Helping Athletes with Eating Disorders

On a recent SEC Stories episode, five-time Olympic swimmer Dara Torres revealed she suffered with an eating disorder while attending college at the University of Florida.  More common with female athletes, there are ways to look out for and treat these issues.
In the following interview, former Georgia national title winning gymnastics coach Suzanne Yoculantalks about her approach to eating and addiction issues.
 What advice would you give a coach who is dealing with an athlete who has an eating disorder?  First, I’m big on words and semantics, so I call it a food addiction and approach it in a pro-active sense. When our freshman athletes report to campus, we talk about all of us having a food addiction.  It could be weighing yourself in the morning and having that control your day and what you eat and how you feel the rest of the day to counting calories to having certain food cravings.  We all have that in common.
My advice to coaches would be not to control too much what an athlete eats, but teach them proper nutrition.  Too many coaches order foods for their athletes and prohibit certain types of things.  I’ve seen high-level coaches take their athletes to a restaurant and tell the team, ‘these are the only 2 things you can order.’
We have a responsibility as coaches; to not only help athletes reach their full athletic and academic potential, but also in life after gymnastics (or any other sport).  There is too much control and not enough teaching and educating about nutrition.  We focus on body composition (which measures lean muscle mass) and fitness level, not weight.  We want our athletes between 10 and 14 percent body fat.  If they are above 14 percent, they can convert the fat to muscle through exercise.  Muscle mass is important because it controls power and explosiveness.
I’m a big believer in the coaches being an example.  I would never eat a bag of crackers or have a candy bar in front of the team.  What the rest of the team does is contagious. Twenty years ago if we went out to dinner it was common to see a plate of fried cheese and when the freshman would see the older players eat like that, they would think it’s fine. Now, you’ll see pasta and lean meat. It’s not like we tell the girls what to eat and ban anything fried. It’s simply the direction the program has gone over the years.  At the SEC banquet last year, I saw coaches take the desert off the table. That showed a lack of trust in your athletes’ ability to make good choices.
To gain more insights into helping your athletes work through issues not related to sports, check out the book Control Your Off the Field Concerns.