Written by Jeanne McPhee, BA, and Gabby Guzman, AB.
Being a college athlete is full of challenges, not the least of which include the physical and mental demands of competition, the delicate balancing act of friends, school, and time on the field, and the dedication to keeping your body healthy. Ideally, these challenges are made less challenging for athletes in the setting of a supportive team environment. Teammates can be a wonderful resource to one another; the bonds between members of the team are often unparalleled and because the team goes through so much together, experienced athletes can help their younger team members get acclimated.
But sometimes being a member of a team presents its own unique challenges, particularly if you are watching a teammate struggle to find the balance between athletics, academics and health. Because each college athlete responds to and is affected by the demands of a sport in different ways, it can be tough to know when to be concerned and how concerned to be when it comes to disordered eating (and of course, a full-blown eating disorder).
Here are a few signs that might be cause for concern:
- Substantial weight loss: Weight fluctuations and changes can be normal when transitioning in and out of season, but if you notice that a teammate has lost significant weight or is struggling to keep weight on, this may be a sign of something more serious.
- Changes in eating patterns: Meal times are a time to enjoy being around each other off the court or field while also making sure that everyone is eating well for the demands of your sport. Team meals offer an opportunity to notice any unhealthy changes in a teammate’s eating behaviors. Disordered eating behaviors include skipping meals, not eating enough variety (i.e., following strict food rules), eating large amounts of food very quickly, and restricting fluids. If a teammate appears to experience anxiety during a meal, this may also be cause for concern.
- Exhaustion: Feeling “exhausted” is a common feeling among athletes. But feeling a little sore or wanting to take an extra nap before practice, is different from the fatigue characteristic of an eating disorder. Your teammate might repeatedly complain about being tired all the time, sleep more than usual, or be consistently unable to follow through with a normal routine because they are too exhausted. Conversely, if your teammate is overdoing it with exercise outside of team practices and games, too little sleep might be the problem; this also can get in the way of day-to-day responsibilities. Exhaustion in individuals with disordered eating can also be due to poor nutrition or to depleting episodes of binge eating and/or purging.
- Struggling in classroom or athletic performance: Without proper nutrition or at lower weight, it may be harder for your friend to concentrate in class or succeed in athletic training. You may notice that your teammate is having trouble academically keeping up or that he/she may tire more quickly during practice. It is also possible that with changes in eating and weight, your teammate may be more prone to injuries on and off the court or field.
If you’ve become concerned about a teammate, you are likely asking yourself: How can I help? And what if my friend needs more help than I can provide?
There are lots of different ways to show concern for your teammate and his or her health; the most important thing is not to stay silent but rather to express your worries in a supportive way, and without delay. When you speak with your friend, remind him or her that you are there to help. Describe behaviors that you have noticed. Express concern for his or her physical and emotional wellbeing. Ask how your teammate is feeling and how aware he or she is of the changes that concern you the most. If your teammate is upset with you for bringing up the topic, remind him or her that you care enough to put your friendship at risk to help and to encourage getting the help that’s needed.
It is quite possible that your friend needs more help than you can provide, because as much as we care for the wellbeing of others, we are not in charge of their decisions about their health. Talk to a trusted coach or trainer or psychological services about, or even with, your teammate to get as much support as possible –for both of you. These professionals can help provide referrals if they believe that your friend could benefit from treatment. Strongly encourage your friend to speak openly with family about what’s going on. And model healthy behaviors yourself – avoid dieting, be mindful of fat-talk.
Being a good teammate means learning how and when to challenge or support your fellow teammates. Expressing care and concern for a friend who may be struggling with disordered eating not only helps that individual—it enables the creation of a safe and supportive space for all members of the team to have healthy, fun, and successful season.