Helping Athletes Who Struggle With Body Image

Performance and commitment are undoubtedly two of the key aspects that make a great athlete. However, in order to perform your best, you also need support to keep yourself in the best mental and physical shape possible. For many athletes, body image is at the intersection of mental and physical challenges that may arise from their training. An athlete’s perfomance comes from both their physical and mental training.


Body Image Defined


When considering athletes and body image, it’s important to first understand what body image really means. The National Eating Disorders Association defines body image as how you see your body and weight, whether it’s a mental picture, or how you might view yourself in a mirror, as well as how you feel about it.


Your body image can influence emotions and beliefs about your size or appearance. These can be positive or negative. Unfortunately, due to a bombardment of “perfect” body images from various forms of media, it’s common for adolescents and young adults to hold a negative body image of themselves. It’s also true that anyone of any shape or size can develop a negative body image, even athletes who might be considered healthy and in good physical shape.


Negative Body Image and Athletics


No one is immune to developing a negative body image—including athletes. In fact, in many ways, athletes may be more prone to body image issues than non-athletes. Also, while a negative body image is often associated with females, males are susceptible, too.


Body image issues develop in athletes for a number of reasons. First, certain sports, such as running or gymnastics, might make athletes feel pressured to be a certain size or at a certain weight due to performance concerns. Issues may also arise due to public scrutiny of athletes’ bodies. This can range from an athlete feeling like they have to look “skinny” or “pretty,” or even “strong.”


When left unaddressed or untreated, body image issues can increase the risk of eating disorders, depression, and problems with low self-esteem. These can have the opposite desired effects in an athlete by decreasing their strength and performance.


How to Help Athletes With Body Image Issues


Addressing body image issues requires both a mental and physical approach. First, it’s important to help an athlete understand that body image issues often arise from societal and cultural pressures—there isn’t anything wrong with their appearance, shape, or size. Coaches, parents, and trainers can also encourage their athletes to take a step back from media that might be making them feel bad or exacerbating their negative body image.


Athletes who experience depression, anxiety, or disordered eating from their body image may need support from psychotherapist. This type of mental health professional not only helps their clients talk through their concerns and problems, but also helps them recognize behavioral patterns that might be contributing. They also recommend solutions to reduce these harmful patterns before they spiral out of control.


Finally, from a physical standpoint, athletes can be supported with comprehensive sports nutrition programs. You might also consider enlisting the help of a registered dietitian who specializes in sports. Working with a trainer who recognizes the importance of mental and physical well-being is key to an athlete’s success and happiness.