Mental Health in Youth Sports: How Youth Sports Leaders and Coaches Can Help Prevent Eating Disorders
A coach’s job is to support each member of their team to perform at the best level they can. Only healthy athletes can perform at their highest level, and the disturbing truth is an estimated 49.5% of adolescents were assessed to have a mental health disorder, according to diagnostic interview data from National Comorbidity Survey Adolescent Supplement.
Adolescents are vulnerable, self-conscious , and many are at high risk for eating disorders—which are more common in teenage girls than in boys. In a study conducted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), athletes reported that 33% of female athletes have symptoms and attitudes that are at high risk for eating disorders. COVID has worsened this problem, and it’s imperative that coaches and youth sports leaders step in to support the mental health in youth sports where they can.
These statistics may be jarring, and as a youth sports leader or coach—someone without a background in mental health, diet, or medicine—you may be wondering how you can support your female athletes in fueling for performance , exercising for strength, and preventing disordered eating. You’re working with these athletes at an impressionable (and crucial) time in their development, after all. Luckily, there are ways you can positively affect the way they view food, exercise, athleticism, and resources you can turn to when you need some help.
C.J. Train offers holistic sports nutrition and training programs for athletes. Carley’s background in sports, training, diet, and working at an eating disorder clinic allows her to provide unique support to help athletes reach their potential both on and off the field and to serve as an “older sister” to female athletes who need one.
Here’s her advice for coaches and organizers to help prevent eating disorders in girl athletes.
6 Tips for Helping Prevent Eating Disorders
Teach girls to train for performance, not weight loss.
In Carley’s experience, many of her teammates at USC had concerns about becoming “too big” when lifting weights in the gym. She was able to find her confidence in the weight room herself and learned to train the right way when she embraced the idea that being strong is not masculine (and not even feminine!)—it’s gender-neutral and solely about enhancing athletic performance.
While kids often focus on instant gratification, Carley suggests coaches help them try to see the bigger picture of what becoming stronger (and potentially bigger) can do for them in the long run—both as an athlete and as a whole person.
Emphasizing the importance of training for longevity and reducing injury is a better mindset than training for that one day, practice, game, or even sport.
You can’t succeed without fuel.
The number one issue Carley sees at both the youth and high school athletic levels is not eating enough. Here’s some advice you can provide your team with to encourage a healthy relationship with food.
- No food is better than the other—some are more nutrient-dense than others, but that doesn’t make one inherently good or bad. Neutralize foods, the same way you would neutralize anything else.
- You’re allowed to eat all food. It’s the individual’s job to figure out which ones make them feel better than others.
- Eat enough. You’re doing so much activity, you need enough food and specifically, you need enough carbohydrates.
- Recovery & longevity. You need to replenish, rebuild, and refuel after a practice or game in order to perform at 110% the next day.
Coach the human being first.
“If it’s only ever about shrinking yourself, looking a certain way, or just being your best for today and not thinking about tomorrow, I think that’s where kids and athletes can get very single-focused ,” says Carley. “You can be a coach to coach the human being first.”
When Carley works with young athletes, she constantly reminds them they’re much more than just the sport they play. They’re artists, mathletes, singers, girl scouts , nice, funny, interesting people in addition to being on their lacrosse team.
Create a safe space.
You’re not a therapist, and no one expects you to be. But it is your job to create a safe environment for your players where they feel comfortable coming to you so you can help them figure out what resources they may need and honor what they’re going through. Creating a safe space for your players to come to you and ask for support, advice, resources, or even a day off when they need it is crucial. And, as Carley notes, the kids who want to be the best athletes aren’t going to ask for a day off unless they absolutely need it.
It’s a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors that cause an eating disorder, and coaches are part of the social element of it all.
“If we can create safe, supportive spaces that are neutral and don’t make one body type seem better than another, one food seem better than another, and we just make the kid feel great about who they are as a person and then help them separate their identity as a person from their identity in sport, that’s the best you can do. If there are still red flags, there are resources,” says Carley.
Know the red flags.
Unfortunately, even with all of the support you are able to give your team, many adolescent athletes will succumb to eating disorders. Here are the red flags you should look out for, according to Psychology Today.
- Excessive preoccupation with being fat
- Unusual eating habits and excessive (often secret) food intake
- Evidence of purging with laxatives or vomiting—sores at the corner of the mouth or tongue can be a visible sign
- Food avoidance or severe caloric restriction
- Alternating periods of fatigue and irritability
You should develop a protocol with your administration for the next steps should any of these warning signs arise, including referrals to licensed professionals.
Use external resources.
You don’t (and shouldn’t) have to tackle this complex issue alone, and luckily there are plenty of resources you can use and also recommend to families of athletes who may be struggling with an eating disorder.
Here’s a list of eating disorder support resources you can find online:
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Athletes and Mental Health: The Hidden Opponent | Victoria Garrick
Carley is available for virtual and in-person team workshops, parent/coach workshops, and one-on-one holistic nutrition/ training coaching problems. For more information contact her here.