Eating Disorders and Emotional Abuse in Sports
This article mentions sensitive topics that may potentially affect the reader
Everyone is familiar with the story of the anorexic dancer who starves for the demands of her sport. But in a world where most kids are exposed to competitive sports at young ages, negative mental health repercussions are not limited to dance. Rather, a more insidious type of damage is coming into play (no pun intended) and it’s often under-recognized or even normalized by parents and coaches alike.
What is emotional abuse in athletics?
Emotional abuse is “a repeated pattern of caregiver behavior or extreme incident(s) that convey to children that they are worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or of value only in meeting another’s needs” according to the American Professional Society for the Abuse of Children (Mignano). At first glance, most youth coaching doesn’t fall under this category at all- after all, aren’t people complaining about all the participation awards?
Not all coaches fall under this category. But because the hypercompetitive mindset is just as common, if not more common, than a participation award, children can be exposed to ego-degrading treatment without any harmful intention on the part of the coaches. Coaches who aim to push their trainees to be their best may use tactics such as continual criticism, yelling, or even punishments, shaming, and taunting. These tactics are frequently normalized as “strict coaching” or simply intense competitiveness. However, as the definition of emotional abuse covers behaviors that tell a child they are “worthless, flawed, […] or of value only in meeting another’s needs,” any of these aggressive coaching techniques can become abusive. While some “tough love” may be healthy in youth, excessive discipline that is prolonged, frequent, extreme, or targeting an individual as a person, actually does more harm than good.
How does emotional abuse affect mental health?
Perfectionism causes unrealistically high standards, harsh self criticism, and low self esteem. Young athletes who have been subjected to emotionally abusive coaching have spent years being told that they are flawed, inadequate, or that they need to be the best at any cost; many will end up internalizing those beliefs as truths. Perfectionism may occur when a young athlete feels the need to constantly disprove a harmful internalized belief; for example that they are not good enough. In this case, a black and white mindset is adopted, in which any failure is proof that their self-damning belief is true and success is not an accomplishment but an expectation. This causes very low self esteem and a fear of judgement or failure, which in turn causes the high standards and self criticism seen in perfectionism.
Another common case is the athlete who has been taught that being the best- being perfect- is the only way to be good enough, or the only way to receive approval/ love from others. This athlete will also have harsh self judgement, high standards, and a fear of failure. This athlete relies on their achievements and the approval of others to define themselves, and thus will have a very hard time adjusting in any situation where they are criticized.
In each case, and in the myriad other versions of unhealthy internalized beliefs, a coach’s messages about the athlete’s worth have led to unhealthy thinking patterns. Because of the perfectionism that these athletes develop, they will struggle excessively in inevitable life situations of judgement and failure (such as failing a test) and will likely have poor self esteem. These unhealthy patterns predispose young athletes for mental illness, especially eating disorders.
Research has demonstrated a connection between eating disorders and perfectionism, as well as between eating disorders and athletics. An eating disordered mindset shows many similarities to a perfectionist mindset: incredibly high standards, low self esteem, rigid self-enforced rules, and black and white thinking. Within the context of an eating disorder, disordered behaviors can become a channel for perfectionistic beliefs; for example, a person who uses perfectionism to disprove the internalized belief “I am worthless” may use restriction to seek a “perfect” diet so that they can feel better about themselves.
Many who suffer from eating disorders will attempt to control their bodies and diets in order to cope with negative self esteem. Eating disorders may also function to “numb” a person from negative emotions, or to attempt to avoid negative body beliefs brought on by bullying or shaming from others. When a person has been exposed to emotional abuse, they have been exposed to the kind of emotional, identity compromising pain that an eating disorder is designed to cover up. This need to cover emotional pain makes it very convenient for thought patterns created by perfectionism and abuse such as “I am only worthy if I am the best player on the team” to lead to a disordered mindset such as “I am only worthy if I am the thinnest.”
Additionally, the nonabusive features of athletics may also create a predisposition to disordered behavior. Within the fields of athletics and fitness, even youth receive higher exposure to messages about food/diet trends, calorie burning, and their bodies. This can set the stage for the exercise compulsions common in anorexia and exercise bulimia, as well as the clean-eating obsession of orthorexia. As their self-worth is being damaged by harmful coaching strategies, athletes are taught that they are better if their bodies look a certain way, and that some foods are “good” while others are “bad.” Good/bad moralizing messages such as these are especially harmful for those who have poor self esteem due to abuse or perfectionism, or who rely on external approval for their self-worth (as abusive coaching teaches athletes to do). Moralizing messages mimic disordered beliefs, and lay a groundwork for disordered behavior in an already vulnerable mind.
What can be done to help?
Emotional abuse is an issue that is often not addressed by society. Though instances of physical and sexual abuse are coming to light in athletics and in eating disorder research, emotional abuse by coaches is glossed over. Some suggest that this may be because of the culture of competitiveness which surrounds sports- that “win at all costs” has become the message that has desentized the world from this unacceptable behavior. Whatever the reason, it is vitally important that this issue is addressed. Ways to help are:
- Advocate for the cause– share your story if you have one, or simply spread awareness if you don’t. This is an issue that is far more common than it seems, so know that if you speak up, you may be helping many others to find their voices, too.
- Call out unacceptable behavior– If you are a youth and you notice a coach treating you or someone else harmfully, speak to a trusted adult. Don’t look the other way or laugh it off if you know someone is being hurt.
- Promote parent and coach education– Currently, we reside in a culture that allows emotional abuse to occur. By educating parents and coaches on what emotional abuse is and how to know if it is occurring, it is possible to change this and spare a whole generation of children from bearing this trauma.
Emotional abuse in coaching is a real issue that must be taken seriously. If you or someone you know is being abused, or is showing signs of an eating disorder, please take action and talk to a trusted adult, doctor, or helpline. You could be saving a life.
Resources to help:
- Do I have an eating disorder?
- National Eating Disorders Association helpline
- Helping someone with an eating disorder
Mignano, Micheal. “Under-Acknowledged, Yet Common: Preventing Emotional Abuse in Sport.” Sport Coaching & Leadership Blog, Michigan State University College of Education, 31 January 2019, https://education.msu.edu/sport-coaching-leadership/how-to/under-acknowledged-yet-common-preventin g-emotional-abuse-in-sport/
“What Creates Perfectionism.” healthy children.org, American Academy of Pediatrics, 29 October 2013, https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/young-adult/Pages/What-Fuels-Perfectionism.aspx#:~:text=Fear%20of%20Disappointment&text=Children%20who%20see%20themselves%20as,avoid%20d isappointment%20at%20all%20costs.