Athletes demonstrate similar behaviours when they wish to portray an image to their coach, i.e. to demonstrate that they will do what it takes to be the best they can be. That could be as simple as saying they feel motivated to do a session, to demonstrate commitment, even though they’re knackered and would prefer to be doing something else. Those with eating disorders may try to demonstrate “I've got a healthy relationship with food and I'm eating normally”. Outward signs will be sending different messages though. Despite what we’d like to believe, humans aren't really rationale creatures.
My mum died of a combination of emphysema and alcohol related diseases. Signs of her imminent demise were clear to everyone, but her condition was ‘medically’ reversible right up to the time she collapsed in a coma. Whilst my relationship with her wasn't great, I did everything I could to get her to stop smoking and drinking. I failed. Imagine a scene from Casualty. The consultant asked to see me for ‘the’ conversation. He was more uncomfortable than I was. Whilst my dad disagreed, I was all for switching off life-support as she had suffered significant brain damage.
Many years of alcohol abuse had damaged the way my mum thought and behaved. In life, she had become unable to make rational decisions. She hid bottles of gin behind the sofa thinking I didn't notice. Trying to mention things sensitively didn't work. Getting angry didn't work. Shouting didn't work. At the time, I was incredibly angry at her utterly selfish behaviour. The fact is that her excessive drinking had resulted in faulty thinking. What seemed rational to the rest of the world did not resonate with her.
It’s much the same with eating disorders, for both the sufferers and those close to them. Those with an eating disorder may demonstrate a fixation with food, subconsciously attempting to show to others that everything is fine. For example, bulimia sufferers may eat ‘normally’ but then make themselves sick when alone. Others see the obvious signs of excessive weight loss and changes in behaviour, but the sufferer continues with a veil of deception and lies.
Or do they? I think not. Whilst not negating the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions, being in continual energy deficit affects all systems of the body including brain function. Behaviour is unlikely to be rational as a result. Sufferers subconsciously deceive themselves, using a form of cognitive dissonance. But they are not fooling anyone but themselves.
For others trying to help through reasoning and rationale argument, it is incredibly frustrating and upsetting. With my Mum, the doctors gave her drugs for her emphysema and asthma and treated her broken leg when she fell. The thing is, none of this would ‘rebalance’ brain chemistry and solve the underlying issues that affected her behaviour. Similarly, an eating disorder won’t simply be resolved through the promotion of healthy eating. It’s likely to require a very long-haul fix including extensive psychological/psychiatric support such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). It’s a job for the professionals.
A Coaching Perspective
Being a coach is in an incredibly influential and privileged position as athletes often put their complete trust in you. The satisfaction of helping someone achieve their potential is amazing, but to achieve such success involves making many mistakes too. A top coach once confided in me about an athlete:
I pushed her really hard and she lapped it up. She was so tough and she seemed to be getting better all the time. Then she cracked. Her body had simply broken down and I didn't see the signs, despite them seeming obvious now. I fucked up.
To achieve sporting success involves coaches and athletes continually pushing the boundaries in search of the ‘red line’. Occasional going over this line is inevitable when highly motivated individuals are involved. In most cases, performance may suffer in the short-term but there will be no long-term consequences if the coach and the athlete are able to identify and reflect on mistakes made.
Weight management is very difficult for coaches to broach, regardless of their experience. It becomes even more challenging on some elite programmes when athletes are seen as a means to achieve ‘Key Performance Indicators’ rather than as individuals.
The best athletes are very good at reflecting as this allows them to explore options on how they can improve. They will often think more about what others say after the event. Whilst being a reflector is usually positive, it can also negatively influence self-perception and confidence levels. For example, highlighting the importance of achieving ‘optimum race weight’ could be interpreted by some as:
- I need to be as thin as possible
- They’re hinting that I need to lose weight
Misinterpretation of such well-meaning comments could trigger an eating disorder in an athlete, especially if they are genetically/neurologically predisposed towards getting one. Coaches are not the cause but they certainly can be the trigger.
Many coaches I know focus on the training prescription, such as training zones, periodisation and power meters. However, for me the role of a coach is also about delivering meaningful changes in the performance of their athletes through influencing their knowledge, beliefs, expectations and perceptions. That includes getting to know them as individuals, what their self-esteem is like and what motivates them. Any clown can prescribe 2 x 20 mins at Functional Threshold Power or write a swim-set on a white board!
Focussing on the individual is key as it opens good two-way communication. One athlete I coached worked in a male-dominated macho environment where body image was important. He was a rapid cyclist but his upper-body was too muscular! I had the data from body composition measurement to back my statements up and it was relatively easy for me to suggest that he needed to get lighter! The process was slow though, backed up by expert advice, specific goals and further body composition measurements. It worked too! However, my approach would be quite different with other athletes.
Nina’s quote re-enforced to me the importance of getting communication right and not making generalisations on weight management, especially when working with young motivated athletes, most specifically girls. Performance sports coaching is very male dominated, so many coaches do not fully understand the social pressures regarding body image that young female athletes face. In that context, it is very easy for a well-meaning coach to make a comment that may seem the most logical one in the world without considering fully how it could be perceived.
It’s unreasonable to expect coaches never to approach the issue of weight management though. That’s because it is such an important subject within the context of endurance sport. However, it must be considered in the context of the long-term development of the athlete. If a youngster is a few kg over-weight at 16 years old, then is this something to worry about? If an athlete is not the ’optimal body-composition’ and has not got a realistic prospect at performing at world-level, then does it matter?