Why I Kept Silent About My Eating Disorder, and Why Coaches Shouldn’t

Dear Coach,
You are required to detect the early signs of concussions, and to know when to stop an athlete from continuing to play, all with good reason: concussions are common in many sports. Unfortunately, so are eating disorders—and we still don’t know how to talk about them. Coaches aren’t even required to discuss them.
By leaving this topic in the dark, we are failing our athletes. And as a past eating disorder sufferer and runner, my heart breaks to see other athletes struggle as I did—in SILENCE–because they don’t think their eating disorder is “bad enough,” or they don’t think you would understand. I read these emails, and hear these stories over
and over
and over again.
As a fellow cross country coach, I want to thank you for wanting to do something about this.

The Cause

We can’t point at coaches as the cause of the problem—in my own experience with an eating disorder, my coach was helpful, not harmful, yet I still developed and struggled with an eating disorder. His “drawback” only came from lack of understanding at the height of my eating disorder, and in not addressing these issues until 2013, my junior year. I believe some coaches can certainly contribute to the problem, but they are not the sole cause.
Running in itself doesn’t cause eating disorders either—competitive running can be another part of the trigger, or worsen the eating disorder, but running can also can be part of an eating disorder already present. Perhaps a large reason why eating disorders are so common in running is due to the kind of people who are drawn to such sports. Competitive running demands and attracts those with a borderline obsessive desire for hard work, discipline, pushing through pain, attention to numbers, rewards based on place and times—not unlike an eating disorder would.
We as coaches are responsible for, at the very least, informing our athletes about the complexity of eating disorders within sports, and showing that we are open to talking about them should anyone be struggling or struggle in the future.

Break the Silence

Even with all my background and experiences, I am still continuing to develop a way to bring up this subject each year with my own cross country team. I still understand the concern in “causing” an eating disorder by saying the wrong thing. I still worry about how to approach it.
I can understand why others hesitate or fear bringing it up, but I care about my athletes enough to make an effort to open up an important dialogue. I know that saying something is better than keeping my silence.
I bring up eating disorders and body image both at the parent cross country meeting and at cross country camp. I bring it up with parents because I think they play an important role in trying to understand eating disorders, and in seeing any behavior changes in their kids. I bring it up to the team because whether they develop an eating disorder or not, they will better understand the complexity of eating disorders (for one, they are not based in frail appearances) and might be able to notice signs in their teammates. And at the very least, by talking with the team about these issues, you are showing that you are open and willing to talk about mental health–that you value it.

You will not prevent all eating disorders by talking about them because they are deeply rooted in psychological issues. But you can somewhat decrease the shame and silence surrounding these mental illnesses. When athletes feel more open about what they are dealing with, they can get the help they need sooner. For those who do not take the information to change behaviors already present, they are at least aware of what eating disorders entail, the consequences, and how to reach out when they find the courage to do so. You are planting a seed, and setting a standard for the team–that their physical and emotional well-being is important.

Proper Nutrition

I won’t deny it, what we put into our bodies is important to feeling good while running, and to run well. Thus I believe that talking about food is an important part of the eating disorder conversation–emphasizing that eating whole, unpackaged foods will keep us full, satisfied, and give us energy, but that doing this 100% of the time (striving for perfection with food) won’t make us, say, 30 seconds faster in a race. I explain the 80/20 way of eating (80% whole, unpackaged foods, 20% treats) to emphasize that even if we try to eat “perfectly,” it is unlikely to make us any better 80/20. Including treats/desserts for balance is part of success—this balance reduces the chance of a rebound effect with food (i.e. bingeing, very common in athletes and still rarely discussed), and prevents athletes from not taking in enough calories.
I also do not tell them that losing some weight won’t help them run faster. Unfortunately, some weight loss does lead to improvement in times. For those who have already seen improvement with losing weight, it would be too easy for them to dismiss a premise that losing weight won’t make them faster. In their eyes, a coach would lose credibility (again, as someone who suffered from an eating disorder, I know this all too well).

