Welcome to part 2 of our discussion on youth sports and how they relate to diet culture. If you haven’t read part 1 yet, definitely start there, and come on back when you’re done.
Last week, I did a fair amount of bashing when it comes to youth sports. These are thoughts and feelings I have held a long time, and when I put fingers to the keyboard, they began to rush out in a hurried fashion. It was a bit rough reflecting about some of those experiences, but writing about them has proven to be a therapeutic.
Ultimately, this blog has been about telling my truth from the start, and sometimes the messy parts of life come up out of the woodwork. As I emphasized last week, it’s not wrong to want to push your kid to reach their full potential in sports, but it doesn’t have to be done so harshly. Especially not while they are so young.
But this week’s focus is more about the direct relationship between youth sports and diet culture. Let’s get started.
Youth Sport and Diet Culture
In my last post, I had listed a bunch of quotes given to me by friends and Instagram followers regarding their youth sports experiences. Some are pretty darn harsh and diet-culturey. Youth sports can be rough on any kid, but especially for kids growing up in larger bodies, and diet talk/weight stigma from kids and adults about their weight can lead them to quit sports, hate physical activity, and pick up disordered eating habits.
What does diet culture look like in sports? In my own youth sports career, many adults weighed in on my body and gave me conflicting advice. It appeared that they were trying to help me improve in my sport, but looking back, I’m not sure why they felt it was necessary at age 11. Some adults repeatedly warned us girls about weight gain when we were at the exact age where weight gain is totally normal and healthy.
These comments were enough to make me think twice before enjoying one of my grandma’s cookies after dinner. I began to feel ashamed of my body, and I wanted to cover it as much as I could. This lead me to hate the sleeveless jerseys we wore, and it became hard to focus on the game in front of me at times.
Other adults told me to avoid working out too much and lifting heavy weights because then I might get too muscular, which was also frowned upon too apparently. They told me to go for “tone” by “using lighter weights and more reps to avoid bulk”. Okay, I reasoned, I just have to fit into this super narrow body standard of not too fat not, too bulky, and everyone will like me and I’ll do well in sports. It’s fine, I’m fine, everything is fine.
The adults telling me these things were people I looked up to and respected, and I was at the vulnerable age where I wanted to do everything I could to be seen in a positive light by them. It only really led me to hating my body and wanting to change it.
And you know what? I was in the fortunate position where I was in a relatively thin body. I cannot even imagine the scrutiny and comments that young girls and boys experience in their youth sports careers when their bodies do not fit into the thin ideal.
This thought actually first hit me when I was a kid while warming up for one of my basketball games. We were about to play a team with a few girls that were in larger bodies when I was probably 10 or 12.
I overheard an adult I didn’t know say, “wow, there must be something in the water in that town, those are some big girls” while motioning to the team we were about to face. The comment was met with laugher by some other adults as they walked past. That whole exchange didn’t feel right to me, and it has stuck with me for literally over a decade.
I do also remember some coaches instructing us to guard most girls on opposing teams based on their numbers, and a few based on their size. For example “Erin, you guard number 45. So-and-so, you take the big girl.” There wasn’t malicious intent here, but there was no reason that this adult couldn’t have used the number on the so-called “big” girl’s jersey. I wonder how it would feel to have a coach instruct their player to guard you by pointing out your body instead of your number. Pretty damn terrible, I’d imagine.
These instances are just a few of many examples I have in my memory bank, but my experience with diet culture in youth sports was relatively mild compared to others I have met and discussed these issues with. Some girls were outright called fat by their coaches, or were told they wouldn’t make a team unless they lost weight. Others received harsh comments from coaches whenever they were seen having a snack or eating a meal, especially if it wasn’t considered “healthy”.
Some coaches and parents are jerks, that’s a fact. Others may be 100% well-meaning, but use fat-phobic language or display signs of weight stigma that can hurt their young athletes for a long time. That’s why I’m writing these posts, though. I want to help coaches and parents who genuinely want what is best for their kids to be aware of these issues so they can take steps to reduce the harm that youth sports can perpetuate.
Language matters, and that can be hard to keep in mind when you’re in the middle of coaching, especially cantankerous tweens on a Saturday morning where you might rather be watching college football. I completely understand that coaching is not easy, and I would never claim that I could do a better job.
