Written by Gabby Guzman, AB, and Jeanne McPhee, BA.
Figuring out how to balance academics and sports as a college athlete is no easy task. They must adjust to the new physical demands of one’s sport and find the right diet to sustain mental and physical health. Although college athletes from all sports may face these challenges, weight class sports demand something unique: needing to make and maintain a specific weight in order to compete.
Sports with weight classes include weightlifting, heavyweight and lightweight rowing, boxing, wrestling, and other combat sports. These sports require that athletes qualify for a specific weight class because weight is thought to be a critical feature in matching competitors. At the college level, the NCAA is in charge of determining the weight ranges that these athletes must attain to qualify. At specific points before the actual competition takes place, a weigh-in of each athlete occurs to ensure fairness of competition.
In an ideal world, athletes would land in a weight class clearly consistent with their natural, healthy body range. However, college athletes, like their non-athlete peers, are often still maturing physically; this means that sometimes an assigned weight class for a freshman athlete may not be suitable by junior year. Even if the desired weight class represents a reasonable weight range for the individual, weight class athletes may feel extra pressures around eating, fitness and weight.
These factors, and others, may increase the likelihood that weight class athletes will engage in unhealthy behaviors to reach their goal weight before a weigh-in. In fact, studies have shown that the prevalence of eating disorders, and disordered eating, is more common in weight class sports than other sports. Weight class athletes may be more inclined than other athletes to progressively lose fat and/or muscle for weeks leading up to the competition, or to lose weight (usually in the form of water weight) rapidly just days before a sporting event.
Taking drastic measures to achieve a less-than-optimal weight can negatively impact physical and psychological well-being. Because weight class sports are not specific to a gender, the risk of losing weight rapidly and experiencing negative psychological changes can occur in both women and men.
The health and safety risks involved with extreme weight cutting at the collegiate and non-collegiate levels include:
- Inadequate electrolyte levels (leading to exhaustion and weakness)
- Hormonal and metabolic changes (potentially altering eating behavior and body composition)
- Dehydration (which may render an athlete unable to compete)
- Long-term health effects like heart attack, kidney failure (or in rare instances, even death)
Weight limits may also pose nutritional difficulties, as athletes may struggle to find the best foods to energize and revive their bodies before and after competitions while maintaining a specific weight.
Staying cognizant of markers of mental health is also critical for weight class athletes. If weight class is negatively affecting psychological wellbeing, warning signs might be:
- Low mood and energy (potentially leading to athletic underperformance)
- Difficulty concentrating due to poor nutrition, hunger, or thoughts about eating and weight
- Rigid rule-bound eating
- Fixation with or persistent worry about food, eating, calories, body shape or weight
- Compulsion to exercise beyond what is recommended
If you, or your teammate, is having a hard time balancing health and competition, don’t suffer in silence. There are several ways to stay mentally healthy while physically active. Teammates can provide support to one another, but coaches, trainers, and university counseling centers may be truly invaluable if the pressure to make a specific weight feels overwhelming, or if it’s interfering with other parts of your life.