I recall being 10 years old, standing on the pitching mound of a little league field and chucking my best fastball to Daniel behind the plate. Swing and a miss! It was good fun. We got dirty, learned teamwork, self-esteem was built, and athletic skills were enhanced all while having fun. Somewhere along the way from recreational to high school sports, athletics became more than just competitive. Winning became dogma. Winning came at any cost.
It was during my senior year that I turned to anorexia and compulsive exercise for a myriad of reasons. The same things that drove me to be a better athlete drove me to my eating disorder: perfectionism, being goal oriented, pushing for control over my body. The cost to me was my mental health, and some years down the road my physical health as well. Olympic swimmer Dara Torres said as much in her autobiography Age is Just a Number, “The worst part of my bulimia was its psychological effects. Sure I had no energy in the water … but the real problem was that I lost my mind.” This story is not uncommon, for male or female athletes.
Recent research suggests as many as 30% of high school and college athletes report eating disorder behaviors, and 91% of NCAA coaches believe they have athletes with an eating disorder on their teams. The sports where athletes are under pressure to “make weight” are often the most susceptible such as gymnastics, swimming, track, rowing, body building, and wrestling. Additionally, sports like diving, figure skating, and dance, where body image is a major component, are also likely to be high risk for eating disorder development.
Let’s not forget, having an eating disorder is not a life sentence if caught early and appropriate treatment is received. Sadly, only a third of girls with an eating disorder seek treatment due to shame and stigma, and less than 1 in 10 males will do so. If not caught early and treated aggressively, relapse rates are reported to be about 40%.
Make no mistake, sports and athletics are wonderful opportunities for personal growth and development. But it’s crucial to keep perspective in competition. When winning at all costs becomes evident, and the balance between enjoyment and pressure to succeed are lost, it’s time to look for those additional signs that an eating disorder may also be present. All the more reason for coaches, trainers, and parents to be educated about eating disorders in males and females and get those athletes into treatment as soon as possible.
By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, LICSW, CEDS - Founder and CEO at The Body Image Therapy Center. If you would like to get in touch with Andrew please call 877-674-2843 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.