An Essay On Eating Disorders, For Coaches and Swimmers

Photo Courtesy: Katie D., Flickr

When I was about 14 years old, my coach pulled me aside after practice one day and asked me and my mom to meet with him later that week. He wanted to discuss something important pertaining to my swimming career. Whenever Coach asked this of one of his swimmers, we knew something was about to go down. He’d meet with a swimmer at the far end of the pool bleachers and all the teammates leaving the locker rooms after practice would walk past with curiosity. We all knew the feeling of being in that spot; it was shameful.

When Coach planned this meeting with my mom and I, it was nerve wracking. I wondered if I was in trouble for talking too much at practice, or maybe I missed too many practices and he wanted to motivate me to refocus my goals. In the few days leading up to the scheduled meeting day, I mulled over the possibilities and hoped it was about something positive.

My mom and I met with him after practice in the usual shame spot—the far end of the bleachers. I can remember what he said vividly because of the impact it had on me in my first year of high school.

“So Kelsey, you don’t have the body you used to anymore, and you’re getting your ‘woman body,’” Coach said.

I thought, “No way, who knew puberty happened to everyone!” (sarcasm).

I sat there in utter embarrassment; my mom was by my side, silent. I was puzzled and uncertain where this conversation was headed.

He continued, “This means that you can’t eat whatever you want anymore. You have to watch your caloric intake so you don’t gain more weight. I want you to keep a food journal and show it to me at the end of every week.”

My heart sank. Was he telling me to lose weight? I remember a girl on my team who was told she needed to lose weight by another coach, but I was not expecting it to happen to lanky ol’ me. And why didn’t my mom stand up for me? I concluded my coach must have been right then! I had to lose weight or else I wouldn’t perform my best in the pool.

After the meeting ended, my teammates who’d seen me in the meeting were curious what happened. I divulged the details and they too were astonished. I was already quite thin. I was healthy and performing well at meets. Thoughts of my body and how others saw it never crossed my mind before this meeting.

Both men and women know that time in our lives when we became conscious of our bodies and the truth that not everyone looks the same. It’s that time when you begin to compare yourself to other people. Everyone reacts differently. Many athletes become obsessed with their image. An eating disorder knows no race, religion, or gender. Anyone can fall down its slippery slope into that dark hole countless athletes are familiar with.

I showed Coach my notebook where I tracked what I’d eaten the first week. All I had written down were grapefruit and energy bars. With 10 practices per week, he rightfully pointed out that it was not enough and I should eat more. However, I was so fixated on losing weight for him that I continued to restrict my intake so I could shed weight quickly.

After a few weeks he pulled me aside and pointed out that I was “looking great.”

This remark fueled the demon in me. Little did I know that this demon would be on my shoulder for the next six years; tormenting me, consuming my thoughts, and pressuring me to attain aesthetic perfection in order to swim faster.

This essay is not meant to showcase a grudge I have against my former coach. It’s not meant to ask for pity. This essay is meant to inform other coaches the impact that something like this can have on a young athlete. I remember this day in detail and it’s been eight years. I didn’t find the root of my eating disorder until I related it to this day. I found the “meeting at the far end of the bleachers” to be what first urged me to look at my body in a negative way.

So to my former coach, I want to tell you that it’s not your fault. It’s no one’s fault, but it was wrong. Any coach who has told a healthy young swimmer to lose weight has made a mistake that could potentially alter a young athlete’s life. When you’re just 14 years old and a coach who’s known you for over a decade tells you to show him your food journal, it’s going to affect you.

Eating disorders are extremely prominent among athletes because we feel so pressured to be the best we can be. As athletes we are often “black and white” thinkers, meaning if we want something, it’s all or nothing. Either we don’t even try or we do everything in our power to get what we want. Athletes will attempt anything to reach perfection, even if it means sacrificing our mental health.

I struggled with disordered eating throughout both high school and college, never recognizing its origin or why most of my thoughts revolved around controlling my food intake and obsessing over my physical appearance. Now that I understand, I wrote this essay because I know that many athletes can relate.

More importantly, I hope that my story reaches coaches to inform and prevent them from meeting with their swimmers at “the far end of the bleachers.” It’s not your place to tell a young swimmer to watch their figure. A young teen is entering a hyper-impressionable and incredibly tender time in their life in which even the smallest judgements may rock his or her world. With young athletes I believe that weight is a matter that should be discussed between an athlete and their parent or guardian.

As a coach you can instead hold meetings with your all of swimmers as a team about health and nutrition. If you are concerned about a specific swimmer’s weight affecting their performance, find an appropriate way to address it; otherwise, you may never know what demons will be stirred. 

Swimming World elected to remove the name of the author in order to protect the names directly related to this story.

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7 years ago

I’d go as far as to suggest that perhaps no one should discuss their weight with them apart from their parents and their doctor.
If the coach is worried about the swimmer being underweight then seems appropriate to mention it to the parents

If weight actually has any impact on their swimming then a) it’s not that important and b) presumably they will be replaced by others who are performing better until/unless they decide to do something – hopefully with support

Brian Burns
Brian Burns
7 years ago

This article is a courageous statement by someone who was adversely affected by what was thought to be a helpful comment. I am here to tell you that that type of comment can be extremely harmless. My daughter was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa as well. She was a top performing swimmer and at the age of 14 her coach of 8 years made an off comment of “better lay off the bread”. That was one of a number of situations that created a “perfect storm” that let the demon inside her rise up and completely take over my beautiful little girl. Luckily we were able to catch and arrest it early. It took her loosing weight down to 96lbs before we took charge and got her into a program at UNC-Chapel Hill. We are on the long road to recovery but it has been extremely hard.

We are actively speaking with the coaches and our daughter’s teachers to make sure that they are informed on the dangers of these type of comments. Just like the writer, I agree that coaches need to be informed on how their influence on their athletes can be good and bad in these type of situations and they need to understand the consequences of off comments.

I am working to approach USA Swimming as well to introduce a program for swimmers, coaches and families as part of the new Safe Sport program that addresses eating disorders. Any help or advice in this regard would be greatly appreciated.

7 years ago
Reply to  Brian Burns

Thank you for this comment. That’s awesome that you’re working on a better approach and it’s really great to see support for this issue.

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