How to Deal with Body Image Disorders

I think an athlete is experiencing disordered eating. What do I do?

Inform Yourself

  • How to Prevent Body Image Disorders
  • Know what resources and professionals are available. You will need support dealing with these issues. Find out who is working with athletes experiencing disordered eating in your community. Refer your athlete to them for help, guidance and assessment making sure you don’t gender stereotype. Men have eating disorders too. Learn what you can about disordered eating, weight preoccupation and body image issues for athletes but do not take on the role of counselor or therapist. Begin a list of professionals who are qualified to help athletes with disordered eating issues.

Approach the Athlete

  • Discuss your concerns with the athlete. Ask the athlete how they feel and mention some of the signs and symptoms that you are noticing. Be honest and clear. Say that you are worried and want to find someone to help.
  • Let the athlete know that disordered eating behaviours or concerns will not necessarily prevent them from participating in sport. An athlete will be less likely to talk about a problem or a related issue if they fear having to leave sport to deal with disordered eating. Let the athlete know that participation will be affected only if the eating issues continue and place their health at risk.
  • Be compassionate. Discuss your concerns with the athlete in an open and informal (but private) manner. Present yourself with understanding and empathy, acting as a concerned person (rather than an expert) who the athlete can talk to. Let the athlete know that you would like to support them in getting the help that is needed.
  • Be specific. When you are worried that an athlete has disordered eating, be specific about the things you have noticed when you talk with them. Let the athlete know that these things concern you.
  • Listen carefully to the feelings underneath words. An athlete might say "I am so fat!". Instead of replying: "No you’re not." Simply say "So, you aren’t feeling too comfortable about your body today. Is something bothering you?" Hear what the athlete is not saying.
  • Avoid laying blame on yourself or the person experiencing disordered eating. Disordered eating is a coping mechanism for deeper issues and can be complicated. There are many contributing factors that together, can make an athlete more sensitive and vulnerable to disordered eating issues.

Support the Athlete

  • Be patient. The athlete’s first instinct might be to reject you. Be careful and sensitive when discussing the topic. Accept any information or discussion as a step in the right direction. Leave the door open for the athlete to speak to you again.
  • Affirm the athlete’s participation on the team. Let the athlete know that he or she is a valuable part of the team and that you want them to perform well without compromising their health. Tell the athlete that you understand that the demands of life and sport may have contributed to the disordered eating issues.
  • Encourage the first step taken. Always let an athlete know that sharing their story with somebody is the first and biggest step towards changing the situation.
  • Seek professional help for an athlete under the age of 16 and recommend help to an athlete older than 16. You may need to decide whether you feel an athlete should still be competing if her health is in jeopardy. You can always seek information from professionals, books, and websites in ways to address the problem and provide support for the athlete, yourself and the athlete’s family.
  • Make promises you can keep. If you are obligated to inform other caretakers or professionals, or the athletes’ parents, ensure that the athlete knows this first. Follow through and follow-up with anything you offer the athlete.