I share the truth: yes, losing weight (to an extent) can improve times, but it only stays that way for period of time. Injuries often result, and a damaged relationship with food ensues (it commonly leads to binge eating disorder and rapid weight gain further down the road). We emphasize that the goal is to improve gradually over time to keep running for a lifetime. But more importantly, we show why being the fastest isn’t necessarily most important.

Team Values

As coaches, we share what we want from our athletes so that they know we don’t focus just on the numbers and performance, but on who they are as people in the running world:
  1. Hard work balance: Knowing when to push hard, and when to back off. We celebrate hard workouts and easy runs.
  2. Character/Teamwork: Do they socialize with everyone on the team? Make new athletes feel welcome? Talk with each other on runs? Encourage those who are struggling? Go back to cheer on their team after they’ve finished? We make sure to put this into action, too—highlighting the runners who exemplified these wonderful characteristics/qualities, to show we value character and the team over winning/perfection.
  3. Improvement: I want our runners to beat their PRs and see numerical improvement, but the improvement I most enjoy/value seeing as a coach are how they react/respond when they are under stress, unideal circumstances, or face challenges. Do they fight through it to help the team? I emphasize that it is most powerful and inspiring to seen an athlete who has been pushed down to get back out there when the going gets tough (as long as it is not jeopardizing their health in any way).

Approaching an Athlete

Approaching an athlete you suspect struggles with an eating disorder probably needs a whole blog post for itself, but at the very basic level, coaches are encouraged to not point out weight gain or loss. Weight loss is usually interpreted as “praise” and the runner may quickly deny having an eating disorder to keep their eating disorder behaviors “safe.” Mentioning weight gain may lead to more restrictive behaviors in the hope to lose weight, which often only increases the likelihood of additional weight gain.
Based on my own experience with an eating disorder, I would have more easily opened up if someone asked about how I was doing—what was going on, if I was struggling with anything—because my eating disorder developed during a time when life was confusing and difficult. I didn’t “decide” to have an eating disorder to run faster. It goes much deeper than this, so we have to approach it beyond simply commenting on someone’s appearance. The discussion itself may eventually lead to opening up about the eating disorder, or even simply recognizing that one exists (denial often plays a role).
It’s important to note that eating disorders hide well. Discussing obsessive eating disorder thoughts, behaviors, and signs are important for sufferers to see their own preoccupations with food. I emphasize that constantly thinking about food, feeling anxious about what or how much to eat, feeling shame and guilt when eating, hoarding food, losing a period for months (women), and eating only “safe” food, usually low in fat and calories, are big signs of an eating disorder. We must talk less about weight, and more about behaviors.

Speaking Out

Because this blog post only covers maybe half of what I want to talk about in the realm of eating disorders in running and coaching, I will be speaking at the MITCA Cross Country Coaches Conference this November to share my experiences as a previous eating disorder sufferer, and as a coach tackling these eating disorder issues. It is through my experiences that I hope to share a strong plan that all coaches can use to help their athletes. Because as much as I’d like one blog post to sum it all up, it simply won’t. This is a topic that requires varying perspectives, a lot of time, and important discussion. I’m open to hearing other experiences, or anything challenging what I’ve stated above.
With that said, those of you who coach this fun sport of running, you are doing great things by recognizing that eating disorders are an issue that cannot be ignored. The high school girl within me who suffered from an eating disorder thanks you for striving to help men and women like me to stop running in silence.

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.
This entry was posted in Advice, Call to Action, Coaching, Mental Illness, Running. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Why I Kept Silent About My Eating Disorder, and Why Coaches Shouldn’t

  1. Art Hutchinson says:

    Hi, Rachael.

    I’m glad to see you making the comparison between concussion (paramount in many sports, but not so much in running) and eating disorder (near the top of the list for runners and arguably at the very top of that list).

    When I took our high school’s mandatory annual concussion certification a few weeks ago, I was struck by the similarities in what the state (MA) demands that we know, e.g., skills for recognition, education of teammates, reporting, hand-off to medical professionals, return-to-play protocols, fostering the right competitive culture, focus on long-term health, dire life outcomes if not managed properly, etc.

    The only thing different is the malady.

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