Eating Disorders, Sports and Coaches: vol. 2

The risks of aesthetic sports can also be mitigated

This is the second post in a series aimed at highlighting the potential - positive or negative - impact that a 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 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.

In a previous post we introduced the link between eating disorders and certain sports and published the first experience story of a young person. Today we present you the story of Riina (whose name has been changed to maintain anonymity).  

Riina story 

Group gymnastics has been a very big part of my life, which I started at the age of 4 and was forced to finish at the age of 15. I'm 18 now. I've been thinking a lot about when my problems started, but I haven't found a definite answer yet - I still didn't realize for a long time that I was sick and my mental health was out of order. I think that monitoring my diet started around the time I was 14 and I started to become a woman, or my body started to change. However, this was unacceptable to me, of course, because I believed that gymnasts had to be perfect and whip-thin.

So I started to eat "healthier" at first (didn't eat sweets, etc.) and I lost weight, but it wasn't so drastic at first. However, this "healthy" diet started to get worse and deeper, and the real push was given to me when the coach told us before the summer holidays that we would not eat too much in the summer. He had previously commented on the gymnasts of the opposing team that they were quite large and could even be said to be fat. But it seemed to me that these other girls were not much different from me. It automatically seemed to me that I was also too big. All 1.5 months we didn't have a workout in the summer, I thought of only one thing - my weight number. I started to limit myself very strictly, weighed myself almost 20 times a day, moved and exercised as much as possible, while eating minimally.

All this did not go unnoticed by my parents - due to the very low weight, other health problems began to appear. I was taken to a pediatrician, from where I was soon referred to a psychiatric clinic, where I was diagnosed with anorexia. I was wanted to be hospitalized right away, but since I had a race coming up, we agreed with my doctor that I would reduce my workload and eat properly. Unfortunately, I could not keep that promise. When it was time to go back to training, I had lost quite a bit of weight and almost no strength or mood. It caught the eye of others as well. After I went to see a psychiatrist and was under his attention, my parents also told my coach about my problem. At first he seemed very reasonable, but soon I didn't think so. In the beginning, the trainer started weighing me before each workout and did not let me train until I had gained at least 100 grams. But it was very difficult for me because my only wish was for me to lose weight and I didn't want to see it rise. However, the fact that he constantly weighed me only pushed me into more corners, and I wanted to lose even more weight.

So he didn't let me work out for several weeks because I didn't gain weight. I remember exactly how he almost shouted very aggressively before one workout, why I didn't take in, why I just didn't eat, and that I was losing the whole group. It was incomprehensible to him why I couldn't just start eating. It was a very difficult moment for me, because if it were so easy to "just eat", I would have done it. I already felt so bad in my body, I had a hard time dealing with my thoughts and I was so unhappy. His comment that I was disappointing everyone made me feel completely worthless and rather lowered my motivation. He was trying to heal my body. He had the understanding that if I was of normal weight, all was well. However, the main problem was in my head. About a week after that, I went to the doctor again and then it was decided to put me in the hospital because my situation was very bad. However, the fact that I went to the hospital meant that I could not take part in the European Championships. At first, it seemed to me again that the coach is rather supportive - maybe I will finally realize when I am in the hospital that I have a problem and need to act. After a while, however, I heard from my classmates how the coach had told them that I was under the whole group and that he didn't have a motherly love for me, he couldn't deal with the problem and he couldn't do good here anymore. My coach called my classmates to be stricter with me. It was a real turning point for me because I was already in the hospital, alone, I had a hard fight with myself every day and the only thing I worked for was sports. However, hearing that my coach and my teammates don't believe in me, and that it's more important to them that I train and compete than to get really healthy, was a very strong blow and led me to a very low point. I felt that I had no point in trying and no one appreciated my efforts and most importantly - no one understood me. After this incident, my parents also went to talk to the coach to explain the situation a bit (I had to be in the hospital longer than originally planned), but the whole coach was offended. After that, it seemed even more to me that the coach was completely indifferent to me. When I got out of the hospital, I had a strict ban on training, and frankly, I didn't have much desire for it either, because I felt like I wasn't expected to go there. The coach wrote to me only once during my stay in the hospital, and we haven't communicated anymore since. He doesn't even say "hello" to me on the street. 

