Have you ever ran so much that you felt like you have burned off every calorie that you have consumed that day? Or have you ever played a sport that you would go through drastic measures to become the best? These are common thoughts among athletes all across the world. Athletes are more vulnerable for an eating disorder than non-athletes. Athletes' competitiveness and endless strive for perfection often times lead to mild and extreme cases of eating disorders. Athletes are usually very goal orientated, have driven personalities, and are people pleasers; which generally leads to obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Competitors in any sport, feel as though there is no limit to exercising. However, this idea of unlimited exercising has been proven absolutely false. In many sports, weight and image tend to play a role in the outcome of the event; this then can lead to destructive weight loss methods used by many athletes. Along with an athlete's drive to become the best, coaches can also instigate eating disorders. A coach's praise is something an athlete strives for but more often times, a coach's criticism can lead to destructive behaviors and insecurities within an athlete.
The competitive nature of sports and the ambitious feeling in athletes cause some of them to turn to eating disorders. Athletes' expectations for themselves and their heightened awareness of their body image make them prone to destructive eating patterns. Highly competitive athletes have similar character traits as anorexics such as, perfectionism and obsessive behavior. According to Jenny Moshak, assistant athletic director for sports medicine at the University of Tennessee, "People who have addictive tendencies gravitate toward athletics." Competitors feel as though dieting and losing weight will fix their flaws and allow them to excel at something-losing weight. However, athletes can easily destroy the very muscles they work so hard to build up because of musculoskeletal problems. The lack of nutrients an over-exercised athlete receives can cause poor muscle strength and a decrease in stamina. Additionally, an anorexic's bone is seven times more likely to break a bone than a healthy individual.
Severe cases of eating disorders do not happen in one day. Many athletes suffer from subclinical eating disorder, which can then lead to a much serious clinical problem. Leading researchers say that athletes take up abnormal eating patterns such as skipping meals, twenty-four hour fasts, calorie restrictions and occasional purging as a mean to lose weight. Many athletes are so obsessed with their weight and fearful of becoming overweight. A survey of over 400 female collegiate athletes showed that 43% reported feeling terrified of becoming overweight, 22% were extremely preoccupied with food and weight and 31% had irregular or absent menstrual periods (a sign of inadequate fueling).Additionally, 18% of the women had or were at risk for having anorexia and 34% had or were at risk for having bulimia. (Beals, Int'l J Sports Nutr 2002)
Eating disordered athletes are more common in some sports than others, sports such as; gymnastics, crew, wrestling, volleyball and running. Gymnastics causes the most concern for gymnasts believe that their size will influence their final score and this belief alone has changed the average size of gymnasts from 5'3" weighing 105 lbs in 1976 to 4'9" weighing 88 pounds in 1992. (Thompson, Athletes and Eating Disorders 2009) Christy Henrich, one of the world's top gymnasts, thought that she was to fat and the only way she could make it to the Olympic squad was by drastic measures. These drastic measures resorted in anorexia and bulimia; her weight had gone as low as 47 pounds. Tragically, on July 26, 1994, at the young age of 22, Christy died of multiple organ failure.
Although, some would say it's not the sports fault eating disorders has become a greater issue because eating disorders came before athletics. Anorexics just join the sport as a way to cover up their destructive habits. Since eating disorders occur in athletes who have addictive personalities is it really the sport that is causing the destructive eating patterns or is it just a certain type of personality? However, statistics show that individual sports increase an athlete's chance of developing an eating disorder. Coaches preach competiveness and "keeping your eye on the prize", the same type of mentality found in eating disordered athletes. Wrestling coaches actually train their wrestlers to lose weight to get into lower weight classes. Some wrestlers can even be losing up to five to ten pounds in one day.
Athletics do play a major role in eating disorders and athletes. Eating disorders are very serious and should in no way be taking lightly. Parents that are looking to put their child into a competitive sport should join their son or daughter for the first few days of training to observe the coaches and their methods of training. Parents should look out for coaches who seem to put too much pressure on their athletes to succeed. Coaches should look for warning signs of their athletes who show signs of an eating disorder. These competitors may; excuse themselves often from group activities, brush their teeth after eating, and show constant concern about their appearance. Also, a coach should be careful about he or she is saying to one of their athletes because although it may not mean much at the time, an athlete may remember their criticism for a life time. Like Colleen Thompson said, "No gold medal is worth dying for."