Stress, eating disorders linked to athlete competitiveness

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Capital News Service
LANSING – Life-threatening eating disorders can develop and affect athletes differently than non-athletes, experts say.
In 2009, 13 percent of Michigan high school students reported some levels of anorexic behavior, while 7 percent reported bulimic behavior, according to a survey by the Department of Education.
There is little difference between the percentages of athletes and non-athletes with eating disorders, but athletes face stress and situations that can provoke a disorder to manifest, said Marty Ewing, an associate professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University.
“We have the same body image issues outside of sports that we do in sports,” she said.
“We just have a better stage for judging athletes’ appearances and athletes have a better stage for judging themselves against others,” Ewing said. “In the weight room, in the locker room and when they are competing, there are opportunities to compare themselves. It’s a deep seated stressor and then becomes who they are.”
The Michigan High School Athletics Association in East Lansing trains its coaches in both the prevention and recognition of medical issues, including nutrition, said Geoff Kimmerly, its media and content coordinator.
He said that the association provides a number of resources for school districts and coaches.
MSU does not keep a sports psychologist as part of its sports medicine team, but athletic trainers are taught to notice warning signs of an sports anxiety or eating disorders and refer the athlete to proper care, Ewing said.
Ewing said there is a difference between athletes managing their weight and an eating disorder.
“Sometimes needing to manage your weight for your sport is just a reality of that sport,” Ewing said. “It becomes more serious when I’m looking at myself in the mirror and being unhappy with what I see.”
Diane Israel, a psychotherapist in Boulder, Colo., said athletes and others with eating disorders share some character traits.
“The type of person that is driven to be very athletic has the characteristics that we often find in eating disorders, perfection, control, pushing ourselves, type A personalities, and incredibly driven,” Israel said.
Eating disorders are often found in athletes in sports that emphasize weight and appearance like gymnastics, wrestling, swimming and running, said Israel, a former professional runner and tri-athlete who dealt with anorexia during her athletic career.
She said that athletes with eating disorders can often hide it for longer from those around them by blaming weight loss and an increased focus on their body on being an athlete. Athletes often don’t know they have an eating disorder because they feel that what they are doing isn’t dysfunctional, but rather an essential part of performing at a high level, Israel said.
Israel said the stress an athlete puts on their body will cause an eating disorder to affect them faster than it would a non-athlete.
“Often an eating disorder catches up with athletes when the performance goes, the bone density goes and their brains don’t work as well,” she said.
Israel said both parents and coaches should be careful when talking about weight with athletes.
“It only takes one message to completely affect someone with an eating disorder, so we have to be mindful of what we say to our athletes because it can have a deep effect on their self-image,” Israel said.
MSU’s Ewing said athletes who are prone to eating disorders process advice on weight differently than other athletes. A coach might tell the athlete that losing 10 pounds will increase performance, but the athlete will think that if losing 10 pounds is good, losing 20 or more would be even better.
She said eating disorders are a major topic of discussion at coaches’ conferences and meetings, particularly for those whose sports involve a weigh-in.

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