IN THIS ISSUE:
In our quest for perfection in sports we sometimes lose our perspective of what’s really important. As a result, we frequently miss the detrimental effects this push to be # 1 has on our children/athletes. One of the more troubling, long lasting and insidious of these effects is the “dirty little problem” of eating disorders. In some athletes, coaches and parents’ minds, being faster, better and more successful means being “just a little bit” thinner. As a consequence, athletes feel tremendous pressure to lose weight by any means possible. Pills, unhealthy starvation diets, laxatives and self-induced vomiting become part of the training behavior. Unfortunately what many coaches and athletes fail to realize is that they are playing with fire with this one. Eating disorders, like wild fires, have a tendency to take on a life of their own, raging out of control and laying ruin to an athlete’s physical and mental health. In this issue we will examine a problem that has reached epidemic proportions in some sports, especially where young, female athletes are involved.
ATHLETE’S LOCKER – “So you think you have things under control?”
PARENT’S CORNER – “Eating disorders & you –what can a parent do?”
COACH’S OFFICE – “Are you part of the problem?”
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES – “Encouragement”
“So you think you have things under control?”
It all started out pretty harmlessly. Janet was a really talented gymnast who was rising fast on the competitive ladder, aiming for level 10 and then elite status. She was fearless in the gym and an intense competitor, winning most competitions that she entered. She was driven to be the best. As you might expect, she also really hated making mistakes. Failures and mess-ups in competition would send her into an emotional tailspin for days at a time. Eventually, she’d pull out of these black times of self-doubt and rededicate herself to doing better next time. There was no question that Janet was a perfectionist, but then again, what really successful athlete isn’t?
Things seemed to be fine until Janet hit puberty and her thin, rail-like body began to change. She filled out and put on weight. Soon, her entire center of gravity had changed, upsetting her rhythm and timing on many of her moves. Almost overnight, skills that had been so easy now seemed awkward and difficult. She no longer had a good sense of where her body was in space when she flipped. As a result she did competed poorly. Her frustration was compounded as she watched former teammates and opponents out performing her.
Reassurances from her parents and coaches that with time she’d readjust and get her skills back didn’t help. Despite the fact that she was in great shape and a healthy weight for her height and body type, she felt fat and gross. The comments from two of her male coaches didn’t help either. They suggested that if she could lose “just 10 pounds”, everything would return back to “normal.” For the first time she started to listen to their remarks to other gymnasts about how “fat” they were. She became self-conscious about her weight and what she ate. For the first time in her life she started a diet. Initially, losing weight was nearly impossible until one of her friends introduced her to over-the-counter diet pills. Soon she was taking 2-3 pills a day and delighted to find that she was no longer so hungry.
She started to lose weight and was happy when the coaches noticed, telling her how good she looked. Their attention made her feel so much better and even more motivated to lose additional weight. Unfortunately, this initial weight loss didn’t get her out of her slump. The more she struggled in the gym, the more determined she became to lose a few extra pounds. She wrongly figured that “being fat” was at the core of her performance troubles.
One problem, however, was that in starving herself she found that she was hungry and obsessed with food most of the time. At times her cravings were so strong that she succumbed to them, bingeing on sweets, chips and anything she could find in the house. Afterwards she felt guilty, fat and sick to her stomach. One day she tried unsuccessfully to make herself throw-up. Two days later after another binge, she made herself throw up for the first time. Despite the fact that it grossed her out, she felt calmer and thinner. Soon she was throwing up at least two to three times a week. She reasoned with herself that it was OK and that she could stop anytime she wanted to. She kidded herself about the diet pills in the same way. She felt in control and happier, although sometimes, when she really thought about it, she realized that what she was doing was wrong. Consequently, she put it out of her mind, telling absolutely no one about her “dirty little secret.”
