Why I Kept Silent About My Eating Disorder, and Why Coaches Shouldn’t

Updated March 25, 2021, to improve readability.

Dear Coach,

You are required to detect the early signs of concussions and when it’s important to sit an athlete out. This is all with good reason: concussions are common in many sports. Unfortunately, so are eating disorders. Yet we still don’t know how to talk about them. Coaches aren’t even trained on how to approach them.

By leaving this topic in the dark, we are failing our athletes. And as a past eating disorder sufferer and runner, my heart breaks to see other athletes struggle as I did. Maybe they don’t think their eating disorder is “bad enough.” Or they don’t think you would understand. I read these emails, and hear these stories over

and over

and over again.

As a fellow cross country coach, I want to thank you for wanting to do something about this.

Knowledge is Power

My coach was supportive of my recovery from an eating disorder. The problem was that red flags weren’t noticed when they showed up years prior. Without the knowledge and tools, my coach couldn’t see the disordered eating unfolding, especially when I was the fastest girl on the team at the time.

Competitive athletics can be a part of the trigger or worsen an eating disorder. But running can also be part of an eating disorder already present. Perhaps a large reason why eating disorders are so common in running is due to the kind of people who are drawn to such sports. Competitive running demands and attracts those with a desire for hard work, discipline, pushing through pain, attention to numbers, rewards based on place and times—not unlike an eating disorder would.

We as coaches are responsible for, at the very least, being able to identify possible eating disorders. We can show that we are open to talking about disordered eating should anyone be struggling or struggle in the future.

Break the Silence

Even with my background and experiences, I am continuing to develop a way to bring up this subject each year with the cross country team I coach. We must acknowledge that this is a prevalent issue and that we are here to support our athletes’ health. We are here to help them if they are ever struggling with food or their bodies. At the very least, by talking with the team about these issues, you are showing that you are open and willing to talk about mental health.

When athletes feel more open about what they are dealing with, they can get the help they need sooner. You are planting a seed, and setting a standard for the team: that their physical and emotional well-being is important.

Approaching an athlete you suspect struggles with an eating disorder needs a whole blog post for itself. But at the basic level, based on my experience with an eating disorder, I would have more easily opened up if someone asked about how I was doing. It could have been questions about how I was feeling, or if I felt like I was struggling with anything—because my eating disorder developed during a time when life was confusing and difficult. I wouldn’t have responded to an eating disorder diagnosis, but I likely would have responded to a voice of concern for my happiness and well-being.

Speaking Out

Because this blog post only covers very little of what I want to talk about in the realm of eating disorders in coaching, I will be speaking at the MITCA Cross Country Coaches Conference this November to share my experiences as a previous eating disorder sufferer, and as a coach tackling these issues with athletes. This is a topic that requires varying perspectives, a lot of time, and important discussion.

Those of you who coach athletes: you are taking the first important step by recognizing that eating disorders are an issue. The high school girl within me who had an eating disorder thanks you. She thanks you for striving to help men and women like me to stop running in silence.

1 reply
  1. Art Hutchinson
    Art Hutchinson says:

    Hi, Rachael.

    I’m glad to see you making the comparison between concussion (paramount in many sports, but not so much in running) and eating disorder (near the top of the list for runners and arguably at the very top of that list).

    When I took our high school’s mandatory annual concussion certification a few weeks ago, I was struck by the similarities in what the state (MA) demands that we know, e.g., skills for recognition, education of teammates, reporting, hand-off to medical professionals, return-to-play protocols, fostering the right competitive culture, focus on long-term health, dire life outcomes if not managed properly, etc.

    The only thing different is the malady.

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