But I also think it’s worth noting that coaches and parents have a unique opportunity to help their young athletes feel strong, competent, and independent instead of self-conscious and unworthy. Being aware of some of the common fat phobic language many coaches and parents inadvertently use can help both groups make better choices when it comes to feedback for their players and children.
Pressure in Youth Sports and Disordered Eating
Whether it’s the allure of a winning record, a championship trophy, or a college scholarship, there is no shortage of pressure put on young athletes by their parents, coaches, and other adults. Parents accidentally, or many times purposely, put tons of pressure on their kids to perform at their given sport, and I truly believe this plays a role in disordered eating among young athletes.
Our society encourages people to do everything they can to succeed, so if they think that means skipping meals or only eating certain foods, then that’s what they’ll do. Young athletes may do these things with the hope that it will enhance their performance or help them continue to “look the part” of an athlete. Another way that adults increase the pressure put on young athletes, potentially elevating anxiety and disordered eating among them, is by engaging in a practice called Early Sport Specialization.
ESS, or Early Sport Specialization, is a relatively new phenomenon where kids, or parents rather, start to focus on one sport very early on. This is especially prevalent in sports like gymnastics, where peak performance for olympic-level competition occurs in the mid-to-late teens or early 20’s.
Parents are starting to narrow their kids’ focus on one sport at earlier and earlier ages. We see anomalies like Tiger Woods sinking super long putts at five years old on TV, and we think starting as young as possible and having laser focus throughout childhood is the key to our kids’ future in athletics.
ESS isn’t necessarily problematic, especially if the kid is truly passionate and excited about the chosen sport or activity. ESS can become a problem, however, when kids are pushed too hard, especially against their will.
It’s good for our bodies to be involved in all different types of activities, and when we do the same types of activities over and over, we put ourselves at risk for injuries, both mild and severe. This is especially true when kids are at the age where they are still growing, and their bones are in the process of developing.
Interestingly, one study among NCAA Division I athletes found that those who focus on one sport before the age of 14 are about 15% more likely to experience multiple injuries. Okay, maybe that’s not too concerting, especially since they are about 10% more likely to be recruited to play in college.1
BUT, kids who focus on a sport and spend over 28 hours per week or dedicated 8 months of the year or more to training for that sport before entering high school are way (about 35%) more likely to experience an injury. They are also more likely to need surgery for an injury (about 37% more), and are much more likely to have multiple injuries that require surgery (about 25% more). The kicker? These kids are no more likely to get recruited or receive a scholarship for college sports.1
Ouch, literally and figuratively. I don’t believe in sacrificing a kid’s health for a greater chance at a scholarship, but this point shows that the rigorous training that many kids undergo doesn’t even have the desired effect. They may cause permanent damage to their developing bones and tendons, and they don’t even get a coveted college scholarship their parents can brag about until they die.
Another one of my concerns is that kids who focus on one activity whole-heartedly for decades are going to miss out on other life experiences that make them a more well-rounded individual. I think back to some of the cool extra-curricular activities I did in high school, like Driftwood, our English club, and HOSA, Health Occupations Students of America, that I might not have been able to participate in if I had one goal.
I mean, think about Troy Bolton. He wanted to be a basketball star, and he struggled so hard with the idea that he could play basketball AND be in the spring musiCAL. He, and his overbearing father, eventually came to terms with the fact that he could thrive by doing both. But not every kid has a Disney Channel father that will eventually come around.
But let’s get back to the main problem I have with ESS: the anxiety and mental health issues it can cause. When parents invest a whole lot of time and energy into one sport for their kids, it can unintentionally (or intentionally, let’s be honest), send a message that their kid must succeed and make it all worthwhile.
Some parents and coaches claim that they are intense and put pressure on kids to toughen them up so they grow up to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, and they don’t become snowflakes. Okay, I get that sentiment. I do. Most people will experience extremely difficult times in their lives at least occasionally, and sports can help kids develop a thick skin, cope with adversity, and learn to take criticism.
Unfortunately, some adults take it much too far. I know of instances where a kids have suffered anxiety attacks before games because they knew if they didn’t perform well, their parent would yell at them on the way home, or even not talk to them for a few days. The demeanor of the entire household rested on this kid’s athletic performance. To some, this might sound made up, but I can assure this happens more often than most of us like to think.
