5 Things Coaches Should Avoid Saying to Adolescent Athletes

By: Amanda Feldman 

Amanda Feldman is a graduate student in Boston University’s Nutrition and Dietetics program pursuing her RDN credential with a special interest in sports nutrition and eating disorders. Outside of the classroom, she is a high school Varsity Softball and Cross Country coach at the Dana Hall School in Wellesley, MA, where she graduated before continuing on to play 2 years of collegiate softball at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. In her free time, Amanda is an avid long-distance runner and is passionate about sharing her love for running, athletics, and nutrition education.

Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that come in all shapes and sizes.1 Male-identifying and female-identifying. Those in larger and smaller bodies. They can occur in runners, football players, soccer players, dancers, fencers and everything in between.

As a former athlete and a current high school coach myself, I am aware of the unique role coaches play in an adolescent athlete’s life. We act as role models, mentors, and individuals our athletes are trying to impress. In some cases, the internal pressure to impress a coach is so high our athletes will do anything and everything asked of them to get on the field, be a starter, become a captain, or earn a coach’s respect. Because of this, everything from the way coaches talk about goal setting, fueling and food, athletes’ bodies, and body changes can have a profound impact on an athlete – be that positive or negative.

Some individuals have a predisposition that puts them at a higher risk for developing an eating disorder. Eating disorders are “complex traits,” and multiple environmental and genetic factors play a role in their development.1 This includes individual’s genetics, past experiences, societal pressures, traumas, and other mental health diagnoses to name a few factors. It is hard for us to identify exactly who is at high risk for developing one, but what we do know is that adolescence is a vulnerable period,2 one in which eating disorders too commonly manifest. This is why we need to place high importance on eating disorder prevention.

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Kamila Valieva’s Tragedy is Not An Isolated Incident

Guest Post By Matt Stranberg

Matt Stranberg, MS RDN LDN CSSD CSCS is a Sports Nutrition and Exercise Science Specialist helping athletes and non-athletes improve their relationship to food and exercise. To learn more visit: https://www.mattstranbergconsulting.com/ Follow Matt on instagram: @matt_stranberg_consulting

Olympic trials have always had their fair share of controversies and dramas, dating back to the early 1900’s and the spectacle of Nazi Berlin to more recent media frenzies surrounding Simone Biles’s 2021 withdrawal. This year is no different as young Russian figure skating prodigy, Kamila Valieva was plunged into scandal following a positive drug test as well as more recent stories highlighting her series of falls in competition resulting in a media explosion exploring the cruel treatment by coaches during her heartbreaking moments of public anguish.

Many critics, including International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach have derided Kamila’s treatment as “disturbing, cold, harsh and chilling to see.”[i] Numerous media outlets have framed this tragedy as yet another “confrontation between Russia and international institutions,”[ii] that has reignited debates regarding possible age limits for Olympic competition.[iii]

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What I Learned as a Collegiate Runner Majoring in Dietetics (Guest Post by Maggie Farrell) Part 3

Read Part 1 of Maggie’s Journey here.

Read Part 2 of Maggie’s Journey here.

Donate to her Running in Silence marathon journey fundraiser here! Maggie will be running the Austin Marathon THIS Sunday representing Running in Silence.

Since I wrote my initial blog post for Running in Silence, I have had several people ask me, “Why did you wait until now to share your struggles?” To be honest, I was scared–scared of what admitting I had a problem would mean for my running career. Scared that asking for help made me weak and people would question if I had actually had a problem.

It took stepping away from competitive running to realize that asking for help didn’t make me weak. My perspective mattered.

I shared in my first post that the first time I ever worried about my weight wasn’t until my junior year of high school. However, upon reflection, I realized that this isn’t entirely the truth. I remember stepping on the scale as a fourth grader. When I looked down at the scale, I remember feeling dissatisfied with the number and making myself get out the door for a walk. That night for dinner, I cut back on the number of bread and butter slices (a staple in my diet at that time) because I had been told that bread was “bad.”  Fourth grade.That is absurd.

I bring up this experience to illustrate how difficult it is to have a healthy relationship with food and our bodies today. We are told, explicitly or implicitly, at a very young age, that our weight is one of the most important things about us. I won’t go too much into how our diet culture is harming our relationship with food at the very first exposure because we could be here for a while. I do, however, want to point out that this exposure to diet culture, in combination with additional pressures to “stay fit” and look a certain way in competitive sports, can make someone’s susceptibility to developing an eating disorder incredibly high.

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What I learned as a Collegiate Runner Majoring in Dietetics (Guest Post by Maggie Farrell) Part II

Read Part 1 of Maggie’s Journey here.

