Coaches & Family
The fact that you are visiting this website is a sign of your love and concern for your daughter, friend, partner, student or athlete. You are not alone in your concerns. Below are some comments from other concerned family and friends of female athletes and exercising women. We hope that reading their voices helps you find your own, and an appropriate and sensitive way to raise your concerns with someone that you care about:
“The hardest thing was knowing that whatever compliment or positive reinforcement we provided was written off as being biased (‘family/friends/partner has to say that’) or uneducated (i.e. not understanding what top athletes should look like, weigh or behave). And yet, any form of approval or compliment from a stranger produced an emotional high. It was obviously sad to feel helpless and unable to help someone we loved”
(concerned parents and friends of a lean-sport athlete)
“Every time we saw my daughter, my wife would note that she was getting thinner and thinner. She would point out her arms, or the veins in her legs after she had gone out for a run, and tell me to say something to her. She would tell me she’s exercising too much, and that she barely eats anything anymore. To be honest, I don’t really notice these things like my wife (my daughters step-mother) does. Also, I just didn’t know what to say, or how to raise these things with my daughter. She’s very smart and strong-willed. I’d already tried a couple of times and she assured me all was fine, and I believed her, because I really wanted to. I guess we were both in denial at that stage”
(father of a female exerciser with exercise-associated amenorrhea)
“This is a tough topic to talk about, but it’s not going away, and it’s wreaking havoc on campuses”
(Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center).
“An athlete with disordered eating doesn’t see food as fuel that helps build her body but as calories and fat. In their world, food has become a four-letter word”
(Lisa Dorfman, sports nutritionist for the University of Miami).
“They may be self-conscious about how they look in their uniforms. They may be pinching their thighs. They don’t want their belly to show. They may look at other people on the team and compare themselves”
(Lisa Dorfman, sports nutritionist for the University of Miami).
What can coaches, families and friends do to help female athletes and exercising women avoid the consequences of low energy availability?
The best way to prevent energy deficiency and the risks of the Female Athlete Triad among your daughters, athletes, students or clients is through education. After educating yourself about some of the basics, you should make sure the female athlete or exercising woman you are concerned about is educated about the importance of good nutrition for sport performance, the signs and symptoms of the Female Athlete Triad, and the long-term health risks of low energy availability.
As a coach or teacher, you should:
- Remind your athletes or students that eating is an important part of successful training and performance, and invite a sports nutritionist to talk to your athletes at least once a season. Also try to have an array of good nutrition books or brochures available to give to your athletes, students, and/or parents.
Find more information: Nutrition and Athletic Performance
- Focus on health and a positive body image not body weight. If you are involved in a sport where body weight (e.g. rowing, running) or image (e.g. ballet, gymnastics) is an important part of performance, try to be very sensitive to the language you use around your female athletes regarding their bodies.
- Try to foster positive body image among your female athletes – do not publicly criticize their bodies, or comment on weight changes. If necessary, you should have these conversations in private not in front of other athletes or parents, as this will cause shame and embarrassment among your athletes.
- Listen carefully to the ways your female athletes discuss their bodies (e.g. weight loss, gain, appearance) and relationships with food – try to correct them on unhealthy or inaccurate statements. Pay particular attention to conversations between athletes – are unhealthy eating practices and distorted body images being normalized and/or celebrated within the team/group culture?
- If you think some of your athletes or students have an unhealthy relationship with food, exercise, and/or body image concerns, invite a sport psychologist to come to speak to the group.
- If you think an athlete or student is demonstrating some of the signs and symptoms of the Female Athlete Triad, raise this issue during a private conversation with the athlete. Avoid having these conversations within the earshot of other athletes or parents. Reassure the athlete that you will respect their confidentiality and you will not discuss this with other athletes or parents, unless they say it is okay to do so. A trusting relationship is of utmost importance. Encourage the athlete to seek advice from a sports doctor, nutritionist and/or psychologist, and help make arrangements if necessary.
We understand that this can be a very sensitive issue to discuss with your athletes (particularly for male coaches). But, not talking about it will not make the issue go away. It is your responsibility as a coach or caregiver, to care about the health and well being of your athletes or students beyond the tennis or netball court, the gym, the track or the pool. We encourage longer-term thinking about the health and wellbeing of your athletes. Try to keep in mind that, while you both may be intensely focused on the next big competition, your athletes will (hopefully) grow into old age and may have to live with some of the consequences of the activities she is doing today (under your guidance). Let’s work to ensure these memories are filled with pride and joy, not regret. This starts with your willingness to create space for these conversations with your athletes. If you feel you need additional support in facilitating these conversations with your athletes, or you would like to organize an informational seminar for your team, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We welcome the opportunity to help educate your athletes. The list of health professionals on this website may also be a useful starting point for individuals requiring further advice and consultation.
In the meantime, to enhance your understanding, here are some great educational resources that you might find useful from the ‘links’ page: NCAA Coaches Handbook: Managing the Female Athlete Triad; National Eating Disorders (NEDA) Coach and Athletic Trainer toolkit; Coaching Female Athletes.