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What NOT to Do When Helping Athletes Develop Positive Body Image

It can be difficult to know what to do—and what not to do—to best help athletes with issues around body image. This is especially true when even seemingly innocuous comments can lead to issues with negative body image.

Here, TrueSport Expert and licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Melissa Streno is sharing what you shouldn’t do when communicating with athletes about body image.

Don't refer to size/weight as performance indicators

Saying someone “looks like” a certain type of athlete or praising someone for their recent weight loss may seem harmless, or even seem positive. But remarking on an athlete’s body in terms of shape or weight is never appropriate for a coach. First and foremost, not every athlete is comfortable having their body assessed in general, so mentioning a weight change may feel like harassment for some. Second, though you may not realize it, you could be encouraging dangerous behaviors like disordered eating when you praise someone’s weight loss, says Streno.

And lastly, even if the athlete in question isn’t affected by your comment, another athlete who overheard it may end up in a negative thought spiral or develop disordered behaviors in an attempt to match their teammate’s progress. “Instead, let athletes know that strong, resilient bodies come in all shapes and sizes,” Streno says. “Be aware that certain body ideals have been around for a long time but aren’t always accurate. For instance, the stereotypical best cross country runner is tall and lean, but we have data to disprove that.”

Don't use triggering terms

Calling one runner ‘tiny’ or ‘skinny’ may not seem like a big deal, but words have a lot of power, says Streno. You may not be aware of how often you’re using terms like that, so pay close attention to your language for a few practices. “I try to use terms like under or over-fueled rather than under or overweight,” says Streno. Even positive terms like ‘healthy’ or ’strong’ can be triggering when used to describe how someone looks, especially if that person is already struggling with body image or disordered eating.

Even in sports that have weight classes, relabeling those classes might be a good step to take, especially if you notice that your team does tend to have issues with trying to make it into certain classes. “Terms like heavyweight or ultra heavyweight can be triggering, even if that’s simply what the weight class is called,” says Streno. “Ideally, the sport’s governing bodies would create more natural terms for the classes, but you can do so within your team.” Think about using A, B, C, and D rather than feather, light, heavy, and ultra-heavy weight.

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