Donate to her Running in Silence marathon journey fundraiser here!

My eating disorder and running goals had me focusing on one common thing: how to be less. How I could spend less time on the cross-country course or track? Eat less throughout the day? Weigh less on the scale? And take up less space in this world? These thoughts of how to be less took up most of the space in my brain. It seemed the better I got at running, the more mental space was taken up by these goals.

This hyper-focused mindset, in addition to the irritability that came with under-fueling, made it difficult for me to form meaningful relationships and spend time with the ones I loved.

Looking back at the time I was struggling the most with my eating disorder, I can now identify several ways my social life and relationships were impacted:

  1. I went to bed early due to a fear of eating too much or “giving in” to my cravings. At this point in my life, it was a miracle to find me out of bed past 8 p.m. I was afraid the later I stayed up, the less willpower I had, and the more likely I would eat more food. Plus, thanks to the lack of energy I was consuming at the time, I just didn’t have the energy to stay up late.
  2. I turned down offers to go to social gatherings where food was involved. I would do just about anything to avoid my “fear foods.” These are foods that people avoid due to negative thoughts about the healthfulness of the food. I avoided foods that were commonly deemed by society as “bad” since I thought they would make me run slow or gain weight. I would do just about anything to avoid these foods.
  3. My thoughts were always dedicated to food. Like I said earlier, most of my thoughts at this point in my life were dedicated to food and my diet. How could I cut a couple of extra calories from my diet? What would I allow myself to eat the next day? Is the dressing that they served with my salad “healthy?” How many more calories should I eat today? This obsession with food was exhausting, but I couldn’t control my thoughts, so I just tried to ignore them. Little did I know that this was my body’s cry for help. I was starving.
  4. I didn’t have much energy for social events, and I was easily irritable. As I mentioned in my previous post, constant under-fueling translated into me feeling irritated a good proportion of the time. In addition, I was restricting my caloric intake, which meant I didn’t have the energy to do much else other than run.

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What I Learned as a Collegiate Runner Majoring in Dietetics (Guest Post by Maggie Farrell) Part 1

Last year, Maggie Farrell reached out to me with a request to raise awareness for eating disorders in sports through Running in Silence in an upcoming marathon. As a Michigan high school cross country and track coach, I had the opportunity to witness some of Maggie’s running accomplishments in high school. But the greatest privilege has been watching her work on this three-part piece that reveals the gritty woman Maggie aspired to be from a young age, who now inspires others.

Maggie Farrell, 2016 high school state cross country and 2017 3200m high school state track champion for Michigan, graduated in 2021 from Michigan State University with her BS in Dietetics. In addition to her studies, Maggie competed on the MSU Cross Country and Track & Field team. Throughout her time competing at MSU, she was Big 10 Freshman Runner of the Year, first-team All-Big 10, and competed in the NCAA Cross Country Championship. Maggie also helped the MSU women’s team win the Big Ten’s conference championship in 2020. Maggie is currently a graduate student at Texas State University where she is completing her dietetic internship and MS in Human Nutrition to become a registered dietitian.

This past fall, I was inspired by my dad to run the Austin Marathon in February 2022. Throughout my time training for this marathon, I will be raising money for Running in Silence, an organization that encourages the athletic community to talk about the prevalence of eating disorders, help athletes seek out the help they need, and assist coaches with eating disorder awareness and prevention. I encourage you to consider donating to this amazing organization so we can help raise awareness about eating disorders in sports and help lessen the struggle for athletes.

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Why We Need to Talk About Male* Eating Disorders (Guest Post by Molly Fennig)

*Individuals who identify as male

As an athlete who had trouble recognizing her eating disorder, I (Rachael Steil) can only imagine how tough it can be for men who struggle with eating disorders to identify what they’re going through and get the help they deserve. Molly Fennig, author of Starvation (a novel about a guy struggling with an eating disorder), shares more about male eating disorder misconceptions here.

1. They’re more prevalent than you think.

Depending on the study, up to 40% of individuals with eating disorders are male.

In fact, up to 19% of male athletes have an eating disorder (Bratland-Sanda & Sundgot-Borgen, 2012). Unsurprisingly, sports that promote leanness, either through weight classes (ie wrestling) or increased efficiency (ie distance running) have higher rates of eating disorders.

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Being Told “You’re Not Sick Enough” (Guest Post by Emily Kopacz)

Trigger warning: eating disorder behaviors mentioned.

A lump formed in my throat as I walked towards my college’s wellness center. Two days prior I had had my first appointment with a nutritionist at a practice specialized in eating disorder treatment. The nutritionist, horrified specifically by my laxative abuse, advised that I get a blood panel as soon as possible and that the easiest way to get one was to notify my college’s health center and go from there.

