Unhealthy Behaviors in Sport

When words like healthy, fit, determination, motivated, and will power come to mind, athletes often fit this profile. Athletes are typically idolized for the ability to perform at best mentally and physically in sport and for one’s physique. The link between performance and fitness is by living a healthy and nutritious lifestyle both mentally and physically. Unfortunately, athletes are not always the healthiest and struggle to maintain consistency throughout one’s athletic profession. In addition, the high demands to not only look the part, but be the part- as an athlete. Most athletes are also sponsored by big name brands such as Nike, Adidas, and Asics, and according to individual contracts, athletes often pose in sports gear for billboards and commercial ads to help market the latest products by the sponsored company. “These often unrealistic expectations placed on them and their bodies sets many athletes, both men and women, in the line of fire for an eating disorder” (Howard, 2016, para. 1).

Addictive and unhealthy behaviors are not only among the elite and professional athletes, but are on the rise among youth and college sports. Today’s pressure from fans and social media followers mentally distract athletes from living a healthy life that assist athletes to perform at best, and may influence them to represent a false image or lifestyle. When consulting with coaches and supporting staff, many athletes face the fear of losing ones athletic career, therefore hide any and all unhealthy behaviors in sport. Although some behaviors can become apparent such as performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) from an athlete gaining a significant amount of size or weight, strength, or performance ability, other unhealthy behaviors such as eating disorders can be less identifiable, until fatal.

Identifying Eating Disorders

Because eating disorders are among common unhealthy behaviors that athletes may pick up throughout one’s athletic career, it is important for a coach, teammates, parents, and supporting staff to identify and work towards a common goal to help tackle the problem before it gets worst. The goal for a coach should be to reduce the risk of eating disorders to occur among a team of athletes by implementing behavioral signs- physical and psychological and by suggesting proactive practices among athletes.

Two common eating disorders known to many are anorexia nervosa and bulimia; both common in both men and women, but more common among the female population. Anorexia includes the following characteristics:

  • Maintaining a normal body weight is unlikely (often 15% lower than the normal range)

  • Fear of gaining weight or becoming obese

  • Mental disturbance in how one perceives ones true size, weight, and or shape

  • Females often have three missed consecutive menstrual cycles

Anorexia is potentially fatal, and has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric condition. In addition, the suicide rate is 50% higher than that of the normal population (Weinberg & Gould, 2015).

Characteristics of bulimia are:

  • Binge eating (which encounters large consumption of food in one setting)

  • Lack of control over eating large quantities of food

  • About 3 binge-eating episodes per week for 3 months

  • Consistent concern with body shape and weight (Weinberg & Gould, 2015).

The difference between anorexia and bulimia is that a person is unaware that they have an eating disorder, whereas bulimia the person is aware.

Effective Communication

Because coaches place pressure among their team of athletes, it is common for coaches to misguide and not be aware of how much pressure an athlete may or may not be able to take (mentally). Because some sports focus around an athletes overall size, it is familiar for coaches to point out the need for weight loss or weight gain. But, how a coach conveys this information can be tricky, as some athletes who are secretly struggling with eating disorders may take any and all information about weight loss or weight gain, wrongfully. Here are some tips on how to address an athlete with an eating disorder:

  • Make sure to be educated enough about eating disorders (as a coach) before discussing the problem

  • Make sure that when confronting an athlete and talking about an eating disorder, it is in private, never in front of other teammates or colleagues

  • Always encourage the athlete to seek out professional help as soon as possible

  • Educate the athlete of serious health complications that may come about without treatment

  • Discuss the importance of the athlete being part of the team, and their placement as a teammate

  • Continue to be involved in the athletes life throughout the entire recovery process

  • Continue to encourage the athlete to be around the sport and the teammates

  • Encourage the teammates to be a friend and support and encourage a quick recovery (but do not discuss personals with the teammates (all information is confidential).

Here are some tips of what not to do with an athlete who is struggling with an eating disorder:

  • Do not encourage dieting as a team (just encourage healthy eating and sustainable energy- through sports nutrition)

  • Do not compare body types to one another in a team sport

  • Do not tell an athlete they are fat or seriously overweight (find a professional way to go about this)

  • Do not turn a blind eye to eating disorders

  • Do not talk to other colleagues or athletes about another athletes weight (Shanmugam, n.d.)

Due to eating disorders being a sensitive subject, coaches should address parents and discuss options for the athlete. Also, offer any help that can assist the athlete back to good health; offer to help take the athlete to a professional who can help treat the athlete, and inform the parents and athlete that sport participation should continue unless the eating disorder has disrupted their health to the point of no physical activity.


As a coach, addressing concerns to both the athlete and parent about an eating disorder should be done in a sensitive manner while approaching the athlete with a clear understanding that shows compassion and a strong desire for the well-being of the athletes health and success in and out of sport. Listening to an athlete who is struggling both physically and mentally with an eating disorder should be done in a non-judgmental way, as it is possible for the athlete to regress. Since many coaches may have little to no experience with athletes who have eating disorders, it is best to educate oneself on the topic. If there are former athletes who have recovered from eating disorders, ask those athletes for recommendations, tips and techniques to help assist another athlete through the process. Keep in mind that any information provided can help save another person’s life. Athletes who have recovered can become a role model and help others who struggle through the process. Aside from parents and coaches providing emotional support for an athlete struggling with an eating disorder, it is good for the athlete to; stay motivated and be aware that recovery is possible, reach out to others for emotional support, and stay focused on the benefits of recovery and what the future has to offer.


Howard, C. (2016, March 21). College coaches: How to approach an athlete who may be dealing with an eating disorder. Retrieved from

Shanmugam, V. (n.d.). Help athletes with eating disorders: Tips for coaches and parents. Retrieved from

Weinberg, R.S., & Gould, D. (2015). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology (6th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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