It may not come as a surprise to hear of the high prevalence of eating disorders amongst high-performance athletes. A range of theories exist to explain this correlation, many suggesting it comes down to a combination of things. Some examples include:
The same traits that make athletes "good" at sports make them ideal candidates for being “good” at eating disorders.
Athletes are prone to perfectionism, and are used to pushing through pain to achieve results. In sports this may look like an extra two minutes of wall-sits. In an eating disorder this may look like ignoring the hunger pangs associated with food restriction. They also know how to set an identifiable goal, and commit to doing what it takes to achieve it. Just replace trophies and championship titles with numbers on a scale and calories restricted.
They are no stranger to giving 100%.
The athletes I work with know what it means to be 100% committed to something. To pour blood, sweat, and tears into a goal. So much so, even, that giving anything less than 100% can be a challenge- it’s simply not how they operate. Often there is an underlying fear of what might happen if they don't perform to an expected standard. This same “all or nothing” thinking is conducive to eating disorders, which is why a lot of the healing work becomes learning to tolerate the “gray areas” in life.
Identity (or a good portion of it) is found in performance.
Though not true for everyone, sports can become a way of validating self-worth and value. Thus, identity becomes rooted in “what I do” versus “who I am” inherently. Perhaps I have been given the label of “performer”, and fear the consequences of no longer living up to this title. Or maybe I received the affirmation I was missing/looking for in my athletic ability, and fear the idea of disappointing others. This is why much of the work in recovery revolves around uncovering and restoring wounds related to identity that likely occurred much earlier in development.
There is something to be said for the environment and culture athletes are consistently surrounded by. Unfortunately, I have heard and read all too often of athletes being exposed to incredibly troublesome ideas about food, body, and exercise from coaches, sports nutritionists, peers, and even primary care physicians. For example, exaggerating the connection between weight and performance, or in some instances wrongfully attributing the low heart rate associated with improper fueling to “being a runner”. Not to mention, the innate competitiveness and hyper-focus on body performance engrained in sports culture.
Christian Makenna Clements is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist #111159.