Those of you that follow me regularly on social media will know that my two areas of specialism within nutrition are sports and Eating Disorders. More and more though I’m being drawn to the middle ground of this venn diagraph – athletes with eating disorders.
No matter whom I work with, elite, paralympians, football academy players, junior/development/talent pathway or recreational athletes, one of the main outcomes required from my input will be optimal performance.
Of course this is to be expected. The same is true of any sports practitioner; whether that be coach, S&C, psychologist or performance analyst.
The desire to achieve those marginal gains is always top priority –athletes want to be the fastest, the strongest;the need to be the best outstripping all other aspects of their life.
As a practitioner working within a team, it is easy to get caught up in this drive to be the best – with each member helping the athlete to achieve.
But at what cost?
I have come across many practitioners who are so fixed on the performance outcomes that they lose sight of the athlete as an individual.
Often the consult between athlete and practitioner becomes a well rehearsed script; the need to be associated with a gold medal or an athlete’s personal best performance becomes the driving force and the potential to pick up on tell tale signs of stress are missed.
As a dietitian with both clinical and sports qualifications and experience, my responsibility lies with helping the athlete to achieve optimal performance, but without losing sight that an athlete is still a person. I have an important role to play in safe guarding them from potential health risks.
I’m fortunate that I have worked with some great practitioners and coaches who really do look at an athlete as a whole person – yes they want them to train hard but they also take time to listen to the athlete; if an athlete is saying I have a pain in my foot –it is not shrugged off –it is taken seriously and some additional rest days are added in; if an athlete mentions that they are sleeping badly – nutrition and training load is checked. If a female athlete discloses that she has skipped menstruation for several months, this is not just accepted as a norm – it is investigated.
Sadly this is not true of all cases – over the last 12 months I have been approached by several athletes, where the need to achieve by them and their support team has over looked signals that they were struggling. Some arrive with persistent injury; not being given enough time to heal and rehab before going straight back into training. Others have put their bodies under huge stress with large training loads but insufficient energy intake; some have adopted fads – diets, supplements in an attempt to hit those marginal gains with poor supervision by their support team.
Athletes are not just about numbers –like a plant, in order to thrive they need support, understanding and nourishment –sometimes this doesn’t fit in with performance gains.
There are always going to be times when you do need to support an athlete in order to reach a target weight or body composition but it is also important to ensure that the disruption this causes is limited to the shortest time possible.
That said, as a practitioner working in elite sport, it is important to know your boundaries and there are occasions where you need to take a stand and suggest that an athlete takes some time out.
Athletes are driven and in order to make it to the top, are often associated with extreme behaviours. This trait is not too dissimilar to those associated with an Eating disorder –extreme behaviours in the form of rules and rituals around food and exercise in order to maintain their eating disorder because it makes them feel safe and secure, even though this far from the reality.
However in both cases, these individuals need to be told to stop –when they are doing more harm than good, even if it means they will be missing out of a major competition. What good is a podium finish if it’s the only one of your career because the stress you have put your body through has meant that it will never return to its previous form?
It’s great that more and more athletes are speaking out about the pressures they have felt to train in a certain way, be a particular weight or body composition and the lack of support they received. However, what we need is more education around this; how to listen, how to pick up on signs and then how to have that difficult discussion.
I always want to help an athlete achieve their true potential but not at the cost of their long-term health.
I’m not always popular with my approach –its never easy telling an athlete that their training or their nutritional choices are doing them more harm than good but I take pride in always seeing the human in an athlete and not just as a performance outcome!
And for the record, all those I’ve worked with have thanked me in the long run as it has meant they can return to training and a winning form!