Eating disorders in the wake of retirement from professional sports

Eating disorders in athletesEating disorder treatment centres around the world are beginning to recognize the need for targeted with ex-athletes who, in the wake of leaving behind their sports, often gain an eating disorder. In America, in particular, where scholarships are awarded based on athletic performance, young athletes come to enjoy a certain status within their college and will often be training for up to 25 hours a week. When injury strikes and the professional athletics career is over, the young adult will necessarily feel a void and a loss of identity, as what has defined them since a very early age, suddenly no longer applies. This is when many, both men and women, turn to over-exercising, Bulimia, or Anorexia, - as a way of coping with this transitional phase.

It’s a common problem

According to studies published in 1999 and 2002 by experts Craig Johnson and Katherine Beals, on examination of nearly 1.000 female student athletes it was found that at least one-third of these female students have some type of eating disorder. Upon retirement, the competitive drive that has served the athlete in her sports is invariably going to manifest itself elsewhere. Eating, restricting, or over-exercising is one such place and is a common reaction to the loss of an identity and purpose that has been offered through the sport.

Ballet, ice skating, and gymnastics are examples of sports that require immense discipline and a strict adherence to the maintenance of a certain weight. For these athletes daily weightings, and countless hours of daily practice has thus been an integral part of life from a very young age. The void that is often felt, once this life style ceases can feel as as a great loss, which many will not allow themselves to mourn. An ex gymnast, Kitasoe, confessed to the Los Angeles Times that when she stopped her gymnastics she became obsessed with food, going for a whole day restricting eating only to devour a large pizza and a big bag of chips at night, after which, overcome with guilt, she would induce vomiting. Because she looked relatively healthy her family and friends were unaware of her internal struggles until a year later, when she saw a psychologist who said ‘It sounds like you’ve suffered a great loss’. Kitasoe believes this very line changed her life, as it allowed her to grieve.

Integration is essential

In many ways this maladaptive coping strategy is an understandable response to an abnormal situation. Having restricted, resisted urges, and mastered one’s body for so many years, when the objective to do so suddenly ceases, it can take time and require help to discover a new purpose and new ways of being in this world, - let alone come to accept oneself as anything less than perfect. Becci Twombley, director of sports nutrition at UCLA says she receives up to 20 calls a year from former athletes either seeking nutritional advice, or help with overcoming eating disorders like Anorexia or Bulimia. According to Twombley it is thus essential that Universities assist retiring athletes in handling this transition into the real world. The young men playing American football who have been made enormous for the purpose of the sport, and the ballet dancer who has had to do the opposite, both need to develop an understanding of what constitutes a normal meal, and a healthy body type, prior to retirement.

Because eating disorders are deceptive and symptoms are not always overt, it is not always easy for friends or family to spot the problem. Consequently bringing light to this issue and putting in place support specific to these people’s situation, is imperative in order ease this difficult transition.

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