Elite Athletes and Anorexia Nervosa: What Coaches, Trainers, Administrators & Parents Need to Know – Part 1

Woman working out an thinking about Eating Disorders in Athletes

Symptoms of Eating Disorders in Athletes

Frequently, an athlete with anorexia will struggle with a combination of restrictive dieting, overtraining, seeking rest in recovery days. They also often miss out on social activities, work, and school activities to fit in their training sessions. So, how does someone learn about Eating Disorders in Athletes?

They may have issues with having any flexibility around food and exercise, which often leads them to limit their food. They may have food rules such as only allowing themselves to eat if they’ve worked out that day or restricting their food intake on rest days. They may also have patterns of compensation when they do eat.

They may compare their eating habits or athletic ability against their teammates, opponents, or even sometimes just themselves. They are also often very critical of body weight and composition.

For example, an athlete that is a really hard worker or high achiever that begins to restrict food by skipping meals or team gatherings. They may also become secretive about their workouts.

Athletes with anorexia often have an intense fear that, if they skip a workout, they will immediately lose the body composition toward what they were working.

Similar to most athletes at the elite level, these individuals are often trying to gain that competitive advantage, so they put a really high emphasis on striving to get an ideal weight in order to improve their sports performance.

They fear that anything that may make them lose that body composition will lead to them losing their competitive advantage over their opponents. Often this competitive and comparative atmosphere is what leads them to add in extra training days and going above and beyond what their coaches or trainers have planned for them.

The result of this is that the athlete with anorexia struggles to listen to their body cues because they are so used to pushing past them or through illness and injury.

These behaviors are, in part, to keep their elite athlete status but also involve the fear that they may lose playing time or let down their coaches, trainers, or teammates.

Athlete working out to battle binge eating disorderThis gets very tricky in the sporting world, as many athletes may not view restrictive eating or unbalanced exercise habits as a symptom of an eating disorder. Many of these practices, sadly, are normalized, expected, and even desired.

Many athletes report being praised for their strong work ethic and their dedication to the sport. This feels like, if they continue to do what they are doing with their disorder, they will continue to get better at their sport. They believe they’re doing what it takes to be a great athlete.

Thompson and Sherman did a great job of showing how similar the characteristics look between the “good athlete” and an athlete with anorexia.

When I talk with the athletes with whom I work, there is often a theme that their competitive nature and commitment to their sport is often manipulated by this pursuit to be perfect. Rather than achieving athletic excellence, they are lead down a path of unbalanced eating or fitness.

In my work, I am inspired to help these athletes find the balance between challenging themselves physically to make athletic progress and reach their goals without engaging in unhelpful habits like overdoing it entirely or tuning out their body cues.

I think it is important to make clear that athletes are not mentally weak. Often, they are actually mentally tougher than most people.

They simply need support tapping into their strengths, and they need the support of coaches, trainers, administrators, and parents guiding them in working toward their goals in a balanced and sustainable way.

With this support, they can feel empowered and be set up on a path to embrace and achieve their athletic and overall life goals.



Virtual Presentation by Amanda Schlitzer Tierney, MS, CSCS in the May 17, 2018, Eating Disorder Hope Online Conference II: Anorexia Hope & Healing in 2018.

Please view the press release Here.

Amanda Schlitzer Tierney, MS, CSCS is a NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and holds her Master’s degree in Sport and Exercise Psychology from Lock Haven University and her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Chestnut Hill College. Amanda is currently the Co-Chair of the Association for Applied Sports Psychology: Eating Disorder Special Interest Group. Amanda has been working with athletes and non-athletes with eating disorders since 2006. Over the years, Amanda gained a wide-range of knowledge for this specialized population and found her true passion: helping individuals incorporate balanced exercise into the recovery environment. Learn More About Amanda Schlitzer Tierney.

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.About the Transcript Editor: Margot Rittenhouse 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 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 of 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 on August 13, 2018.
Reviewed & Approved on August 14, 2018, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

Published on EatingDisorderHope.com

About Baxter Ekern

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