College Athletes and Eating Disorders: Why Those in Individually Judged Sports are More At-Risk

For people young and old, involvement in athletics can be extremely beneficial.

Physical exercise can improve one’s overall physical health and has the ability to improve mood in those who are battling certain mental illnesses, such as depressive disorders or other mood disorders.

For children and adolescents, engagement in sports can increase socialization among peers, instill valuable lessons in sportsmanship, and help young people develop a sense of work ethic with regards to skill-building.

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Sports

Individuals in late adolescence or young adulthood can also benefit from participating in sports as doing this can help form a sense of identity during this crucial phase of development and elicit potential educational and/or occupational opportunities if an individual’s skill set is more advanced.

However, while the pros for being involved in athletics are substantial, there are some downsides. Especially with regards to college-aged individuals, there are some risks, namely for those who partake in sports in which individual performance is scrutinized and judged.

Within individually judged sports, there is frequently a great deal of attention on not only skill development, but on individual conditioning so that certain standards of skill, weight, and muscle formation are met. When these elements are factors, there is an ever-present risk for the development of disordered eating patterns.

Meeting the Requirements to Win

bank-7339_640Team sports, such as hockey, football, or baseball, typically place a great deal of emphasis on developing and improving skills and forming strategies for winning games. The focus is often on the team as a whole, wherein one person’s victory in scoring is the whole team’s victory.

These sports are ones that foster team comradery and cohesion. And while many individually judged sports also feature teams, the primary focus is on individual performance and pushing one’s self towards scoring the highest, finishing first, or overpowering another individual opponent.

In order to achieve these goals, these types of athletes often go to great lengths to meet weight requirements and/or become faster and/or stronger. College athletes, more specifically, are one such population that is known to go the distance, so to speak, in order to achieve optimal physical performance in sports, often times at a cost to their health.

When Weight Is a Part of the Sport

College athletes involved in lean-demand sports are those most at risk for the development of eating disorders as there is often a high expectation to achieve and maintain certain physical requirements.

Weight-class sports, such as:

  • Wrestling
  • Rowing

Aesthetic sports, such as:

  • Gymnastics
  • Diving
  • Swimming

Endurance sports, such as:

  • Track and field
  • Cross-country

Categories and Preciseness

All are structured athletic activities in which there is a focus on appearance and weight. Wrestling and rowing have mandates for weight in order to categorize athletes in certain weight classes, an element of these sports that is done for both the safety and efficiency of athletic performance.

Gymnastics places a lot of focus on “being small” yet strong so that routines can be executed in the most precise and effective manner. Diving, swimming, track and field, and cross-country all have an emphasis on athletic conditioning so that a person is able to perform faster and as efficient as possible.

And while these expectations are cornerstone to being involved in these types of competitive athletics, the pressure to conform to weight and appearance expectations can be overwhelming for many college-aged athletes.

The Added Pressure of College Athletes and Eating Disorders

Person sitting and thinking about College Athletes and Eating DisordersCollege, itself, can be ripe with stressors and pressure to perform well academically. Couple academic expectations with an expectation to perform well in sports, and the susceptibility for mental health concerns and disordered eating patterns increases.

Furthermore, and with regards to development, college-aged individuals are in the late stage of adolescence. This period of development, of which can stretch into a person’s early 20s, can be a time when individuals are still learning to manage impulses, make good decisions, and form a healthy identity.

Using Dangerous Methods to Attain Success

These developmental influences can oftentimes make it difficult for a college-aged person to abstain from engaging in dangerous eating habits or weight-loss methods when there exists compounding pressure to meet certain expectations.

Patterns of disordered eating synonymous with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa can ultimately develop if an individual is unable to cope with said expectations.

Recognizing the Symptoms of an Eating Disorder

Recognizing symptoms of an eating disorder and assisting the person with the symptoms in getting help can be life-saving. Below are some telltale signs that a college athlete is grappling with an eating disorder:

  • Conveying intense need to be perfect
  • Displaying extremely thin appearance
  • Communicating fear about gaining weight or becoming fat
  • Rigidly restricting food intake
  • Being seemingly obsessed with achieving athletic goals
  • Purging after meals
  • Making comments that infer that self-esteem is strongly tied to body weight and image
  • Abusing diuretics, laxatives, and/or diet pills
  • Excessively training

Coaches, parents, peers, and other loved ones should heed the above signs as warnings that therapeutic, and possibly medical, intervention is needed.

Being Attuned to the Red Flags

hand-339719_640Considering the elevated risk between college athletes and eating disorders, those closest to them should be especially attuned to these types of red flags. If it is identified that an athlete is grappling with symptoms of an eating disorder, getting help sooner rather than later can prevent more serious harm.

The long-term presence of an eating disorder can trigger the onset of other mental health concerns and be fatal if treatment is not sought and implemented.

Fortunately, there are several treatment options available that teach college athletes how to manage stress, sustain good nutrition, abstain from dangerous eating habits and weight-loss methods, and acquire the skills and tools needed to live healthy lives.

Site Description: Timberline Knolls, a nationally respected residential treatment center, specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, substance abuse and addiction, and mood disorders for adolescent girls and adult women. Through a holistic, individualized, and nurturing treatment approach, the goal of Timberline Knolls is to help residents achieve lifelong recovery.

Contributor: Heather Wilk, MA, NCC, Timberline Knolls Staff

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 discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 22nd, 2015
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