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What a coach can do to help prevent eating disorders

QUESTION: Many of my girls on the high school swim team I coach are indeed overly focused on their weight. When I feel concerned I have addressed the issue with parents. But is there anything I can do as a coach to help?


In your role as coach you have a special opportunity to make a difference in these girls' lives in many ways. And the possibility for preventing eating disorders before they start is not beyond reach. Your influence and caring can help stop this disease from taking hold.

Two crucial areas to consider for preventing eating disorders include: 1) developing self-esteem that is centered on a girl's qualities as a person, rather than on her body shape, and 2) developing a repertoire of effective coping skills to manage emotional stress as it arises during this highly sensitive period of adolescence. The following guidelines can help you establish a coaching environment that supports these goals:

Talk openly about cultural pressures to judge women on physical appearance

Schedule team meetings, even potlucks on a monthly basis to talk with your girls about self esteem and build team spirit outside of the gym. Your best insurance against the possibility that girls will be negatively affected by societal pressure is to name it.

Talk about the emphasis placed on women to be physically attractive in order to be "desirable" in our culture and the vulnerability that your girls face, to look for the answer in excessive dieting, over-training or other destructive tendencies.

Coping with stress

Lead a discussion about how to cope successfully with anxiety, rejection and other difficult life stresses, both within and outside of the gym. Feelings of rejection and helplessness are inevitable during adolescence. Recognizing these feelings as normal and identifying ways to relieve pressure and feel better again are crucial coping skills. Facilitate discussion on helping your students recognize when they are feeling emotionally stressed and identify ways to feel better. Talking to a friend, a parent, another trusted adult, or turning your attention to a favorite activity to release tension can be effective ways of coping with life stress.

Encourage self-esteem through respect for the body

Lead a group discussion about what it means to take care of your body. Respect for the body must support healthy treatment of the body. Ask girls to identify what this means in terms of a healthy diet, relaxation, appropriate training schedules and in general feeling good about who you are. Identify the natural strengths of individual team members' body types. Help your girls build self-esteem and a positive body image by developing an active appreciation for their particular body shape.

Identify women that inspire respect. Comment on the qualities of powerful women, both in and out of sports that make these women special. Teachers, politicians, athletes and others in the community can serve as examples of successful women, regardless of shape. (And don't forget to point out what did happen to Marilyn Monroe!)

Encourage appropriate independence and control over decision-making

Battles for control are sometimes fought through food in families that have difficulty supporting a child's emerging independence. Children who feel their choices are overly controlled by their parents may rebel in ways that end up harming themselves. Allow room to develop independent decision-making through sports activity. Give students an opportunity to take control of their contribution to the team in a variety of ways. Being in charge of scheduling meetings, having a choice of topics for discussion or other opportunities to feel in control of their lives can bring satisfaction.

Use humor as your ally

And don't forget to be playful! For example: Have a discussion party where girls may dress up or down to explore and expose the ways women have been pressured to fit their bodies into uncomfortable outfits! Poke fun at what the "perfect" body is said to be and you will liberate these girls from accepting the stereotypical body image. And you may be surprised at the bonding that can take place through humor that addresses meaningful topics in their lives.

Keep in mind, that an adolescent girl is undergoing tremendous change in both body and mind. Patterns of behavior are still under development during this critical period. Although open discussions on these topics will not cure a full-fledged eating disorder, it can go long way towards preventing one, or getting help for one already in existence.

Cultural messages emphasize body shape at a time when it is natural for girls to become interested in their body image. You are an important part of these girls lives. Your influence can spell the difference between getting help, or not. Between developing self-respect or self-abuse.

(footnote: Further information on eating disorders can be found in David Black's book, "Eating Disorders Among Athletes" (American Alliance for Health, physical recreation and dance, 1991).

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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