Eating Disorders, Sports and Coaches: vol. 1

An athlete's mental health is as important as his or her physical health

Recently, eating disorders have come to the fore in the media. We in the Estonian Youth Mental Health Movement are pleased that taboo topics are receiving attention and societal attitudes towards people with these health problems are shifting towards greater understanding and awareness. 

Sometimes, however, good aspirations give unexpected setbacks. In this way, both ENVTL's young people and like-minded people from the team were crushed, reading the experience of figure skater Johanna Allik. create at a comment from a figure skating coach. From a coach who has been training since childhood, and to whom many young people and parents have certainly looked with respect so far. Each coach has a responsibility to support and protect the health of each child and young person in his or her training, both in terms of mental and physical health. Unfortunately, sometimes it seems that we are not sufficiently aware of our influence, and that is what we want to pay attention to. Our goal is 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 of the young person's development and mental health.

We want to bring to light the experiences of three young people and thoughts, to reveal what impact - positive or negative - the coach may have on the young athlete's mental health and future. To open the topic appropriately, we first introduce the relationship between eating disorders and certain sports. 

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 and 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.

Sports with a mental health risk

Eating disorders are characterized by a situation in which a person's daily eating is severely disrupted; thoughts and feelings revolve largely eating (or its limitation), diet and own body weight and shape around. Eating disorders are very serious mental health problems, being among the most life-threatening mental disorders¹, because it is very difficult for both body and mind to cope with nutrient deficiencies.

There are a number of risk factors that increase the likelihood of eating disorders - some are general and others are specific to sport. Factors covered by the general risk factors are: biological (eg heredity, pubertal-related physical-hormonal changes), psychological (eg low self - esteem, perfectionism) and socio-cultural perhaps due to those around us (eg peer pressure, bullying, media influence). 

Studies have shown that athletes have impaired eating behavior and eating disorders for about three times more than in the general population³. In turn, it is among athletes higher risk for professional athletes (compared to hobby athletes), especially for female athletes. However, it is clear that in areas where it is important to start training as early as possible, in childhood, both future peaks and enthusiasts train side by side. The health of all of them deserves to be protected, and the task of a coach working with children should not be to "separate the grains from the barn", but to support and develop the mental and physical health of every young person who trains under his or her guidance.

Certain sports have special features that make eating disorders more likely to occur or worsen. There is a higher risk in sports where there are, for example, weight classes for competition, where low weight is considered an advantage or where the visual side (so-called aesthetic areas) is important in assessing performance and the appearance of the athlete also receives special attention. All of them can be considered weight-sensitive sports. Weight classes can be found in weightlifting and various martial arts, for example. Aesthetic sports include, for example, beauty and group gymnastics, figure skating and water jumping. As these sports are already inherently higher risk, it becomes even more important the coach's ability to ground them (but to the same extent, unfortunately also to raise).

But why do these sports increase the risk of eating disorders? They contribute to this several factors related to training and competitions: frequent weight measurement, pressure to lose weight, early start with sports-specific training, sports rules; as well as injuries, overtraining, and coach behavior and impact. All of these can contribute to the fact that getting an athlete through their body, weight and diet is not healthy. The stories of the three young people clearly illustrate the potential impact of these factors. In the first post, we publish Lea's story (the name has been changed to maintain anonymity).  

Lea story

When I was three, my parents enrolled me in a gym training. Finally, I worked on it for six long years until my parents gave in and allowed me to quit training.

It was preceded by a lot of persuasion, crying and controversy, as both my parents and my coach expected more from me than I could offer them. Gymnastics is an area where a lot is expected of those who see potential. Therefore, perhaps I should take it as a compliment that my coach called me a traitor after I left in front of the whole troupe.

There were several reasons for my great desire to get out of training. My trainer was a young, courageous and very confident woman with the goal of raising successful gymnasts for many of us. He did not hold back any remarks that he thought could be useful to us. So when I was quite young, I was convinced that skinny people are beautiful and good, and fat people are ugly and evil. None of my ballet books had thick ballerinas and all the gymnasts, including my trainer, were skinny. We were not allowed to "walk like elephants" and we always had to keep our babysitters inside. The thinner children from my troupe were always at the forefront of the plans and the slightly older children at the back.

These remarks also affected me years after I finished gymnastics. As a child, I was always convinced that I was too fat, and I constantly whimpered about it. I'm the biggest sweet-lover in the world, but I always felt bad every time I ate any candy. After overcoming my eating disorder at the age of 17 with the help of two psychologists, I realized that my relationship with food and my body had never been healthy or normal. 

Social media, my family's remarks about my body or eating, and extremely low self-esteem were all the culprits of my eating disorder. However, I feel that the culmination of me was the way my trainer treated me and my teammates. If I were to meet my then coach at the age of 20 now, I would probably feel as insecure as I was when I was 7 years old. If coaches have faith in their students and a desire to raise them into good athletes, it would be more beneficial to support, guide and encourage them. A good coach is one whose students respect him, not afraid.

How could it be 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:

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

¹ According to research, the most mortal mental disorders are eating disorders (especially anorexia) and addiction disorders. A meta-analysis summarizing the results of a large number of studies found here.
² A research article on the prevalence of eating disorders in athletes and risk factors found here.
³ Scientific articles comparing the prevalence of eating disorders in athletes and the general population can be found from here and from here.

Author of the post: Merle Purre, leader of the Estonian Youth Mental Health Movement and member of the 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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