Patricia Pitts, PhD  
Los Angeles, CA

Interests: anorexia, bulimia, Eating disorders
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Just Do It        by Dr Patricia Pitts, PhD

Oct 08, 2012 - 0 comments

Elite athletes are the epitome of determination and passion; encapsulating everything we love about sport and competition. These athletes work for most of their lives to reach the pinnacle of their careers, an Olympic medal. What does it take to get the gold? Nike has become famous for their slogan “Just Do It” that embodies everything an elite athlete is. But just doing it can have serious consequences if you don’t listen to your bodies needs.

With the 2012 Olympics coming up, these athletes are kicking their work out and lifestyle routines into high gear to prepare for the competitive peak of their career that defines these games. Pressures to perform a certain way and receive high marks have always been at the heart of preparation for the Olympics, however with the increase in media attention and celebrity status of the games comes an added pressure to look and act certain ways. Not only is the competition about outperforming others, it is a contest of character, personality, and even appearance.

Pressure to look a certain way has reached an all time high.  In a recent interview with Marie Clare, Jessica Ennis, a British heptathlon world champion discussed the mental struggle she dealt with while her muscular body allowed her to excel in her sport, she felt her body was not feminine.  In a Norwegian study of 522 elite athletes, 92% met criteria for an eating disorder.  In aesthetic sports that focus on lines and body movement, i.e. gymnastics, diving, ice skating, and track, the emphasis on being thin and maintaining a petite build is at the forefront. In sports like lifting, tennis, volleyball, and skiing, having a solid and muscular physique is emphasized. Wrestling, where weight categories determine your competitor, an enormous amount of pressure if put on the athlete to maintain, lose, or gain weight to match their competitor.

Not so surprisingly, the characteristics necessary to be an elite athlete, are also the building blocks for eating disorders. Many Olympians have gotten through with the Games and opened up about their eating disorder. Others, have tragically died on their quest to become gold medalists. One notable American gymnast, Christy Henrich, died of multiple organ failure just before her 22nd birthday. She struggled with anorexia after a coach told her to lose weight. Her death brought about a lot of reform on media attention to gymnasts weights and sizes. Previously, commentators would constantly talk about size and appearance, and weights were even listed next to their names!

So it’s a tough ~ elite athletes have a strict regime, and a lot of pressure put on them to “look like” an athlete. Who defines what that looks like though? A large part of it is media. How can our elite athletes be spared of losing themselves in their sport and to an eating disorder?  Balance is key. Athletes will get self worth from their sport and their coaches; they need to learn self worth from within, and coaches and families need to support some sense of normalcy in a very abnormal situation. Build sense of self from the inside out.  Valuing and being valued for feelings, thoughts, needs and behaviors help increase self-esteem.  Having safe, supportive family and friends to have one’s back ~ no matter what, through the ups and downs.  Learn biology!  No really, by focusing on the miraculous feats the body does every waking hour/night, they learn to understand the wonder of their body.  Eating actually helps performance and protects from unnecessary injuries.  And no matter what they need to learn to believe in themselves, for being the amazing, strong, and accomplished person (not athlete) they are!

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