How Coaches Can Help Prevent Eating Disorders in Athletes

How Coaches Can Help Prevent Eating Disorders in Athletes

For a young athlete, one of the most important figures in their lives is their coach. Coaches have the ability to inspire athletes to perform on the field, and to encourage them to live up to their potential off the field.

But with that influence comes responsibility. Coaches are often in the best position to notice when an athlete is showing signs of disordered eating, such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating, said Jennifer Lentzke, MS, RD, CEDRD, CSSD, a registered dietitian with specialized training in eating disorders and sports nutrition. Lentzke is lead dietitian at Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders. 

Here are some of the signs of eating disorders for coaches to look out for and advice on what to do to help.

Q. What are the most overlooked warning sign of an eating disorder in an athlete?

Abnormal eating patterns can be easily overlooked within the culture of sports. Athletes typically are a unique subset of the population. Along with that can come some idiosyncrasies involving eating.

A lot of runners will hold off on eating too much before practice. Within the culture of sports that might look normal, and if they’re eating after practice, it might be fine. But that could be a hidden eating disorder if they’re also not eating after practice. Or, an elite athlete might eat a large quantity of food that someone might think is unreasonable and symptomatic of a binge, but the athlete is eating according to their hunger. The message is that what constitutes abnormal eating patterns in a non-athlete or a casual athlete may look different in an elite athlete.

Body composition is another warning sign that within the culture of sports can get overlooked. We typically associate athletes with being lean, or having a certain body type, and that’s normal for that sport. What tends to be unseen is what’s going on inside. Is their blood work normal? Are they getting their period? Is their bone density OK? We see these lean, mean athletes that look strong yet and on the inside they have osteoporosis, or they’re not getting their period, or they’re anemic, or their heart is getting smaller and weaker because they’re not fueling their body properly.

Q. What advice do you have for coaches?

The biggest message is that coaches aren’t aware of the enormous number of athletes dealing with disordered eating. It’s prevalent in almost every sport. Coaches need to educate themselves on eating disorders, so they can be aware of what to look for.

Unfortunately we find that coaches often don’t act on their suspicions, especially if the athlete is still performing well. A lot of coaches let anorexic runners keep running because they’re fast. What they’re not considering is if that girl continues in her eating disorder, she will have the bones of a 60-year-old by the time she’s 18.

Q. Can coaches help prevent eating disorders?

It’s often said that genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger. Coaches need to be sensitive to the way athletes think. Athletes may feel an immense amount of pressure. Athletes tend to really look up to the coach. They want to perform. They feed off of positive reinforcement. They will hang on every word that the coach says. One offhand comment about their weight or appearance can be the trigger for someone who is vulnerable, so be careful what you say. Also be aware of the implicit messages or pressure athletes may feel to drop weight or look a certain way.

Q. What should a coach do if they suspect an eating disorder?

As a first step, share your concerns with the parents or caregiver. You may find parents have had their suspicions too, but weren’t sure if they should act on their worries. Parents are also integral to recovery from an eating disorder.

Privately mention your concerns to your athlete, let them know that help is available and you’re here to support them. Parents can call Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders to speak confidentially with one of our eating disorders specialists. Rosewood has many years of experience treating athletes suffering from eating disorders, and helping them to recover fully.