An old gymnastics coach from her previous gym somehow knew that something was very wrong with Janet. He saw her losing weight and talked with a few of her teammates. While Janet thought she was hiding her self-destructive behavior, some of her friends had a clue as to what was really going on. This coach had seen many eating disorders in his time and knew how serious they were and how the athlete’s denial and defensiveness was a big symptom of the problem. In thinking that they are in total control, the athlete struggling with an eating disorder is actually being controlled by the food, pills, scale and a badly distorted self-image. He remembered a girl from his gym who had to be hospitalized because of her bulimia. When the coach gently expressed his concerns, Janet laughed them off, telling him everything was fine and that she was feeling really good. She reassured herself that she was in total control. “Besides”, she rationalized, “I can stop anytime I want to.” The coach arranged for Janet to chat with a recovered bulimic, a former gymnast who had gone through a terrible bout with bulimia that had almost killed her.
When Janet told me of this meeting, (this concerned coach had convinced her to talk with me), she claimed that she couldn’t even relate to this lady. “I’m nothing like her…I don’t have anything that bad…I’m not that out of control. I don’t have a problem because I can stop anytime I want to.”
She couldn’t understand why her coach had wanted her to chat with this lady to begin with, or with me for that matter.
Little by little, however, as Janet’s eating disorder took over, her wall of denial began to crack and then crumble. When I challenged her ability to stop the pills and throwing up at will, she realized that she couldn’t. She admitted that things had gotten out of hand. What really scared her though, was that despite the fact that she knew this was bad for her, she didn’t want to stop. Throwing up made her feel so much better. Little did she know at the time that her bulimic behavior was doing just the opposite!
I encouraged her to tell her present coaches what was going on. Sooner or later, when a serious athlete loses enough weight (and therefore body strength) she puts herself at risk of injury in her sport, especially one like gymnastics. Janet fought me on that one. I encouraged her to tell her parents, who she was sure would “absolutely kill me when they find out!” When Janet finally talked with them she was relieved to see that they were more concerned than anything else.
Bulimia and Anorexia Nervosa are a bit like quicksand. The longer you stay in those behaviors, the more control they exert over you. Unfortunately for Janet, she had gotten herself pretty stuck and had to be hospitalized. In the process she had to give up the gymnastics. Currently she has been out of the gym for several months now and is just beginning the long, often times very painful recovery road back.
My advice to you: Every athlete has his/her own unique body type. Accept yourself and work with what you have in REASONABLE ways. Taking diet pills, starving yourself, using laxatives and perfecting vomiting are NOT reasonable. They are, instead quite self-destructive. Comparing yourself with someone who you think has the “ideal” body is a losing game. Listening to coaches who make comments about your weight, diet and what you need to do to lose weight are 99 out of a 100 times NOT a good idea. Coaches who want to weigh you daily or weekly are EXTREMELY hazardous to your long-term health and happiness. Their comments can fuel an eating disorder and ruin your self-image. If you are in such a situation consider changing coaches immediately. If you think that you DO have a weight problem and that it may be interfering with your athletic performance, consult with a coach that you trust. Do NOT, ever starve yourself while you are in serious training in your sport, (unless you want to fail). Check with your doctor about what is a healthy height/weight ratio for YOU, especially given the physical demands of your sport. If you are taking diet pills, regularly starving yourself, using laxatives and/or throwing up, AND you think everything is fine and that you don’t have a problem, YOU ARE IN DENIAL! By definition, regularly engaging in those kinds of behaviors and denying them means that you have a serious problem. If you see yourself in this story or engage in these behaviors and think that what I’m saying doesn’t apply to you, the joke is on you! Get help NOW, TODAY. Talk to a counselor. Talk to someone you trust. Ask for help! Let them in on what’s happening. Do not sit with this stuff alone…..PLEASE!
“Eating disorders and you – What can a parent do?”
