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Eating Disorders, Sports and Coaches: vol. 3

If you notice, talk!

This is the third post in a series aimed at draw attention to the possible - positive or negative - impact that the coach may have on the young athlete's mental health and future. We want to raise the awareness of both coaches and parents that a coach working with children needs not only personal experience as an athlete, but also knowledge about young people's development, mental health and its support.

If you are worried about your own or your loved one's mental health, you can find information about problems and help options on the pages Peaasi.ee and Lahendus.net. Here you will find information eating disorders and recommendations for coaches and athletes. The department focusing on the treatment of eating disorders is like that At the Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Tartu if Tallinn Children's Hospital.

Today we present you with the coach who supports the experience of Eliis Grigori. Based on her experience with an eating disorder, Eliis has written a gripping and educational book, “Taped Mouth. The girl who stopped eating ”. 


The story of Elisha 

I was 14 when I was diagnosed Anorexia nervosa - by that time I had been engaged in group gymnastics for half of my life. Although group gymnastics had a huge impact, the trainer was one of the first people in my story to notice my (sudden) change.

Due to my physiological peculiarities, I was never able to compete in classic group gymnastics competitions, which is why I lost the typical competition experience and the previous one: shiny leotard, strong makeup, adrenaline in the veins when the carpet is in front of the jury. At that moment, it didn't bother me, I took it as an opportunity to train my body more gracefully and get good posture for the rest of my life. However, when I was 12 years old, I injured myself outside the training mat and had to recover from the trauma for a few months, and the following year I could not train as intensely as before. At the age when my body began to develop into an adult and the training load suddenly changed, I underwent changes that stood out compared to other training companions. Initially, it didn't bother me, the change took place quietly and unnoticed, until I heard a few comments (both from training classmates and outside the mat) that meant that I was different from others in my body. I began to notice my physical differences with others — wider hips, breasts, rounder arms, and faces — and I began to compare myself more and more closely to others, and I had a growing belief that everyone around me saw me as overweight. In addition to my body, I was also affected by the previously described parts of gymnastics, which I was and always knew I would lose. And that's where the diet began, which led me to extreme contempt for my body. But the coaches I always looked up from never told me that my body did not meet gymnastics standards. But in my head I believed that they could see nothing but me in my body.

My diet peaked in the summer when I was 14 years old. I completely cut myself out of social life, which also meant that I did not participate in summer training camps. But in the autumn I had to rejoin social life - it also meant training.

My coach didn't notice me as soon as I entered the hall, but when the warm-up started and we ran around the carpet, he said, "Elisha has changed so much!" There was no admiration or pride in his voice, but rather fright and his statement caused pride and shame in me at the same time. That evening, the coach called my mother to find out if she was aware of my situation. He had told my mother, "The change has been too abrupt." That's where my journey toward recovery began — noticing and caring for concern.


Comments by Ailen Suurtee, clinical psychologist, Peaasi.ee counselor; Children's Mental Health Center.

Qualities other than weight should be valued in the child, it should not be the focus of life or sports. It is also important for a child to know that he or she is not valuable to anyone because of his or her weight or some body shape traits, but counts other traits. However, supporting the body to be able to play sports in good health is certainly largely the responsibility of the parent:

  • provide balanced food at home (where there is no good or bad food in itself);
  • contribute to a regular eating habit and confidence that the body's signals of hunger and fullness are important;
  • knowledge of how to share their concerns so that they are listened to; and that it is possible to cope with one's heavy emotions in ways other than overeating, restricting one's diet, and so on.

In a child's crushed mood and withdrawal, it is important to find time to talk in a quiet, peaceful moment. You could describe in a neutral way what you have noticed about the child's condition that has changed. The parent could calmly express his or her emotions (eg, “I am worried / scared”) and listen, without judgment or dispute, to how the child reacts, what thoughts he or she has. It doesn't always come out the first time, so it's definitely worth trying again. Eating disorders are diseases that on the one hand are clearly harmful and dangerous, but on the other hand (weight loss, attention, compliments, a feeling of self-control) it is difficult to give up and acknowledge that help is needed. It is important not to praise for weight loss, but always give positive feedback on other characteristics that are not related to weight. It is also not good to praise weight gain in the treatment process, but rather a more regular, varied diet.

The relationship between the coach, the child and the family should be reciprocal, and as parents it is important to make sure that the coach stands in the best interests of the child. The coach can be a vital member of the treatment team and a great support in the child's return to daily life. In case of difficulties, communication and a trusting relationship between all parties are important.


How could it be even better? 
Coaches and parents have opportunity related to certain sports mental health risks - but unfortunately also amplified to the same extent. This means that it is important for these adults to be aware of mental health problems, opportunities for help and support, and also how these problems are treated. But how many trainers perceive their role as a preventor or enhancer of eating disorders?
As a coach, you have to be extremely attentive to your statements. It is also very important to know the dangers of eating disorders and the first signs of the disease. The trainer must be able to distinguish between a healthy training routine and its obsession (if the athlete is very satisfied with the weight loss or wants to achieve extreme success at any cost).
The General Affairs Team has put together recommendations for athletes and coaches to work together to better prevent eating disorders and support athletes who have a dietary concern.
You can find these suggestions here: https://peaasi.ee/treeneritele-ja-sportlastele/


If you also want to share your story and invitation to coaches or parents on our youth movement blog, send it to tere@envtl.ee. If you wish, we can leave your experience completely anonymous.


The post has been compiled by: Merle Purre, leader of the Estonian Youth Mental Health Movement and a member of the Peaasi.ee team.


The completion of the mini-campaign on eating disorders has been supported by the Active Citizens' Fund. Funded by Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, the Active Citizens' Fund supports organizations to reduce economic and social inequalities in Central and Southern Europe as well as in the Baltics. The Estonian Youth Mental Health Movement has received funding for the project "Strategic Involvement of Young People in the Mental Health Movement."

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