Body image issues: What are your young athletes experiencing?
By Ker’Shyra Myrick
Sports provide athletes with many different ways to stay fit and in shape. But, when an athlete becomes insecure about his or her body, those insecurities could lead to body image issues.
“Body image issues can start at a very young age in an athlete,” says Dr. Ron Thompson, a Bloomington, Indiana-based psychologist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders. “Once it starts, we are not sure where it's going to end up. So it’s important to try and get a hold of the situation before it gets out of control.”
We spoke with Thompson, who has more than 30 years of experience, to get his insights on an issue all volunteer coaches, parents and youth sports administrators need to be aware of. Thompson is a member of the NCAA Mental Health Task Force as the eating disorder representative; he is a consulting psychologist for the Indiana University Athletic Department; and he has authored numerous books, including Helping Athletes with Eating Disorders, The Exercise Balance, and Eating Disorders in Sport.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How common are body image issues in youth sports?
THOMPSON: I think it's very common in youth sports. It's common in all areas of sports. It's common in all areas of society and that's one of the points that I always make. Sport is a microcosm of society. What we see in society we're going to see in sport. It might look a little bit different, but body image problems have been around for quite a while, especially for young women and girls.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Do young male athletes suffer from body issues?
THOMPSON: We are starting to see it more now with young men and boys. With all the bodily changes kids go through, young men and women start to notice curves they didn't know they had before. And it's hard not to notice when social media, along with visual and print media, start to emphasize the idea of how professional athletes look.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Do athletes in one sport suffer more than others?
THOMPSON: People tend to think that this is more common in sports where the athletes are more aesthetic or smaller and thinner. But the thing I always like to impress upon people is these issues occur in both genders and in every sport. I think these issues have always been around for boys, it's just that most of what we used to detect and see came from what we knew about girls and young women.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Is there more pressure on female athletes to look a certain way than males?
THOMPSON: There has always been more pressure on girls and young women to look a particular way. The pressure comes when they get out of the locker room and they go out into society. For example, girls of all ages do what we call “fat talk.” They get together and, unfortunately, kind of disparage their bodies, saying things like, “Oh, my thighs are too big.” They get together with their friends and do this on a regular basis. And the unfortunate part of it is that it really serves to increase body dissatisfaction. So, when female athletes talk negatively about their bodies over and over and over again, it's very hard to feel good about it, which causes them to be dissatisfied with their bodies. This type of thinking leads to other thoughts like, “I need to lose weight.” This process leads to an athlete developing an eating disorder.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How can we help athletes overcome body image issues?
THOMPSON: To be honest, it’s hard to prevent these things from happening. Body image issues is the area we are struggling the most in and probably the area that we've done the least well in. But, early identification is key. If we can't do the primary prevention to keep it from happening, then we've got to identify it as early as possible. We can't treat and help athletes who are going through this if we don't identify them. Identification is tricky, but it can be done.
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