Would you knowingly invite an eating disorder into your house for dinner to “break bread” with your athletic son or daughter? Pardon my sick humor here, but both you and I know that NO caring parent in his/her right mind would want a child afflicted by these nasty and insidious problems. Bulimia (binging and purging) and Anorexia Nervosa (starving oneself) are very scary and complicated problems that, from a parent’s perspective, seem to materialize from nowhere and then refuse to go away. What would be helpful for you to know about these eating problems?
First, very often eating disorders don’t just simply exist by themselves. Most frequently they reflect problems in the relationship between parents and child. Eating disorders seem to crop up right around adolescence and tend to revolve around separation and control issues. Adolescence is a time when it’s the child’s job to separate from his/her parents and the parents’ job to gradually let the child go. Parents who are overly involved with their child’s life and refuse to let the child have age appropriate control at this time are more vulnerable to creating eating disorder dynamics in their home.
Parents who are over-involved in their kid’s academic and athletic performances and who tend to push their kids too much to excel may also be vulnerable to inadvertently facilitating eating problems in the child. This is especially true if the parents link the child’s lovability and self-worth directly with the quality of their performance. That is, when the child performs well the parents express their love and when the child performs below the parents’ expectations they then withhold or withdraw their love.
What sometimes ends up happening in this battle over control is the child feels like the only thing she can control is her body and what she puts into it. Keep in mind adolescence is also a natural time of shaky self-esteem where the child becomes preoccupied with body image and perfection. This preoccupation is exacerbated in our American culture by the insane notion that there is an ideal body type and that this type is basically anorexic looking.
What kinds of kids are more vulnerable to eating disorders? Those that are innately driven to succeed and who display perfectionistic and compulsive tendencies. Interestingly enough these same qualities are frequently seen in serious, committed athletes. However, the child-athlete that views anything short of perfection as a failure is certainly more at risk. Clearly adolescent female athletes are far more vulnerable than male athletes (some of this is a societal problem) and while eating disorders can be found across a wide variety of sports, they are far more prevalent in sports like skating, gymnastics, running, dance and swimming where there is a huge premium on looking thin and small. Wrestling is probably the only sport where boys get caught up in the weight issue and may display eating disorder symptoms as they try to cut and make weight.
Speaking of symptoms, what clues will your child leave you to let you know that something may be wrong? Tough question for two reasons: First, adolescents, by choice, and in their quest to separate from you, aren’t very good at, or interested in communicating with parents. It’s not often that they will sit down with you and have a frank discussion about their life, feelings and problems. Second, most overt symptoms of eating disorders are kept hidden. Consequently, many parents are completely taken by surprise to discover that their child has had an eating disorder. This was certainly the case with Janet’s parents, (Athlete’s Locker). Parents are usually the last people to know about this kind of problem.
However, having said that, what you can look for is a preoccupation with diets and losing weight. Excessive comments about being fat are also a warning sign, as are indications that diet pills and laxatives are being used. Self-starvation and evidence of deliberate vomiting should also get your warning bells ringing pretty loudly.
Should you suspect that your child might be struggling with an eating disorder, arrange to have them consult with a physician and/or counselor immediately. Your adolescent is far more likely to be open and honest with an outside professional than they would be with you. Also keep in mind that your approach to them should NOT be punitive. Expressing your anger and disappointment in them will NOT be helpful here. In fact, it is the very last thing that a child struggling with an eating disorder needs. You may feel scared, responsible and helpless that they are in the grip of this problem. However, DON’T turn your fear and guilt into anger. It will only make your child feel much worse! Approach them with caring, concern and unconditional love.
What if you know/suspect that a coach is partly responsible for your child’s preoccupation with body image, food and dieting? If your child complains that the coaches call the athletes fat, comment on what they eat and regularly weigh them, you may want to seriously consider finding another program for your child to participate in. Far too many male coaches don’t have the faintest clue as to what serious long-term damage their weight related comments have on adolescent girls. Your child-athlete should not have to constantly worry about her size, shape and weight. If these coaches do not respond to your direct feedback, it is in your child’s best interest to get them out of that environment.