Even if parents keep things a bit more reasonable, many have ridiculously high expectations when it comes to athletics, grades, social status, and more. Those who can afford it, enroll their kids in anything and everything, leaving them with very little free time, creating a recipe for increased rates of anxiety and depression. Additionally, many kids want to make their parents proud, and feel that their parents’ approval is fragile and rests on their accomplishments and accolades.
Many young men and women who experience anxiety on a regular basis will also eventually begin to display disordered eating behaviors or full blown eating disorders. About 2/3 of people who suffer from an eating disorder also suffer from anxiety. Plus, about 42% of people who struggle with anxiety develop it in childhood, which can be followed by an eating disorder down the line.2
I’m asserting here that the combination of high-stakes youth sports, diet talk and weight stigma within them, and taking away our kids’ free time is creating a perfect storm for mental health issues and disordered eating. Maybe the “problem” of kids being considered “too sensitive” today isn’t that they aren’t pushed hard enough and are part of the snowflake generation. Maybe it’s the exact opposite. And maybe perfectionism among our young people is more of a problem than being “too soft”.
Of course, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I didn’t mention the caveat that cutthroat youth sports doesn’t necessarily cause anxiety or eating disorders. At the same time, I have a hard time believing that they don’t at least make a hearty contribution.
We have discussed the fact that high-stakes youth sports can increase anxiety, depression, disordered eating, and overuse injuries in our kids, and I wanted to take a bit of time out to connect all of these together to point out how they are intermingled.
One condition commonly discussed in the world of sports nutrition is the female athlete triad. This sounds like some kind of geometry problem, but it’s far more serious than freshman math homework. The female athlete triad consists of three health issues that are commonly found together in young female athletes: mental health concerns (including eating disorders), osteoporosis, and amenorrhea. For you visual learners, feast your eyes on the beautiful graphic I made below:
These conditions may seem unrelated at first glance. How do missed periods and mental health concerns relate to bone issues in young girls?
Many female athletes put themselves on diets in order to be at peak performance for their sport. Some feel stressed to the max about their performances, which can also exacerbate disordered eating. This, along with rigorous exercise, can lead to females missing their periods (amenorrhea) every month, which is a medical problem in itself.
When a female athlete struggles with disordered eating and amenorrhea, she tends to have lower levels of estrogen. Estrogen plays a major role in bone health and growth, and lower levels of it can put a girl at a much higher risk for developing osteoporosis later in life. The teenage years are a critical time for bone development and growth, and suffering from low calcium intake due to disordered eating and low estrogen levels from amenorrhea is a recipe for bone disasters.
Earlier we discussed that many kids who focus on one sport 8 months of the year or engage in it at least 28 hours per week are at much higher risk of repeated injuries and injuries that need surgery. Unsurprisingly, the female athlete triad is associated with a higher risk of injuries, especially in sports that require repetitive motion, like long distance running.
Disordered eating and rigorous exercise doesn’t just hurt teenage girls, either. Even though estrogen levels and missed periods aren’t a concern for boys, their bones are also in the critical development stages during their teenage years. Engaging in disordered eating of any kind can lead to weakened bones and more injuries for them too.
One academic paper estimates that about 10-15% of young male athletes, especially those in weight sensitive sports, utilize dehydration techniques and overexercising to “make weight” or attempt to fit their sport’s desired asthetics.3 Although these are more commonly reported, males are not exempt from using other weight loss behaviors, like purging, abusing laxatives, or food restriction.
Diet culture within youth sports isn’t a benign problem. It has very real long-term consequences that can be totally avoided. As I write this section, I feel a bit hopeless about the state of youth sports, at least as they were when I participated a few years ago. Interestingly enough, youth sports can facilitate diet culture, but when done correctly, they can also fight it.
Youth Sports Can Combat Diet Culture
As a former high school athlete, I can tell you that there is almost no better feeling than working on your skills and seeing marked improvements over time. Learning to stay flexible and resilient in a sport, only to eventually experience progress, is a confidence-builder for sure.
Coaches have a unique opportunity to foster that confidence-building environment too, especially if they are able to help their athletes focus on all the amazing things their body can do instead of the fact that it may not look like it “should” for a given sport.
