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#AnythingButSoft: What Every Team Should Know About Eating Disorders

Every member of a team - from coaches to parents to other players - should be informed about eating disorders.

So many athletes who fall prey to an eating disorder did so because they were not aware of the consequences.

With competitive sports come many great things such as improved self esteem, improved cognitive function and greater leadership skills. Competition can also provide stressors, both psychological and physical. When the pressures to perform and succeed are combined with the pressure to “look” a certain way or weigh a certain weight, the risk of harmful eating patterns becomes greater.

A study involving Division 1 NCAA athletes concluded that over one-third of female athletes reported symptoms and behavior patterns of disordered eating, including anorexia and bulimia. Most were concerned with a societal belief of how they should look. The risk was greater among weight sensitive sports (i.e. gymnastics, crew and running). Softball players are particularly at risk because not all girls feel accepting of their body size and shape.

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Below is a list of some risk factors for eating disorders in athletics published by the National Eating Disorders Association:

  • - Sports that emphasize appearance, weight requirements or muscularity.

  • - Overvalued belief that lower body weight will improve performance.

  • - Training for a sport since childhood or being an elite athlete.

  • - Low self-esteem; family dysfunction (including parents who live through the success of their child in sport); families with eating disorders; chronic dieting; history of physical or sexual abuse; peer, family and cultural pressures to be thin, and other traumatic life experiences.

  • - Coaches who focus primarily on success and performance rather than on the athlete as a whole person.

  • In order to decrease the risk of eating disorders, everyone involved in the team needs to talk about this risk and the damaging effects eating disorders has on our bodies, our health and our performance. Coaches and parents need to lead the conversation and educate the players well before the pressure of competition and outside influences in regard to body acceptance occurs. The younger the conversation begins, the better. The words “too fat” or “diet” or “lose weight” should never be spoken to these athletes. Rather the words “fuel your body properly” should be the primary message to all softball players. 

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The Female Athlete Triad (Triad) refers to three health problems that are linked to each other:

  • - Low energy availability or energy deficiency (“under-fueling” and/or disordered eating patterns and behaviours),

  • - Menstrual irregularity, problems, and/or loss of menses

  • - Bone Loss/weak bones/fractures.

Immediate medical attention is required if any of these problems occur. Having just one part of the Triad is enough to need help if the athlete wants to stay active and healthy. Luckily, the solution is simple -- eat enough calories to fuel your body during exercise and at rest. Unfortunately once the behavior pattern is in place the simple solution becomes much more difficult to implement.

I suggest having a coach discuss this issue with the team and their parents at the beginning of the season. Additional follow up conversations multiple times during the season are also crucial. When teammates know the signs and symptoms - they can be the eyes and ears of the team, as often times disordered eating does not happen in front of coaches or parents. It happens in the cafeteria, at social gatherings, on the bus to a game or tournament etc…The bottom line is that teammates need to be educated and aware.

The following sites are excellent resources for coaches to utilize for educating themselves. They also provide some helpful handouts to use for these discussions.

FemaleAthleteTriad.org

Olympic.org

NCAA.org

I also highly recommend bringing in a professional to assist with this sensitive but critical topic such as a registered dietitian who is a board certified specialist in sports dietetics, a psychologist who specializes in eating disorders, an informed medical doctor or a registered nurse who has experience with eating disorders in sport.

Eating disorders affect athletes of every age, every gender and every sport. It is preventable! Once we start talking and educating more regularly, more honestly and bringing the focus back to health and performance we can overcome this debilitating and life threatening condition.

Jennifer O'Donnell-Giles, MS RDN CSSD, is a former softball player, coach and parent.

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