My coach was 21 at the time and had no coach training. He had previously done gymnastics himself and trained us based on his own experience. I think he played a very important role in the development of my eating disorder. I believe that one important indicator is that, in addition to me, two more girls in our group have been diagnosed with anorexia. I think it is very important for the coach to be trained so that he can guide the athletes and approach them correctly, because the way he approached my eating disorder only made me worse off. I didn't get any support at all, his recommendation was that "you need to eat more". Because he had no knowledge of eating disorders and children's psyche, he did not know that such an attitude would lead nowhere, and that his aggressive attitude was pushing me more and more.

If in the beginning going to a psychiatrist was like a punishment for me, then in fact, now in retrospect, I probably wouldn't have been able to do without it. The hospital experience was also very important. I got two girlfriends from there, who were a great support to me and with whom I still communicate. The psychologist was also a great help to me. It is very important to be someone who can be talked about, and especially good if you are a professional in your field. In addition, I was very much supported by the environmental exchange, I went to high school and met new people there, who had a completely different relationship with nutrition than gymnasts. I also felt much freer myself and did not feel any tension that someone was watching my diet, etc. Right now, I know that I have people who support me and I can always turn to professionals when needed. I can now understand for myself when I feel that things are going downhill again.

I would very much like to make it clear to all coaches that personal experience with sports alone is not enough, but it is definitely necessary to learn a little about communicating with and understanding children. I believe my story would have been different if my coach had been aware of eating disorders. Also, if the coach notices changes in some children - weight loss, bad mood, little strength - be sure to act and talk to the child. There must be trust, not tension, between the student and the coach. Under no circumstances should a sick person be pressured or angry with you (you are not angry or frustrated with a person who has pneumonia, for example). Instead, you have to support it, and if you can't help yourself, let the doctors do it. Health is more important than any outcome, and mental illness is as serious as any other illness and injury.

Even today - almost 3 years after being in the hospital - I have days when I feel bad in my body, when I don't want to eat, when bad thoughts come to mind. Thoughts are especially dense in more difficult moments when there is another problem. Most of the days, however, I'm happy because I've learned to focus on more important things than weight or food. I like sports very much, it makes me feel good and I do sports exactly according to my inner feelings. 

I have known my body to learn and I know when I need a break and when I want more physical effort. I have made peace with myself and I do not pursue ideals, because everyone is really special and beautiful just the way they are - and there are so many more important things in life than chasing insane numbers, counting calories and spending. This is an understanding that took me more than three years to reach, and yet there are still more difficult days. However, this is still a big step forward, and I try a lot to surround myself with good people and do nice things so that horrible thoughts of visiting me as rarely as possible.

Comments Ailen Suurtee, clinical psychologist, counselor; Children 's Mental Health Center / Children' s Hospital.

Sports enthusiasts who focus on body weight and shape are clearly at higher risk of eating disorders. The coach's and parent's awareness of mental health and its support is therefore particularly important in these disciplines. While elite sports involve great effort and ambition, mental health should not be sacrificed; just as physical sports injuries are sought to be prevented, so should mental health. With problems. For parents of children with a high risk of eating disorders, it is important to monitor their own attitudes and help the child to develop the attitude that a holistic healthy approach is important, not sporting achievements at any cost.

For children, whether they are athletes or not, it is important to be aware of their health, mood and body condition, and to notice the changes. Changes may occur suddenly or over time. It is more common for a child to lose weight too quickly and a lot. It can be seen that the child avoids common meals or certain foods he or she ate before (more often fat, sweet). In some children, an eating disorder may manifest itself not so much as starvation as as seizures, which may result in vomiting of food or excessive exercise. Traces of it or empty food packaging, plates can be found, which show large amounts of food eaten secretly. An important sign is continuous and obsessive training, where in addition to the basic training, too much extra load can be taken at home. Often the mood is grumpy or depressed, leaving out social life and other life challenges.

It is also important to know that if you lose weight very quickly, you need to reduce or stop the training load and seek help from specialists. In the treatment of eating disorders, the best option is to join a specialized team of psychiatrists, nurses, psychologists, family therapists. The family plays an extremely important role in the child's healing, and it is important to look at the parent's own relationship with food and weight in the treatment process.


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.

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

"Together greenstrong and inclusive For Europe. "

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