I’m on the airplane headed to Los Angeles, California on this Tuesday morning. I was offered the opportunity to present at the largest annual gathering of soccer coaches in the world. When I first was put in contact with the operations coordinator about the possibility of speaking at this NSCAA convention in January 2017, he responded back with two comments: 1) To please send an outline of the topic in which I’d like to speak on; and 2) To date, they have never had a presenter speak on eating disorders.
I paused for a minute after reading the latter of his comments. In a study of Division 1 NCAA athletes, over one-third of female athletes reported attitudes and symptoms placing them at risk for anorexia nervosa. Let me simplify that. For every three athletes, one has the potential to develop a full-fledged eating disorder. On a roster of thirty players, ten athletes are presenting signs of having an eating disorder. This is a substantial statistic. Not to mention, the number of teens being affected right now by eating disorders is immense, and only continuing to grow. Eating disorders are serious emotional and physical problems that can have life-threatening consequences for females and males.
If eating disorders are the number one cause of death in mental health disorders, and athletes are more susceptible to developing one than non-athletes, then why wouldn’t there be a session on this topic? This particular convention is open to all soccer coaches nationally and internationally; ranging from youth coaching, to college coaching, and all the way up to the professional ranks. These are the people who know their players the most, are around them regularly, and who have the ability to save a life if they know what to look for and how to address it. Without identification and intervention, a person with an eating disorder will continue to struggle, making one’s health and life at-risk.
I understand the many reasons eating disorders are still an undiscussed topic. Clearly, there is still a stigma attached to mental health issues, and though a good number of us see therapists on a regular basis, it is still looked upon as a sign of weakness. The majority of athletes would never want to risk a reputation that is known for strength, power, and perseverance. Likewise, a coach may struggle to accept a player, particularly a superior one, may have an issue. As coaches, it is easy to get caught up in the drive to win games, tournaments, and championships. When we are in this mode, we have tunnel vision, and forget what our primary responsibility is–and that is to keep players healthy and safe.
But, if a coach isn’t educated on this prevalent issue, then how would one recognize it in a player, let alone address it AND have resources lined up to refer the athlete? And, if a convention bringing in thousands of coaches isn’t offering a session on it, then how do we expect this information to get out? Be taught? Be discussed? And, most importantly, be taken seriously?
Before I developed an eating disorder, the extent of my knowledge was that anorexic people starve themselves and bulimic people eat a lot, then throw up. And, those were the exact words I would have used. Clearly, I didn’t have much of an understanding on the number of different eating disorders that exist (more than just anorexia and bulimia), the complexity of each disorder, and number of people who struggle with one, but are never identified or helped. This scares the hell out of me. I have to assume if that was all I knew before developing anorexia, then other people either know less or believe the same things I did. How can we blame them? The topic is disregarded, and a dark cloud still lingers above the words, “Eating Disorders,” making it an undesirable matter to tackle.
I am honored, and humbled, to have the chance to present on Thursday at the largest coaching gathering in the world for soccer. My session is titled, “Pressures in Athletics Can Lead to Eating Disorders,” and I am on a mission to not only educate, enlighten, and inspire these coaches about eating disorders, but to broach the subject in a welcoming and non-intimidating way in hopes to make them more comfortable. If coaches are confident in what signs to look for, and the proper steps to take, then more lives will be saved, like mine. And, ultimately, that is my goal.