Coaches and Eating Disorders
Updated: Jul 30, 2018
"This disease isn’t always easy to see. One of the main things I learned through that experience 16 years ago is that eating disorders are a sacred secret. And most people will do what they need to do to keep it secret.
So, if someone finds the courage to tell you this sacred secret, I want you to be prepared. Because how we respond as coaches, as mentors, as friends and loved ones matters. Our response could be the difference between literal life and death. Because not everyone will give you a second chance to get it right".
The first time a young woman came to me and said, “I am making myself throw up”, you know what my response was? “Well, stop making yourself throw up.”
Yes, that was my response. That was 16 years ago, and I still remember my response. It haunts me.
I think about how she must have felt after finding the courage to finally tell someone this sacred secret and my response was, “Well, stop it”, as if that were an option. It absolutely pains my soul and breaks my heart.
I am so thankful that she gave me another chance. I’m so thankful that she was at a point that she truly wanted to get a handle on this disease, and she came back.
Again, this was 16 years ago, so I don’t remember what my second response was, but I do know that we got her help. And I’m so thankful that she allowed the counselor to share information with me, and she allowed me to walk with her on this journey. What I learned changed my world.
You know, I had seen movies, documentaries and pictures of women with eating disorders. They were frail and skinny with pale skin; sickly looking. This woman was a brick shit house. She was one of the top swimmers in the world. She was strong and thick and powerful. She busted her ass in practice. She gave everything, and I mean everything when she raced. She was the last person I would think was struggling with an eating disorder.
This disease isn’t always easy to see. One of the main things I learned through that experience 16 years ago is that eating disorders are a sacred secret. And most people will do what they need to do to keep it secret.
So, if someone finds the courage to tell you this sacred secret, I want you to be prepared. Because how we respond as coaches, as mentors, as friends and loved ones matters. Our response could be the difference between literal life and death. Because not everyone will give you a second chance to get it right.
I feel like I’ve learned so much walking with so many women on this journey for the last 16 years. But instead of giving my opinion, I wanted you to hear from women that have struggled with an eating disorder. I asked them to tell me how they would have wanted things handled when they were struggling.
Let me be clear though, all women are different, and there is no “perfect equation” on how to handle this. But there were a few things that stuck out to me that every woman agreed with. I want to share those with you.
This is not a weakness. This is a mental illness and they cannot help it. Direct quote: “It is not just someone saying they are having a bad day or they feel fat today or I am sad today. It is a mental illness that takes over the brain into how they are viewing and thinking of themselves and everything is the most negative thing you can possibly think of.”
(I feel like I need to add this: some of you coaches may have a really tough woman on your team and you may think that she can handle anything and she’s “tough enough” to handle this on her own. No. Seriously, no. This disease is not about being a weakling or not tough enough, this is a mental illness and they cannot help it.)
(*And FYI: eating disorders has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness)
Every coach should have a contact for athletes and parents. If someone is struggling and wants help, they need to know who to contact. Sometimes not knowing the first step can keep people from taking that first step. Make the first step easy by having the contact information of a counselor, psychologist or therapist. Do your homework and make sure everyone on your team has this contact info. *If they have to ask for it, they may not find the courage to ask.
Educate your team. Have nutritionists come in and talk about healthy eating. We just assume that parents are teaching this or they just know. Most do not. Bringing in someone to speak about it will not only educate them, but it will give them another contact to reach out to. At Lead Sports Summit last year, I was blown away by how many young women stayed to talk to Jen, our nutritionist after her talk. There were so many questions, and many of them were in tears, because this kind of stuff is so personal for a woman.
*Let me add. Please take the time to talk to this nutritionist first. Not all nutritionists are the same. Make sure it’s someone that understands sports and training. Make sure it’s someone that your team can relate to and will be real with your athletes. And make sure it’s someone that is educated on eating disorders. Very important!
Don’t be afraid to talk openly about eating disorders. It is a big part of the sports world. Again, 3 million people in the US struggle with an eating disorder, so it is a reality you are going to have to deal with. When you speak openly about it, it doesn’t seem like such a shameful secret. It helps those struggling feel like they’re not the only ones and they’re not a weakling or misfit. And remember, those stats should tell you that there is a very good chance that you are going to have to deal with this.
DO NOT do public weigh in’s!! I can’t stress this enough. Personally, I can’t even count the amount of female athletes that I know struggle with an eating disorder that say public weigh in’s “got the ball rolling” on their eating disorder.
Do not talk about their weight. Bring the nutritionist in consistently to educate and have contact information known if someone is struggling. Do not take it upon yourself to talk to them about losing weight. You need to understand that one statement about their weight can get the “ball rolling” on an eating disorder.
Pay attention to who they are as women, not their bodies.
Direct quote: “Don’t tell them they “are fine the way they look” or ” you have a beautiful athletic figure and are perfect right now”…..none of us believe that. We think we are fat and slow and for whatever reason we are not in control of things so we turn to the food because we can control that. Focus on the person and not the body would have helped me. Get my head out of what I look like or what I wanted to look like and focus on me.”
This is a very big deal, but no one wants to see shock on their coaches face if they find courage to admit they are struggling. Have a plan for yourself. When someone comes to you, stay calm and follow through with your plan. Yes, it is a very big deal, but they don’t need to feel like a freak, a misfit or a weakling. Again, it is a big part of the sports world, so be ready.
What should that plan look like? 3 things came up consistently…..
*Stay calm and BE INTENTIONAL about what you say to them. I am here. I am concerned. You are not alone. You can trust me. These statements are what I heard consistently. And yes, be concerned, but do not turn them into “the team freak” that is struggling. Because believe me, there are probably more women on your team struggling, this particular woman just found the courage to admit it. This is very personal and very private.
And most importantly, NO shaming! This is not their fault. This is a mental illness. Know that if they do admit it, they are probably at rock bottom, so they are fragile and what you say is truly important.
*Lead them to the professional.
*Walk this journey with them. Don’t just hand them off to the professional and never talk about it again. They feel very alone. Make sure you constantly remind them that you are here and they will never be alone in this.
I thought it was also important to state that a lot of the women compared eating disorders to alcoholism. It is something that is manageable, but it is something that they will struggle with for the rest of their lives.
And I felt it was important to add this quote: “You are correct that many schools of therapy believe this is a disease like alcoholism and they cannot just “not do it”. For some of us it takes over our lives. But there will be those (just like alcoholics) that have ” disordered eating” just during a time of their lives. For example: Many college kids drink alcoholically during college but they are not alcoholics. They drink too much during those years and then go back to normal drinking after college. (the alcoholic will continue to drink ) Same with food…some girls (and guys) may binge and purge almost socially. In college FOR SURE. Girls get together and go pig out and actually talk about going back to the dorms to throw up. They are “eating disordered” but may not be full blown bulimics.” ** But please don’t assume your athlete is just “experimenting” or have “disordered eating”. And remember, this kind of behavior is so damaging to a body, even if it’s just for a short time in their lives.
To close, this is very complex and I know we could never come close to hitting every detail. But I hope sharing what I heard from these women helps a little. And here’s what I believe; even if no athlete ever comes to you personally to admit that they have an eating disorder (some of the women said “they’d die if my coach knew”), by giving them contacts of professionals, by keeping them educated and by speaking openly about eating disorders, so they don’t feel like a misfit or all alone, YOU can be a life changer and even a life saver for someone!