Today’s young athletes, particularly those of high school age, are unlike the competitors of younger generations. These millennials have been raised in competitive sports environments (many of them beginning in pre-school) throughout their childhood and pre-teen years. Parents are often under the dangerous and false assumption that competitive sports foster high self-esteem and strong work ethic. While this may be true under the right conditions, all too often adolescents develop high anxiety and disordered relationships with their bodies within the world of competitive sports. What are the signs of eating disorders and exercise addiction in young athletes, and how can parents, coaches, and physicians provide appropriate and attuned intervention?
Signs of eating disorders are more difficult to identify in an athlete, precisely because their relationship with food and exercise relates to their ability to perform at their best. They are likely educated on balanced nutrition, exercise, and rest to enhance their physical and mental acuity for their particular sport. However, a perfectionistic or highly competitive individual may begin to obsessively research meal plans, macro-nutrients, exercise routines, and training schedules. It’s important to make note of increased preoccupation with training, especially if it begins to replace other activities or relationships the athlete once found enjoyable. Anxiety around meal time is another troublesome sign. Individuals struggling with disordered eating will develop increased rigidity around the amount and types of foods they eat, along with when and how they consume these identified “safe” foods.
Physicians in particular can be on the lookout for repeat and/or untreated injuries. A frequent aspect of the eating disorder is a positive association with physical pain. Individuals may seek this “pain as pleasure” through extreme restriction, binging and purging, self-harm, partner abuse, or exercising through injuries, including broken bones. These associations develop for a variety of reasons. One reason an athlete may struggle with this relates back to the competition and rigor of childhood sports. Children and adolescents are reinforced for their “toughness;” well-meaning parents and coaches celebrate bruises in an effort to prevent their child from becoming intimidated on the field. Parents can also unwittingly model perfectionistic and self-critical behavior. Eating disorders, exercise compulsion, and self-harm all have deep layers, which is why therapy with an experienced and qualified eating disorder therapist is so valuable to re-direct and hopefully prevent a long-term battle.
How can one approach an athlete if they notice these signs? First, approach the conversation from a place of genuine curiosity and concern. Provide space for them to discuss any pressure they feel to be perfect or out-perform their peers. Try not to become discouraged by defensiveness; remember, the athlete is highly protective of their achievements and could easily feel threatened by implication they have taken their dieting or exercise to an unhealthy level. Coaches and physicians in particular can emphasize that getting treatment does not mean giving up their beloved sport. However, the longer they maintain restricted diet and over-exercise, the more likely their performance will begin to suffer, including long-term damage to muscle tissue, bones, organs, and fertility.
In addition to seeking therapy, parents and family members can communicate with their loved one about their relationship with shame and perfectionism. They may want to be explore whether they’ve unconsciously reinforced their perfectionism or provided a message about hard work and achievement that has been misconstrued. Dismantling problematic core beliefs is one critical part of the therapy process. Finally, and most importantly, they can emphasize that their admiration and love is in no way tied to athletic performance. With proper treatment, young athletes can re-discover a balance to life that allows for a true love of the sport again.
If you or someone you love is struggling with issues surrounding food or over-exercise, help is available through West County Psychological Associates. Contact us today to speak with a therapist who can discuss your needs.