Q: Playing Coach: How to approach eating disorders with a team?

If you were the coach of a collegiate women’s cross country team, how would you approach the issue of body image and weight?

A:

I don’t know how I would approach it with a high school team, but for a college team, I think this is an issue that should be addressed from week one, alongside all other important factors to performance and team dynamics.  If I were coach, (which I’m not, so take it for what its worth) speaking to a collegiate team tomorrow, given my personal experiences up to this point, I’d probably say something like this:

“Weight and body image are issues that every single runner deals with at some point.  For some of you it may already have happened, and for others you might not give it a thought until your 30’s.  Just know that the athletes that make it to the highest levels and have the longest careers learn how to manage their weight in a healthy way without getting obsessed, and know when to say enough is enough.  That is the goal for each of us.

“From what I’ve seen, only a small percentage of female athletes develop a black or white eating problem.  Its important that we don’t look at the issue that way.  The rest of us are all shades of grey*, working our way through a tough sport with lots of pressures to be perfect. We all have periods of time where we pick ourselves apart and periods of time where we accept ourselves…even those of us who appear to have it all figured out.

“In our sport we will see mirages of perfection who are silently destroying their bones and setting themselves up for years of problems for one or two seasons of success.  That is a short cut.  That is not how this team operates.  We aspire to do things the best way, the ethical way, and we do not sacrifice our health.  There will be times of the year where you need to lose a few, times in your season where you will need to maintain, and times of year where you will need to gain a few, and the goal is to learn to do that with as little thinking as possible.  Know that it is possible to do that.

“People love to tell you that being light improves performance, but many women take this further than they need to; they would get the same effect with less weight loss and it would be sustainable.  There is a wider range in weight for success than you may think.  Make sure you pay attention to the healthy looking athletes that compete well, not just the overly skinny ones.  Celebrate them.  They have always existed, and they always will.

“And finally, recognize the power you all have to influence one another for either success or failure in this area.  We can be a healthy, well adjusted team that improves incrementally and sets ourselves up for many years of success.  Or we can spend all our time thinking about weight and food, letting disordered eating spread like a virus through our team, not only affecting our bodies, but robbing us of enjoying our experiences together.  Do not let the dominant story of your season and your relationships be about food.  Its simply not necessary, and more importantly, it takes the fun out of everything.

“My door is always open on this subject, like any other.  I want you all to be healthy and successful, and I’ll help you any way I can.”

That’s the best I’ve got.  Can you think of any other points collegiate women would benefit from hearing from their coach?

*Credit goes to Dave DeLong, Vin Lananna and especially Dena Evans for their influence on me in this area.  Dena is the person who talked about people being shades of grey, which really stuck with me, not just on this issue but many others.