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Comparison v. Competition: How to Develop Positive Body Image on Teams

For young athletes, maintaining a positive body image is difficult at the best of times, but when a competitive team atmosphere is added into the mix, that positivity can become even harder.

No matter how much you talk about the importance of pulling together as a team, your athletes are going to naturally compete with each other, as well as with rival teams, explains Melissa Streno, a clinical psychologist who specializes in athletic performance and its intersection with disordered eating and body image issues. This isn’t unhealthy, but it can go too far. “Teammates start mimicking each other’s behavior,” says Streno. “So, once you notice a problem with one athlete, know that there’s likely going to be a trickle-down effect.”

As a coach, you may not notice the subtle ways your team is creating an unhealthy environment when it comes to body image, eating patterns, and other habits. Below, Streno explains some of the warning signs to watch for as your athletes try to find success in competitive sports and how you can help foster a body positive image culture on your team.

Warning Signs

1. Changes in performance: “First, I would keep an eye out for a big shift in performance, where physically or psychologically, something seems off,” says Streno. “Physically, I think one of the easiest things to look for is a change in weight or body shape, or a major change in fitness.” Keep in mind that not all physical consequences of disordered eating or eating disorders are visible to the eye.

“Psychologically, we might notice a difference in their mood, more conflicts with teammates and coaches, and more isolative tendencies or less desire to be part of the team as they try to hide concerning behaviors.”

2. Behavior around meals: Streno recommends watching out for kids avoiding meals or changing their behaviors around mealtime. Are some kids making constant excuses to skip meals?

3. Overtraining: Body image isn’t just about changes in caloric consumption, Streno warns. “Pay attention for when athletes start to train beyond the prescribed amount or try to push through injury.”

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