Swimming is an incredible sport that requires a lot of hard work and dedication. But let's be real, it also involves squeezing into a tiny swimsuit. Unfortunately, the intense pressure to perform at a high level can sometimes lead to disordered eating habits and even full-blown eating disorders. As a coach, parent, or teammate, it's important to be able to recognize the warning signs and know how to help.
Thankfully, the NCAA has come a long way since my days as a collegiate athlete in the early 90s. Back then, we had to endure the dreaded "claw" multiple times throughout the year. For those who don't know, the "claw" was a Caliber instrument that measured the skinfold and spit out numbers to let you know your body ratio of lean muscle to fat.
I have to admit, I never quite understood the reasoning behind those regular body fat tests we had to endure as student-athletes. I mean, who has time to worry about their body fat percentage when you're training 20+ hours a week? But I guess the coaches and programs wanted to make sure we were all "in shape" and meeting their expectations.
Looking back, I realize that these tests could be incredibly harmful to some athletes. For those already struggling with body image or disordered eating, the pressure to maintain a certain body fat percentage could be overwhelming, especially when they're already putting in so much hard work and dedication to their sport.
Let's face it, the NCAA might have gotten rid of the "claw," but most athletes, especially female athletes, have internalized one.
As a result, it is rare to find females who don't have a form of disordered eating. Admittedly, swim moms and coaches might share in this struggle. It can include things like skipping meals, binge eating, or obsessing over every calorie that goes into your mouth and only eating when they exercise.
Thus, disordered eating can have negative physical and mental health consequences. It can lead to malnutrition, dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, digestive problems, and a weakened immune system, among other issues. Disordered eating can also have a significant impact on mental health, leading to anxiety, depression, social isolation, and a decreased quality of life. While it's important to give certain issues the attention they deserve, sometimes this attention can also exacerbate the struggle.
Again, disordered eating can sometimes develop into a more serious condition known as an eating disorder. When someone has an eating disorder, they may have obsessive thoughts or behaviors related to food, weight, and body shape. This could mean they severely restrict their food intake or engage in binge eating or purging behaviors. They might also experience significant weight loss or fluctuations and be very preoccupied with their body shape and size. They can often tell you how much they weigh in every photo they take or even they attend. If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, it's important to seek help from a professional who can provide support and treatment.
As for resources, there are plenty of organizations out there that offer support and guidance for those impacted by eating disorders. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has a helpline for support and referrals to treatment providers.