Now I’m well aware that some of the top Olympic coaches in some of these sports routinely weigh their athletes and make derogatory comments about their appearance and weight. Perhaps you may feel that there is no other show in town. If you’re in this dilemma consider this: What price are you willing to pay in terms of your child’s long term happiness and mental health for their athletic success? Good coaches don’t breed eating disorders. They have a sensitivity of and respect for the exceedingly fragile nature of female adolescent development.
One final thought. As a mother and father you should NOT be making comments about your daughter’s weight and appearance. You should NOT be monitoring what they eat, calorie-wise nor controlling their diet. Your daughter has to learn how to live in her body in the world. She has to learn how to feel comfortable, NOT with the “ideal” shape and weight, but with the appropriate weight for her given her structure and body type. Fathers especially should keep their mouths shut when it comes to commenting on their daughter’s size, shape, weight and eating habits. These comments are incredibly destructive and only fuel the child’s preoccupation with food, a physical self-consciousness and the belief that there is something wrong with her.
This is not a happy or pleasant topic. However, your child desperately needs your support and protection around these issues so she can grow up and feel comfortable in her body in the world, something that far too few females in our society ever learn to experience.
“Are you part of the problem?”
So here’s a dilemma for you. You have a very talented athlete who also just happens to be, in your professional opinion, too heavy to reach his/her potential. Perhaps his/her speed, jumping ability, and skill execution is being hampered by the extra weight. What do you do? How do you handle this?
First of all let’s make a distinction between those coaches who work in a college setting and all the rest who work with younger athletes. If you coach this younger age group, (8 to 18 years) I don’t think it’s your job to say anything directly to that athlete about her weight, especially if you are a male coach. I don’t think you should be making comments about that athlete being fat. I don’t think you should be weighing that athlete or involved in any way with her dieting. I certainly don’t think you should be directly suggesting diet pills, vomiting or laxatives like some coaches I know do!
Why? Two reasons: First, as a male in this society, you can’ t begin to appreciate what it’s like to be female. Now this may sound a bit basic. However, young women in America are viewed very differently than men. There is a rather sick double standard alive and well in the United States. Men can become overweight yet still believe that they have value in the world. They aren’t trained by society to become self- conscious about their appearance. Women, on the other hand become overburdened by how they look. A female’s self-esteem and value are both frequently tied to physical appearance. Being thin and attractive gets you more brownie points in life than being overweight and plain looking. This shallow and inane way of measuring people has been handed down through the generations by a male-dominated society obsessed with thinness. Second, preadolescent and adolescent girls are extremely vulnerable and insecure self-image-wise, perhaps even more so than their male counterparts. Because of this vulnerability, negative comments about their body size or shape can have devastating and long-lived effects. An example:
A 24 year-old female swim coach related the following story: As a 13 year old, she was one of the top swimmers in her age group in the country. She loved swimming and had the talent to become an Olympian. Adolescent girls live and die by the opinion of their coaches, especially the male ones. Kids at this age are actively involved in moving away from their parents and finding other mentors. For the serious athlete, this person is very often the coach. In addition, adolescents are hypersensitive to the opinions of others, especially those who are important to them.
One day, just shortly after setting an American age group record in her event, this swimmer walked out on deck to say “hi” to her coach.
He took one look at her and said, “My word, you sure are fat!” How can we begin to understand this coach’s insensitivity and stupidity? The swimmer was shocked and devastated by the comment. Shortly after this incident, and for the first time ever, she began to lose interest in her sport. She became preoccupied with her appearance and weight. Several months later she began struggling with an eating disorder that forced her out of the pool for several months. A year later she completely dropped out of swimming. The 24 year-old female coach, relating this personal experience to me was now crying about an incident that happened over 11 years ago!
