How College Coaches Can Support an Athlete Struggling with an Eating Disorder

Girl's College Volleyball Team

The pressure and competitiveness of college sports make athletes that play them susceptible to eating disorders, particularly if they believe it will serve their athletic performance. The National Collegiate Athlete Association (NCAA) reported in a survey that “70% of responding institutions reported at least one case of an eating disorder, with 90% of those cases occurring in female sports [1].”

Sadly, research has also learned that “female athletes are up to 3 times more likely than female nonathletes to develop eating disorders [1].” Coaches are uniquely trusted and confided in by their athletes and, as such, have important opportunities to support in intervention, or early intervention, of dangerous disordered beliefs and behaviors.

Know the Warning Signs of Athletes With Disordered Eating Behaviors

Coaches are in a prime position to recognize disordered eating and exercise behaviors in their young athletes. These individuals trust you not only with their bodies but with their talent, their academics, their futures, and, often, their personal lives.

Inform yourself of the warning signs of disordered eating behaviors so that you can recognize them in athletes should they arise. You might be challenging a long-term history of a disorder or interfering with the beginning stages of a new disorder. Either way, you will be saving their life.

Attitude Reflects Leadership

You can also honor the trust that your athletes put into you through creating a culture wherein these behaviors are not encouraged or accepted. Much of the disordered beliefs and behaviors that develop in athletes are related to pressure placed on them by themselves, their parents, their coaches, and their teammates (if they have any).

You are in a powerful position to combat any speech or behavior patterns that would encourage dangerous behaviors around food and exercise, negative self-talk, and team bullying. The attitude of the team will reflect your leadership.

As such, make sure that your leadership encourages identifying and recognizing one’s limitations without shame, prioritizing proper rest and nourishment, and espousing foundational values of self-care, self-compassion, and kindness to one another regardless of game results or individual performance.

Help Athletes Prioritize Their Health

Young athletes have been especially effected by the pandemicOne of the most frightening things to an athlete is to lose the activity that they have spent a great deal of money, effort, and time on. For an athlete struggling with an eating disorder, there is no question of “if” they will need to take a break from their sport. The question is, “how long will they need to take a break from their sport?”

Eating disorders range in severity from those requiring medical stabilization to those that can begin with outpatient meetings with a Therapist and Nutritionist. Regardless of the disordered eating stage your athlete is in, their body will have experienced some level of bodily compromise that requires them to cease physical activity, get rest, nourish themselves, and heal.

Your athlete will likely struggle with this, and that is where you are in a unique position to prioritize their health. If you prioritize their health, as opposed to shaming them for taking time off or needing to rest, they will feel more comfortable prioritizing their own health.

Again, these individuals put a great deal of trust in your opinion, so it is important that you honor that by putting them first and the sport second, even when it is hard to do so.

Assets and Liabilities

You have a unique seat to seeing some of the best qualities of your athlete – their tenacity, resilience, determination, attention to detail, observant and more. All of the qualities individuals hold can be used as an asset or a liability.

Remind your athlete of their strengths and support them in turning these not into liabilities that serve their eating disorders but assets that foster their recovery. In general, the best way to approach anyone struggling with an eating disorder is with non-judgment and compassion.

Listen to their experience more than you talk, hold hope for them when they struggle to hold it for themselves, and see them as a person and not just an athlete or disordered individual. Human beings are more important than any game or sport, and coaches are in a unique position to be there when the human being needs to come first.


[1] Vaughan, J.L., King, K. A., Cottrell, R. R. (2004). Collegiate athletic trainers’ confidence in helping female athletes with eating disorders. Journal of Athletic Training, 39:1.

About the Author:

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published April 6, 2021, on
Reviewed & Approved on April 6, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

About Baxter Ekern

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