Coaching Athletes with Eating Disorders and Body Dysmorphia
During National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, the stories and concerns of survivors are highlighted on social media and in real life. And while CrossFit has lent a helping hand in the healing process of many athletes, inside an affiliate’s walls is not always a safe space for these people. With input from Dr. Aaron Kuhn, a licensed counselor and the creator of the Trauma Informed Athlete Centered Coaching program, here’s how you can implement trauma-informed techniques for you and your coaching staff.
1. Identifying Problems Early is Key
An athlete at risk for or that is currently struggling with an eating disorder is likely to be extremely controlling with their diet–obsessively tracking macros or the environment it’s in, Kuhn. In his time working with athletes and other people in the fitness world, he says that one of the biggest problems he routinely sees is overcontrolled behavior in perfectionists.
- “High achieving people try to control their environment through anxiety and their intake of food,” Kuhn explained. “Overcontrolled to the point where they’re not connecting with others anymore.”
According to the National Eating Disorder Association, warning signs of eating disorders (though they vary, of course) can include:
- Preoccupation with food, including restricting food intake or food types, having obsessive rituals around food, or concern with eating new foods
- Worry and guilt about eating “impure” or “unhealthy” foods
- Extreme body image issues and frequently checking their body in the mirror
- Physical symptoms can manifest as fluctuations in weight, poor immune and gastrointestinal function, menstrual problems, and weakness (among others)
2. Understanding the Disease
If you’ve identified an athlete you think may be at risk for an eating disorder, what do you do next? Kuhn says that it’s important to understand how the disease works. While eating disorders are commonly portrayed in the media as young girls starving themselves and doing endless amounts of cardio and crunches, it can in reality look very different.
- “We all have high performing athletes at our gym – especially Games athletes – that can be driven to a point where anything less than perfection is devastating,” Kuhn said. “They go on this emotional ride where if they feel like they’re not performing at their peak (…) they have this mindset of “I just failed, I need to push harder.”
This, Kuhn says, is where some athletes continue to push and try to perfect their bodies when in reality, they’re only hurting themselves. However, this never ending drive towards perfection can be “euphoric” for some, which only continues the cycle.
3. Forming Deeper Connections
One key way coaches can help triage an athlete with an eating disorder is through creating a connection with their body performance in the gym. If an athlete’s mind is completely bogged down by athletic performance and the physical manifestation of their work, it’s likely that their identity is strongly tied to it. Bringing them back to Earth and connecting with them as people is crucial, Kuhn says.
- Kuhn: “Individuals that are overcontrolled, they function out of fight or flight, so just (…)meeting them at the door with a smile, they feel safe. Like, “okay, I can feel relatable here.”
Once you’ve identified an athlete with these behaviors and have started forming a relationship with them, Kuhn encourages coaches to help them “reboot” from their thought spirals. This means bringing athletes back down to Earth and grounded in logic, whereas their thought spirals might go otherwise. For example, he says he often tells athletes down about a mistake in a workout, “hey, mistakes don’t happen on purpose, what can we learn from this?”
Here are three quick ways for coaches to “reboot” athletes in these thought cycles:
- Welcoming athletes into the gym – Kuhn says that just making athletes feel included can make fitness fun again, not a stressful task they have to conquer on their own.
- Calling out overcontrolled behavior – Nobody wants to get onto their athlete going through a tough time, but putting a stop to their harmful behaviors can be a game changer.
- Match + 1 – this tactic that Kuhn uses helps make athletes feel more comfortable to share about their experiences. When having a conversation with someone, he suggests matching their level of openness and adding just a little bit more – something more personal or introspective – to help athletes feel comfortable sharing too. Modeling this vulnerability can create a more open environment going forward.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please call (800)931-2237, text NEDA to 741741, or visit https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/.