The Race Many Coaches Have Yet to Run

This weekend I spoke at the MITCA (Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association) cross country coaches clinic to share my eating disorder story (as a reflection of many stories), my recovery process, what may cause eating disorders in running, and of course, how coaches can address this topic each year with their athletes.
I don’t think I’ve ever been this nervous for a presentation in my life. Speaking for an audience I’ve wanted to reach for years made me want to get it down “perfectly.” I am aware that I have other opportunities ahead of me, but I also know that each time I get in front of a group, as someone who has been through an eating disorder, written about it, and coaches as well, it is my responsibility to reach these coaches in the right way.

This wasn’t a presentation for just the coaches who currently battle this issue with a runner–it was for every coach because each year there is a chance that an athlete could come through their program running in silence. There may have been seasons that have gone by without a coach even knowing a student athlete has suffered. No one–not even the best of coaches–are immune to getting an athlete who struggles with this, and the secretive nature of eating disorders make it a tough situation to find to begin with.

Misconceptions

What makes this even trickier are the number of misconceptions about eating disorders, which prevents coaches from even thinking that this needs to be something for them to learn about. I could immediately tell the coaches who hadn’t attended the talk (days later, these coaches were looking at my book at the vendor table with curiosity). They usually made a comment about how they “didn’t have eating disorders on their team” (like one who just coached boys and thought it didn’t affect men, or because none of their runners were “stick-thin”).
It makes me frustrated, but mostly sad–not with the coaches per say, but that the requirements for coaching do not include an awareness for the prevalence and misconceptions of eating disorders. Coaches simply aren’t exposed to this information or required to understand the complexity and importance, to know this is something all coaches should be discussing whether they think their athletes are dealing with it or not.
For those of us who are battling or understand eating disorders and immerse ourselves in the research, it’s easy to wonder how some coaches could think this is a non-issue because they say they don’t “see” it. That puts some of the responsibility on us to reach these audiences to help them understand the importance of this topic. It’s on those who are struggling to find the courage to talk about what they’re going through so that coaches begin to see how common it is. It’s on people like me–who are shaking with anxiety at dinner an hour before speaking–to keep pushing through, doing things that scare us, and keep spreading the message.
I’m sad that some coaches may very well be walking away from the information that could encourage a girl or boy on their team to stop running in silence–in this season, or in five.

Takeaways

The feedback I received from those who did attend my presentation “Why I Kept Silent About My Eating Disorder, and Why Coaches Shouldn’t”, was overwhelmingly positive. I’m thankful that I was able to reach the large number of coaches that I did, and that those who came were that impacted by what they heard and saw.
I had one “complaint” from the director–that he was up until 12:30am reading Running in Silence after the presentation. I had a coach who was clawing for any information he could get from me to help his own athletes. I had a woman grab my hand, eyes brimming with tears, wanting to speak further, and not quite finding the words.
This is what gives me hope, and what encourages me to continue pushing forward.

Talking with the final few coaches after the presentation

MITCA was a blessing. It was an eye-opener. It created great potential for what I’ll continue to do as I travel to other states to speak. I left the clinic with a greater awareness for the audience I was speaking to, and with hope for those who took the information to help their athletes.
I thanked the coaches who came–and if you are a coach reading this, too–I thank you for recognizing that this is something we cannot ignore, and that there’s much more work yet to be done.
We’ve just pushed off the starting line.

About Rachael

Rachael Steil is a graduate from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan with a Bachelor of Arts. Steil an author, speaker, and a recipient of the Spirit and Outstanding Runner award for the Aquinas College cross country team and has received 6th place All-American accolades in cross country as well as 7th place in the NAIA track nationals.

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