There are many athletes both men and women who are at risk for an eating disorder. According to Eating Disorder Information.com, “Studies show that participants in sports that emphasize appearance and a lean body are at higher risk for developing an eating disorder than are non-athletes or individuals involved in sports that require muscle mass and bulk. Studies show that the male sports with the highest number of participants with eating disorders are wrestling and cross country runners.” To help understand the relations between athletes and eating disorders, I have interviewed Dr. Joan Ingalls.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I am a sport counselor, a Licensed Creative Arts Therapist and a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in New York State, an Association for Applied Sport Psychology Certified Consultant, and member of the Olympic Registry of Sport Psychologists. I have a master’s degree in psychology and dance therapy from Goddard College, and doctorate of education in sport counseling from Columbia University. I completed a 2-year training program in social therapy at the Eastside Institute for Short-term and Group Psychotherapy in New York City. I have been in private practice for over 25 years ‘” consulting with teams and individuals at all levels in all sports. My practice is group focused and patients with eating disorders can join an on-going group that addresses a wide range of emotional issues of the members. Very few athletes with eating disorders actively seek my help. Part of their problem is that they do not want help with their problem. They see their eating disorder as a solution to a problem. Athletes with eating disorders seek my help to perform better, not to give up the eating disorder. I see people with eating disorders after they have given up their sport aspirations.”
Why are there many athletes who have an eating disorder?
“There are many sports where weight is a central issue, for example ‘” gymnastics, figure skating, and springboard diving because of aesthetics, and wrestling and rowing because of weight classes. One could speculate that people enter sport to “normalize” or disguise their eating disorder, or that they acquire an eating disorder in response to the culture/demands of their sport. Where esthetics is an issue, I think athletes without any real knowledge about nutrition and health are taking their cues about a beautiful body from family members, coaches, judges and teammates. With many failed attempts to lose weight, and desperate to please, they try something that is sure to “work” ‘” starvation and if not starvation, binge and purge. In the case of sports with weight classes, athletes are trying to qualify for the competitive advantage of the lower class weight. To maintain strength that is superior to your competitors at a reduced weight, and peak at a particular moment is as difficult as rocket science and requires an iron will. Without the right body type, it becomes an obsessive, frustrating and demoralizing endeavor, which could easily look like an eating disorder.”
What type of impact does an eating disorder have on their athletic abilities?
“Here I will talk about a person who has achieved the status of an athlete which seems to me can’t be achieved if the person enters the sport with an eating disorder. I have seen this with people who run ‘” especially people who train for marathons: A person with an eating disorder takes up running. This is not an athlete with an eating disorder. It seems to me that with athletes, the eating order develops in the course of the career. I see eating disorders in mid-career gymnasts and skaters who are training to qualify for the Jr. Olympics, or in college rowers who have been drafted, or in junior high wrestlers trying to make the varsity team. If the performance of an athlete deteriorates for any reason including poor nutrition, he or she can loose confidence in themselves and their training regime. That has a negative effect on their performance. With loss of confidence come distracting thoughts, shame, anxiety, and loss of motivation. These mental/emotional states in my view are the basis of any physical performance. A nutrition specialist could speak more specifically about the deleterious effects of various nutrient deficiencies on mental/emotional and physical functioning.”
What are the long-term effects for an athlete who has an eating disorder?
“Long-term effects are loss of career goals and all that accompanies those goals ‘” identity as an athlete, and relationships in the sport world. With these losses, the person has to recreate his/her life. Without a sense of confidence, without a social support system, it can be a daunting task. I have worked with athletes who feel completely abandoned by their former associates when they leave the sports world. Their identity as an athlete is so strong that without it they feel that they don’t know who they are or what they should do with their lives. With that said, athletes could recover from eating disorders and go on to have satisfying careers as athletes.”
What type of treatment is available for an athlete who has an eating disorder?
“I have been successful treating eating disorders with Ericksonian Hypnotherapy and social therapy. Both of these approaches help athletes grow emotionally to accept responsibility their lives and relationships with others, which are impacted by their eating disorder. While there are no treatment centers for athletes with eating disorders that I know of, there are many for the general population that athletes could enter. These centers generally use a variety of treatment modalities including cognitive/behavior therapy, psychodynamic therapy, group therapy, and creative arts therapies, and nutritional counseling. In-patient centers allow individuals to enter programs of various length of duration. Ranging from several weeks to several months. They usually provide follow-up treatment.”
What is a great way for an athlete to be physically fit and healthy?
“My advice to athletes is to continually be taking stock of and getting smarter about where they are choosing to be, and continually taking responsibility for that choice. This is what I work on in counseling with athletes. Athletes are in a culture that can be, by its nature, exploitative of them. Yes, you could argue that athletes are exploiting sports, but very few do, and they have to first survive and learn to manage the exploitation. It is easy to have a victimized response to being exploited. That response can undermine a fitness program ‘” one can easily go overboard in trying to please a tyrant ‘” the mythical tyrant of success and fame and fortune ‘” not necessarily an individual person in the form of a coach or trainer. I try to help athletes develop a healthy relationship to the sport culture, not a victimized response. From there, a healthy training regime is a matter of a commitment to fun/joy and good science ‘” applied physiology, biomechanics and nutrition.”
Thank you Dr. Ingalls for the interview. If you would like more information about Dr. Ingalls check out her website on www.focusedtraining.com.