When I was called in by the nurse practitioner, I felt my stomach tie itself in knots. I did not want to tell my eating disorder story again to yet another medical professional. The more I had to explain my eating disorder, the more I questioned if I even had one.

“What brings you in today?” The nurse asked me as I sat down on the crinkly paper seat covering.

My chest tightened; my heart raced.

“I need to get a blood panel done. Are you guys able to do that here?”

“Why do you need a blood panel?” The nurse asked, now looking me up and down.

“I was recently diagnosed with an eating disorder and was advised by my nutritionist to get a blood panel done,” I said, all in one breath.

“I really don’t think you need one,” the nurse said dismissively.

“What?” I said, taken aback.

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On Full Recovery: Guest Post by Emma Zimmerman

Emma is a writer and activist currently based outside of Chicago. Through her writing, Emma explores topics of women in endurance sports and environmental justice. She is passionate about creating a healthier culture for female distance runners, a topic which she continues to write and speak about. Her work has been featured in Women’s Running, the Sacramento Press, and Girl Talk HQ. Originally from the East Coast, Emma is thrilled to return to New York to pursue an MFA in Nonfiction Writing this fall. You can follow her on Instagram @emma_zimmerman or at uprooteddiaries.com. 

An issue of Women’s Health magazine lay on my mother’s coffee table, its cover sporting the crop-topped image of an actress or model—I was not sure which.

“What it really took to get this fit,” read the fine print, strategically placed where the woman’s shirt met her skin. Those words, and the airbrushed body beside them, were all the ammunition I needed to feverishly flip through magazine pages.

I landed again on the woman from the cover. Newly-clad in spandex and boxing gloves, she stood beside a paragraph which outlined her daily routine: precise meals of brussels sprouts and grass-fed eggs, full-body training sessions, and absolutely no chocolate. That paragraph was all it took for me to toss aside my carefully curated armor—the Instagram pages of non-diet dietitians and body-positive poetry.

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Little Things With BIG Impacts: Guest Blog Post by Hannah Wolfe (Part II)

Hannah Wolfe reached out to me about supporting the Running in Silence nonprofit, and I wanted to give her the opportunity to share her own story here, part 2! You can read part 1 here. Events and conversations have been recreated from her memories of them. Eating disorder behaviors are mentioned.

A sneak peak of recovery

Summer came and little by little, recovery crept closer. Under the guise of my age-old stomach aches, my mom (unbeknownst to me) took me to an “Eating Disorder and Wellness Center”. There, I was diagnosed with EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified), a diagnosis that shoved me even further down my rabbit hole. To me, EDNOS read NSEFA: Not Skinny Enough for Anorexia.

Gradually, I began recovery, attending weekly appointments with a therapist, dietitian, and three-hour sessions of group therapy. At first, I tried to work this recovery into my regular routine. I tried to get better while remaining comfortable (news flash: without discomfort, recovery is impossible). I stayed on the team, running some of my best times with my regained fuel but still-small frame. But slowly, it was too much to bear. Much to my mother and coach’s dismay, I quit the team and strayed away from running. I knew I wasn’t getting better.

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Little Things With BIG Impacts: Guest Blog Post by Hannah Wolfe (Part I)

Hannah Wolfe reached out to me about supporting the Running in Silence nonprofit, and I wanted to give her the opportunity to share her own story here! Events and conversations have been recreated from her memories of them. Eating disorder behaviors are mentioned.

Hannah, who will be graduating from the University of Virginia with a Psychology Major and Health and Wellbeing Minor, was born and raised a runner. From the deep valleys to the unimaginable peaks, running has held her hand throughout the past 15 years. A self-described wellness enthusiast, recovery advocate, and world-changer-in-training, Hannah strives to bring more magic into this world. She has a strong love for running, coffee, music, being outdoors, and empowering others. She’s here to fight so more people like her can experience the golden moments in life! 

I awake to the roar of the garage door shutting as my parents leave for their morning run. Racing down the stairs (as quietly as a seven-year-old can race) so I can turn on this morning’s episode of Full House, I keep the volume low to not disturb my sleeping sister (seriously, how do teenagers sleep that long?) and stumble into the kitchen.

I skim the latest of many weekly lime green sticky note “to-do” lists. They were always clinging to our kitchen table or the granite countertop, sure to be the first thing to catch one’s eye upon entry. I began making Rachel’s favorite (Pillsbury cinnamon buns, of course), eyeing the “to-do” list that did not include “make breakfast” along the way.

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