There are many track, gymnastics, skating and dance coaches who will heartily disagree with what I’m saying. They will justify their focus on their athletes weight and thinness as absolutely necessary for success in the sport. They will continue to greet their athletes with a, “boy, you look fat today” or “you’ve lost weight, that’s great!” In my humble opinion, I feel that this kind of “coaching” is nothing more than a very insidious form of child abuse. But don’t misunderstand me here.
I’m not saying that an athlete’s extra weight doesn’t hold them back. It can and does! What I am saying is that it is up to that athlete to make a decision whether he/she wants to reach a certain goal. If a goal is personally important to an individual, then that athlete will do what it takes to get in better shape. Coaches can certainly talk about what it takes to improve and take your training to the next level, that an athlete needs to be stronger, quicker, and in better physical condition. However, I think it’s critical that the coach stops there. Then it becomes the athlete’s responsibility to decide what he/she wants to do around the weight issue.
I think this is certainly the case in collegiate sports. To be competitive an athlete has to be in top physical condition. If a weight problem is slowing an athlete down, it’s reasonable for a coach to discuss with that athlete getting in better shape. However, it is then up to that athlete to do something about it in a healthy way. It’s the athlete’s responsibility, not the coach’s. Continually commenting on the weight issue and overtly demeaning the athlete’s physical appearance is not a helpful way to resolve the problem.
Should you suspect an athlete has an eating disorder problem, however, it is critical that you deal with it directly and immediately. You should refer them to counseling services and make their seeking help a prerequisite for remaining on the team. Eating disorders are extremely serious and should be treated that way.
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES
A very old man with a beat up portfolio of tattered and yellowing artwork knocked on the door of a world-renown artist. When the great master came to the door, the old man begged, “Please sir, I am so sorry to trouble you today, but could you spare just a few minutes to humor a tired old man. I dabble in art just a bit and would be greatly indebted to you if you could give me some honest feedback. I really don’t think so but I really must know. Do you think that my drawings have any merit? Do I have any talent?”
The master artist took pity on the man and allowed him entrance, where upon the old man took out his drawings and very carefully spread them out on the nearest table. The master took a quick look at the man’s sketches and within an instance knew that the old man’s hands held no talent. In as kind a way as he could he looked him straight in the eyes and said, “My good man, I’m afraid it as you may have suspected, these drawings are not really very good. However, it is a good thing that your artwork brings you pleasure and I would encourage you to continue.”
The old man slowly began to collect his artwork and return it to the portfolio case. He thanked the master artist for taking time out of his busy schedule for such an old fool as himself. Then he began to walk towards the door. As he put his hand on the doorknob he hesitated and then turned to the artist, “I wonder sir, if you would be so kind as to look at the drawings I have here of a young boy of 9.
Could you tell me if he has any talent?”
From a different part of his case the old man produced some pencil sketches and carefully laid them out on the table. The master came over to the drawings and was immediately struck by the detail of the lines and the shading. He knew immediately that he was looking at the work of a genius, perhaps a future master. He was speechless and could not pull his eyes away from the drawings. Finally he looked up at the old man and said, “My good man, these drawing show a rare genius, a depth of talent I have never before seen in a child. This young man has a fine career in front of him. He will truly be a success.” “But you must tell me,” the artist continued, “who is this precocious talent? Is he your grandson? A friend? A great, grand son? You must tell me. I have to meet this lad! He is truly gifted.”
At this point the old man hung his head and quietly began to cry. The master artist was quite puzzled by the old man’s strange show of emotion but remained silent. A minute later the old man looked up at the master and said, “My good sir, you are looking at that very talented artist right now! Those drawings were mine when I was young child. Unfortunately I never had anyone tell me what you have just said. No one took the time to encourage me. Had I gotten one kind word or two perhaps I wouldn’t have gotten so discouraged and quit my artwork.” (A kind word goes a lot further than you may ever realize)
If you are struggling with a performance difficulty, or consistently underachieving, call me today. I can help!