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When Body Image Becomes a Problem in Sports: Tips for Coaches & Athletes

When Body Image Becomes a Problem in Sports: Tips for Coaches & Athletes

We demand a lot of athletes. They need to be committed, goal-oriented, flexible with challenges, and smart with training. A burden that looms over many athletes, young and old, is poor body image. In a setting that values physical achievement, it’s easy to become hyper-vigilant of how your body looks, what you feed it, and how it compares to other competitors around you. Rachel Blumel PA-C is a Metabolic Health & Performance Specialist and a former collegiate runner. She shares more about the dangerous territory of body comparison and how athletes and coaches can work toward centering healthy self-image in athletics.

Why is body image concerning among athletes?

“Athletes, especially at the elite level, pretty much live under a microscope,” says Rachel. “Athletes place a lot of pressure on their bodies: Assessing their own performance, focusing on what to eat, and playing on a team of people with varying body types. It’s natural that they would develop more body image issues than someone in the general public who isn’t constantly focused on what their body can do.” Coaches, judges, and spectators also focusing on what these athletes’ bodies can do only adds to the pressure.

While poor body image can affect anyone, females who compete in aesthetic, endurance, or weight class sports are at the highest risk for eating disorders. These competitors are commonly encouraged to “make weight” however they can, even if that means using unhealthy methods.

Critical comments from coaches, judges, and peers about athletes’ bodies can make them feel objectified and may trigger disordered eating patterns to avoid future criticism. In a review of elite female gymnasts, one author found that only a handful of the subjects had not engaged in disordered eating. Many absorbed harmful comments like “too much fluff” or “tighten up”. Demeaning comments are difficult enough, but hearing these words from trusted coaches can be devastating.

What is body positivity? What does it look and feel like?

“Body positivity is an uplifting way of thinking about our bodies,” says Rachel. “It seeks to move away from things that make us feel self-conscious or inferior and steer us toward appreciating our body for everything it does for us.” When we criticize our self-image, it’s not just harmful to our mental health; it can be physically damaging, too. “Athletes will often compromise their health—the thing that’s most important in athletics—to achieve a certain appearance.”

How can athletes & coaches create a body-positive environment?

Implement a body-positive pledge with yourself & your team.

  • Reflect on your “why”, why you chose this sport in the first place, and remind yourself of it often.
  • During practice, in the locker room, and outside of training, ask yourself: How can we support each other with positive attitudes towards all sizes and shapes?
  • As athletes and coaches, promote the idea that each body is unique and has different advantages.

Discourage dieting, which is the primary precursor to disordered eating.

Being stuck in a pattern of disordered eating can create mental and emotional turmoil. Rather than focusing on how you look, focus on how to optimize your performance with habits like good hydration, adequate sleep, and proper fuel to feel your best.

Reject idealized images and negative comments about weight.

To help athletes maintain a positive body image, coaches should avoid making comments about body or weight (whether positive or negative) and should use non-objectifying language. Coaches should also avoid tying an athlete’s performance to their body.

Feedback can focus on the athlete’s technique without centering on their appearance. Coaches have a powerful role in health and development by normalizing body image concerns, perhaps by even sharing their own experiences, and supporting their athletes by being approachable and attentive.

Bring in a professional.

If you’re a coach, seek out a local health professional to educate your team on body image, eating disorders, the power of self-talk, and a nutritional approach where all foods fit. If you’re an athlete, get the conversation started by suggesting this to your coach.


Rachel Blumelis a Physician Assistant specializing in weight management, lifestyle medicine, and exercise nutrition. She enjoys all aspects of optimizing health and performance. Rachel is accepting new patients in Layton and Ogden, Utah. Schedule a visit here.