Sports offer many physical benefits. They also teach leadership skills, teamwork, discipline and life lessons. Kids who participate in sports even tend to do better in school. And sports are fun.
But participating in a sport can also become a slippery slope to unhealthy and dangerous behaviors. And they can trigger eating disorders in individuals who are already genetically vulnerable to EDs.
I had the pleasure of talking with Doug Bunnell, Ph.D, vice president and co-director at the The Renfrew Center Foundation, about why the athletic environment can become harmful and what parents and caregivers can do.
Margarita Tartakovsky is an associate editor at PsychCentral.com, an award-winning mental health website, and the voice behind Weightless, a blog that helps women deal with body image issues and disordered eating. She also writes a monthly feature for Beliefnet.com, covering topics such as patience and procrastination.
Editor: Muhammad Talha
So what is it about sports that can serve as a slippery slope?
According to Bunnell, one of the culprits is the pressure to perform and compete. Kids who are already perfectionistic, detail-oriented and competitive may take their training too far. They might up their workout routines and cut calories or entire food groups.
Some data, he said, suggest that there’s higher rates of body image issues in sports that accentuate appearance and have more revealing uniforms, such as diving, swimming and figure skating.
Another problem is the focus on weight. Not only do many sports have regular weigh-ins, such as wrestling and rowing, which boosts the pressure to maintain a certain number on the scale. But there’s the pervasive belief that losing weight will somehow improve performance, Bunnell said.
For instance, it’s common for coaches to encourage runners to lose weight, he said. The idea is that losing a few pounds will shave off seconds from their running time. It’s a complete myth, but that doesn’t stop it from being spread.
Warning Signs of Disordered Eating
According to Bunnell, “weight loss or failure to gain weight is a red flag” that your child might be struggling with disordered eating. It’s also concerning if you “begin to detect that your child’s sense of himself or herself is dominated by concerns of weight or shape.”
Another key sign is “how [sports] influence your child’s self-esteem and life,” he said.
The Renfrew Center featured a list of other specific warning signs in a press release, which I think is really helpful:
- Exercising alone and avoiding interaction with others, especially coaches/trainers
- Exercising even though they are sick or injured
- Skipping class, work or other important duties to exercise
- Exercising beyond their normal training regimen
- Preoccupation with food and weight
- Repeatedly expressing concerns about being fat
- Increasing criticism of one’s body
- Frequently eating alone
- Use of laxatives
- Making trips to the bathroom during or following meals
Tips for Parents & Caregivers
The best parents in the world can’t insulate their kids from harm, unhealthy behaviors or an eating disorder. Please remember that parents do not cause eating disorders. EDs are caused by a very complex combination of genetic, biological, psychological and environmental factors.
But parents can give their kids the tools to cope effectively in life and create a healthy, positive environment that doesn’t focus on weight or dieting.
Below, Bunnell offered the following tips to do just that:
- Be honest “about your own concerns about weight and shape and clear about the language you use at home” about topics like eating and weight.
- Emphasize that your child’s body is an amazing machine.
- Help your child build a “healthy, flexible and nuanced self-esteem that’s built on many different pillars.” For instance, it’s clearly problematic if your child thinks they’re only valuable if they get into Yale or weigh X amount of pounds, he said.
- Help your child become skeptical about the media and other messages. Teach them that weight or weight loss has nothing to do with performance.
- “Keep the lines of communication open.” Make it easy for your kids to reach you and talk to you.
- If you hear coaches emphasizing weight loss or promoting unhealthy behaviors, don’t hesitate to make a complaint.
These are additional tips on cultivating a positive environment along with recognizing problematic patterns. (Also taken from the press release.)
- Accompany your child to some training sessions, especially in the beginning, to observe the coach/trainer and their method of training.
- Discuss the dangers of dieting and the importance of eating properly; stress that strength, agility and endurance are fostered by good nutrition and a healthy diet and not by a weight loss approach.
- Talk about different body types and how they can all be accepted and appreciated.
- Show your children you love them for who they are inside, not for how they look and perform in sports.
Talking to Your Child
When talking to your child about your concerns, focus on what you’ve seen and how it’s made you feel, Bunnell said. He suggested saying something like “I’ve noticed that you seem uncomfortable or upset. I see you playing around with your food or struggling with your food. And it makes me worry that you’re unhappy. Can you tell me what’s going on?”
Also, use “I” statements, he said. Instead of “You’re misbehaving,” say “I’m worried about you.” And you might need to have several conversations about your concerns, he said. But keep at it.
There’s so much to be said about athletes, unhealthy behaviors and eating disorders. These are additional resources to check out:
- FEAST, Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment of Eating Disorders, is an excellent organization, and has an entire page dedicated to eating disorders and athletes. It’s a must-read, and links to articles that go into greater detail about EDs and sports.
- Check out FEAST’s page about eating disorders in general.
- This is a good expert-written article on identifying problematic exercise in your child.
- NEDA also offers a toolkit for parents about eating disorders.