their failure, and as young adults
they need our support and guidance in sport and life, but not
our pushing and control. They need to have both success and failure
to learn and to grow into healthy sound adults. They need to experience
and learn to handle all what sport throws at them. They are valuable
lessons in life and if we interfere in that process we are hurting
them in the long run. Our well-meaning intentions can actually
hurt the future success of their sport career.
coaches must wear many hats and figuring out which one to wear
is not easy at times. Coaching and parenting athletes can be very
stressful, very complicated, very demanding, but learning when
to step forward and when to step back is vital for the health
and welfare of our young athletes. Coaches truly walk tight ropes
at times, but if we stay attuned to our athletes we will learn
and know better how to deal with the complexities of athletes
and their sport. If we don't learn to read the warning signs of
an athlete feeling too much pressure we can unintentionally push
them into quitting their sport, or worse, into an eating disorder
to try and gain some control of their life.
are a deadly epidemic that is rising among our wonderful athletes,
especially our females. The three most common eating disorders
found in athletes are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and compulsive
exercise. Anorexia is self-starvation, bulimia is eating large
quantities of food then purging, and compulsive exercise is doing
more exercise than is needed for quality performance. All three
disorders could have life threatening consequences.
nervosa has a multitude of medical complications ranging from
mild to severe. In fact, it is believed that 5-20% of anorexics
die, usually from complications associated with self-starvation,
such as: heart, kidney, or multiple organ failure, or illnesses
like pneumonia, which may be due to an inability to fight infection-all
ultimately due to the anorexia. Studies show that the longer one
has anorexia, the higher the mortality rate."
from anorexia include malnutrition, abnormal heart rhythms, amenorrhoea
(interruption of the menstrual cycle in females), osteoporosis
(a decrease of bone mass), liver and kidney damage, hypoglycemia,
low body temperature, muscle cramps and weakness - due to electrolyte
imbalances, loss of hair on head, low blood pressure, sleeping
disorders, destroyed body protein, decreased potassium level,
constipation, high cholesterol, etc. Signs and symptoms of anorexia
are excessive weight loss-15% below normal for age, height, and
body type, always thinking about food, calories, and body weight,
wearing layered or baggy clothing, mood swings, avoiding activities
that involve food, complaining of always being cold, distorted
body image, absence of at least three consecutive menstrual cycles,
or if the athlete has not started menstruating at all by the age
of 15 or 16.
from bulimia include laceration of the oral cavity (injury due
to self-induced vomiting), esophageal inflammation (acid from
vomiting may cause the tears in the esophagus), dental erosion
(acid from vomiting erodes the dental enamel), cardiac arrest,
dehydration, and electrolyte imbalance. Signs and symptoms of
bulimia are excessive weight loss or gain, being overly concerned
with one's weight, visiting the bathroom after meals, depression,
excessive dieting, followed by binge eating, and always criticizing
exercise warning signs are numerous--forcing exercise when tired
or not feeling well, never exercises for fun or to relieve stress.
Every time they exercise they go as fast or hard as they can.
They experience severe stress and anxiety if they miss a workout.
They miss family obligations and social events because they have
to exercise. They calculate how much exercise to do based on how
much they have eaten, would rather exercise than get together
with friends, cannot relax because they think they are not burning
calories, and worry that they will gain weight if they miss a
disorders will require someone close to the athlete to recognize
these warning signs. Identifying athletes with an eating disorder
is not easy. They are often secretive or blame their eating and
exercise regiment on their training goals, and they are leaner
then the non-athlete due to their sport when healthy and normal,
but they have crossed that thin line into self-starvation. Many
will resent interference because they feel you don't understand
them or their needs. They feel you are attacking the very thing
that is making them feel good about themselves. They feel they
are finally in control and you want to take that away from them.
As a coach or parent you must get them professional help. Unless
you are a certified nutritionist, psychologist and doctor you
are not qualified to treat them. They need your love, support,
understanding, encouragement, and patience but they most definitely
need professional help.
if you suspect you have an athlete that is anorexic or walking
the thin line of anorexia nervosa you must deal with it promptly.
A few athletic programs are now implementing standards that require
medical clearances specifically for eating disorders; a required
amount of calories to be consumed daily for participation; bone
density testing; nutrition counseling, and, if necessary, counseling
from a licensed therapist who is familiar with eating disorders.
It is imperative for recovery that an athlete with an eating disorder
restores their body weight as soon as possible. The longer they
have an eating disorder, the harder and longer the recovery phase.
It is also highly suggested that the athlete's whole family be
involved in their therapy.
with the recovery process because you must remember they did not
get to this point overnight and they will not heal overnight.
are serious and can become life threatening. For more information,
contact: Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc.:
of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders: (847) 831-3438.
I am aware
that there are many reasons for eating disorders; however, I only
addressed eating disorders in regards to the female endurance
free to e-mail me at