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 again.
As a fellow cross country coach, I want to thank you for wanting to do something about this.
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 think the most important thing to keep in mind is that we acknowledge this is a prevalent issue, and that we are here to help our athletes understand eating disorders, and help them if they are ever struggling with food or their bodies.
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.
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:
Hard work balance: Knowing when to push hard, and when to back off. We celebrate hard workouts and easy runs.
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. Also, how do they react/respond when they are under stress, unideal circumstances, or face challenges? 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).