Sports also give kids a chance to make lasting friendships and form a support network. There is almost no better way to make friends than by working with other people toward a common goal. You spend lots of hours with your teammates at practices, on bus rides, and in locker rooms before games. Not to mention all the in-between time during long weekend tournaments.
Make no mistake, the down time kids have with their teammates can be, developmentally, even more important than the time they spend on the court together. Forging strong bonds with other kids can be highly protective from disordered eating, as high quality friendships can help combat anxiety and depression, which are highly correlated with disordered eating.
Kids on sports teams also have a chance to bond with parents of their teammates, which can be invaluable if they don’t have reliable parental figures at home. Some of the parents of girls on my teams became like second families to me when I was young, and I imagine that could change a kid’s life for the better if they aren’t close with their own parents or lack suitable guardians.
Unfortunately, not every kid creates a strong network of friends in sports, especially when they are bullied by the others for their body or how they perform on court. Kids are cruel- that’s something we can all agree on. But parents and coaches can be too, and I truly feel that cruelty from adults regarding youth sports is unnecessary at best, incredibly damaging at worst.
I truly hope you have found my exploration into youth sports to be even half as valuable as I did. Like many things in life, there are lots of exceptions and gray areas, no hard or fast rules that work for all kids, coaches, families, or communities. My goal isn’t to shame any parents or coaches, or turn people’s backs on youth sports.
Like every week, my goal with these posts was to help people stop and think about why they do the things they do and to start asking themselves important questions. Why is it so important to me that my kid joins competitive 6th grade basketball? Why do I feel the need to scream at the teenage referee for a bad call? What am I really trying to teach my kids through sports, and how am I modeling those values?
Some parents enroll their kids in sports and act like jerks because that’s what their parents did to them. I don’t see that as good enough of a reason to justify being an a-hole to your kid.
Of course, there are some kids that want to be pushed hard, go-getters that want to compete and make a name for themselves on the field or court. People like Tom Brady don’t become Tom Brady without that inner motivation and grit. Michael Jordan wouldn’t have so many accolades if he didn’t push himself so incredibly hard, and if he didn’t have coaches that did the same.
I have tried to make it clear that I have no problem with kids being challenged and pushed in school or athletics, as it can help them develop into well-rounded, engaged citizens. However, most kids just want to be kids. And we should let them.
As Always, A Book Recommendation
Humans are “blessed” with the ability to justify our past actions to avoid feeling bad about ourselves. Nearly everyone does it all the time, and it’s incredibly annoying when someone else does it, but we barely notice when we ourselves engage in self-justification.
This book may not directly relate to youth sports, but it does directly tie into the fact that some parents and coaches get way too heated about a 6th grade soccer game and find a way to justify it. “It’s not that I hate losing and my ego rests on this kids’ game. It’s that I’m teaching them to be tough adults that work hard.” Maybe, but maybe that’s what some adults tell themselves.
Mistakes Were Made (but Not By Me) is truly one of the best books I have read this year. It explores many of the biases at play within our brains, and the mental gymnastics we go through to rationalize our childish, foolish, or inappropriate behavior.
One quote I think about all the time goes along the lines of, “we are lawyers for ourselves and judges for others.” We may take an action that others view as wrong or unsavory, but we find a way to feel totally at peace with our decision. However, if another person were to take the same action, we may perceive it as destructive and irresponsible. If anyone were to point out this hypocrisy, we say, “no, my situation was different, here is why.”
Honestly, this book does an amazing job of explaining what goes on in political circles when it comes to justifying bad policies, and how we humans go to great lengths to avoid acknowledging our own downfalls. If you’re a psychology nerd like me, you’ll love this one.
As a proud Indie Bound affiliate, I get a small commission on books and products sold using the links on my website. It doesn’t cost you anything extra! I only recommend books that I truly love and believe in, and your purchases on Indie Bound through my website support both my work and small bookstores. Thanks!
- Associations of Early Sport Specialization and High Training Volume…
- Eating Disorders- Anxiety and Depression Association of America
- Promotion of Healthy Weight-Control Practices in Young Athletes
Thanks for visiting The Diabolical Dietitian! If you’d like to stay up-to-date on the latest posts, please enter your email below to subscribe!