The relationship between an athlete and their coach is unique and memorable. Sport staff is often highly respected and trusted by their athletes. Unfortunately, this trust can easily be abused. The coaches’ job is to develop elite athletes into champions. However, coaches also have an obligation to protect their athletes, and sometimes this responsibility gets overshadowed by the pressure to win.
In athletics, coaches often look for new ways to improve sport performance. This may include utilizing a multidisciplinary team of sports psychologists, strength staff, and dietitians, trialing new training strategies, or even tracking and manipulating weight and body composition. The problem is that some of these strategies are outside the scope of a coach’s knowledge and training, which may cause more harm than benefit. Assessing an athlete’s body shape, weight, or composition is perhaps the most dangerous strategy.
Sports that place emphasis on designated weight classes and/or aesthetics typically pose a higher risk of developing or fueling eating disorders. Such sports include bodybuilding, gymnastics, figure skating, running, rowing, rock climbing, cycling, wrestling, dance, and cheer. Thinness and smaller bodies equating to improved performance is a common misconception that exists within these sports. This false narrative often results in coaches and other sport staff promoting and encouraging various behaviors to manipulate an athlete’s body in order to meet arbitrary standards of size for peak performance.
In a recent article by Cindy Kuzma in Runner’s World (1), the dangers of using body composition testing in collegiate athletes are outlined. Mainly, focusing solely on this one data point, while ignoring the other factors contributing to athletic performance can be harmful to the athlete. Some coaches rely on weight and body composition measurements to help inform training and nutrition plans or because they believe it will help prevent injury. However, research suggests the risks of obtaining these data points far outweigh the benefits. Athletes subjected to weigh-ins and body composition testing tend to restrict more, engage in disordered behaviors, and have higher rates of anxiety stemming from comparison to their teammates.
So what can coaches do?
- Encourage open dialogue about disordered eating, body image, and performance. Create a safe space for athletes to feel comfortable discussing these topics and challenges that arise by facilitating non-judgmental conversations as a team.
- Utilize multidisciplinary team. Promote and encourage athletes to take advantage of sports psychologists, therapists, and dietitians to help athletes with topics outside the coaches’ scope. Coaches should work with other team members to help screen and support athletes who may be struggling with disordered eating, body image, or other mental health concerns.
- Stay away from the scale. Coaches do not need to be monitoring an athlete’s weight. This should be left to the team’s doctor as a means of screening, not performance prediction. This information should not be shared with the athlete.
- Avoid compliments or comments about the athlete’s body. Instead, compliment and encourage athletes for their effort, punctuality, or sportsmanship. By only commenting on the physical aspects of a person, coaches minimize the athlete to how their body looks instead of what their body can do. These compliments, or lack thereof, may be internalized by athletes and can lead to disordered behaviors as a way to seek approval from a coach.
- Refrain from attaching moral descriptors to foods. Instead, discuss food in a neutral way. Avoid terms such as “clean,” “good,” “bad,” “healthy,” and “unhealthy” when talking about food or drinks. Promote balance, flexibility, and variety rather than banning of food items.
- Never promote compensation. Food is always required and deserved regardless of how an athlete performs on any given day, the number on the scale, or the meal consumed.
- De-normalize missing a period. Coaches should routinely talk to their athletes about the importance of consistent menstruation and debunk the ‘win at all costs’ mindset rampant in athletics. It is important to remind athletes that missing a period is the body’s natural red flag that something is wrong, not a sign of hard work!
- Coach the whole athlete. Work with the athlete, not against them. Physical changes are natural and should be welcomed, not fought or manipulated. Peak performance depends on many factors – sleep, mental health, adequate nutrition, training, recovery, and hydration – avoid overemphasizing weight and body composition as the key predictors of performance.
When the coach believes and promotes these ideas, the athlete
s can begin to foster a more positive and supportive team culture. Research shows teammates have substantial influence over each other’s eating and exercise psychopathology (2), which is why team culture is so important. Coaches hold the responsibility of setting the standard for positive team culture, which will have long-lasting impact on the athletes, even post-collegiately.
- Kuzma, Cindy. (2023). Body Composition Testing – College Running Programs Moving Away From Body Comp Tests (runnersworld.com)
- Scott CL, Haycraft E, Plateau CR. Teammate influences and relationship quality are associated with eating and exercise psychopathology in athletes. Appetite. 2019 Dec 1;143:104404. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2019.104404. Epub 2019 Aug 14. PMID: 31421196.