Athletes and Body Image


I walked into the studio where I would be having my pictures taken feeling relatively confident. Maybe I was a little nervous. I don’t like having my picture taken, and I felt a little self-conscious about carrying a little more weight than usual right now, and the addition of new wrinkles from the latest coaching season of scorching under the sun, laughing, and squinting.

I put make-up on, something I definitely don’t do on a daily basis other than perhaps the bare minimum, and my hair was down and full-on annoying; begging to be shoved up in a messy bun. But overall I felt attractive enough to not scare away small children, and confident that with the wonders of photoshop I could actually look pretty umm average, even if I did say so myself!

The photographer started by taking a few test shots, figuring out the lighting and the positioning of all these crazy lamps, flags, and other gadgets.  I sat there casually waiting to start officially posing for my head shots, contemplating the nonexistent modeling career I won’t be having in the future, and then……. POOF all of the sudden on a large screen facing me, an image of my face appeared.

Do you remember how Clark Griswold felt when he pulled up to Walleyworld only to find that it was closed? He probably felt about half as disappointed as I did when I saw that picture.  Every piece of me on the inside curled up into a ball of shame, disgust, angst, you name it.  That’s me? Let me tell you what 5 bright lamps pointing at your face, and a close up with a powerful camera lens can pick up.

Everything. It picks up everything. I’m 38. I don’t want a camera to pick up anything, in fact, the blurrier it is the better I look…. The snap chat blurry app that makes your eyes look huge and your face look thin and smooth is my best friend.  Who needs mirrors!

OMG! My eyes are like squinty slits, my crows-feet are so huge they actually look like extensions of my eyebrows that never end. Is that hair? Why is my face furry? I have make up on…where is it?! Then there was the whole wide, big round cheek, chin, jowl, when did I get this old panic moment.  I thought I was going to be sick. Literally, I was nauseas and planning an escape route. I was paying for this torment?!

Um, I’d like to cancel this appointment, right now. Or perhaps you could take the pictures from farther away…like the next town. I had to fight with every part of me to finish this photo shoot. About half-way into it I decided that I was going to accept what was on the screen as me, and I was going to make the best pictures of “me” that I could. At that point I started to relax a little bit, to smile with a bit more conviction, and I stopped looking at the pictures popping up on the screen across from me. On the way home I was feeling all those old feelings from high school resurfacing, feelings I hadn’t faced in many years. The ones that led to two years of bulimia and anorexia, the ones that told me I was worthless if I let food into my life, that I wasn’t measuring up to others, the ones that took all the joy out of everything that was supposed to be joyful because I was too busy comparing myself to impossibilities. It was a brief visit to feelings that I learned to deal with a long time ago, but they were very very real while they lasted.

I am not alone in this struggle, nor am I unique in my insecurities.  I still vividly remember my soccer team staying up all night doing ab exercises when we took trips. I remember hearing my teammates throw up in the bathroom after team meals, or skip eating entirely -on the verge of passing out during practice. I remember comparing what size uniforms we all asked for. I remember when I stopped eating because the size I asked for was a medium and someone else had gotten a small. I wore that medium like a mark of shame every time I pulled it on. My goal of trading it in for a small sized shirt was probably equally or even more important than any of my actual sport goals, that’s frightening to admit. I can promise you that when you hand out uniforms or t-shirts, there is at least one girl who doesn’t want anyone to know what size she’s getting, no matter how fit she looks to you.

Body image is affecting athletes today just as much, if not more than it was when I was growing up. As coaches we can feed the beast or we can tame it.  How we talk about our players’ bodies, the comments we make that seem harmless, whether it be about them or about ourselves, and the way we approach fitness all play a role. Think your comments are all in fun? After all they laugh and know you’re joking right? Most athletes won’t admit when so-called harmless teasing is actually fueling an insecurity. Here are some ways to work with your athletes to tame the body image beast:

  1. Talk about healthy food choices, healthy activity, cardiovascular fitness, strength, speed, agility. Don’t talk about weight, size, heavy, scrawny, bulking up, slow, etc.
  2. Encourage eating for recovery and to feed muscle. Often we tell boys to eat, we tell girls – directly or indirectly – to eat less.  Athletes need fuel or they can’t perform.
  3. Make your practices and events a safe zone from body image talk. Zero tolerance for body negativity. I’m (she’s) so fat/thin! Nope, we don’t do that here, but if you want to talk about your health that’s an open conversation.
  4. Incorporate conversation opportunities with the group about body pressures – the pressure to look a certain way. Fitness models, professional athletes who get down to unrealistic body fat % for a few days for a photoshoot have tainted what our kids believe an athlete should aspire to look like.  High performance athletes have much more body fat in competition than they ever would for a photo shoot. You may not think your team thinks about these things, but they do. I won’t make up a statistic here but I feel pretty confident saying MOST adolescent girls have this on their mind a significant portion of the time.
  5. Don’t stick your heavier kids in the goal, or tell them to stay back because they are too slow. Don’t put your tallest girl on the draw just because she’s tall, or your short girls on attack because you think people will shoot over them. This one makes me crazy.  There is an athlete inside of every body type that you will have come across your path. Their abilities don’t hinge on their height, shape, clothing or shoe size. Motivate all players to work for the position they want to play. Leave body type aside and put them in the position they excel in. I have the shortest girl on my team as the best defender we have, no one gets past her. I’ve had a player some would say is heavier as the fastest midfielder on the team.  Keep judgements on where to play people on their skills, their drive, and their dreams.
  6. Generally this is thought of as a girl issue, and that’s definitely true. But there are many boys in sports that are struggling with body image, especially in junior and senior high when their bodies are on all ends of the spectrum. That one boy that muscles up in 8th grade like a 20 year old has to compete with another kid who’s a rising junior in high school and still hasn’t had his growth spurt yet.  Boys are more likely to try supplements and unhealthy eating habits to try to gain mass. Coaches often drive that because they want athletes with size and strength for an advantage. This can be a major source of self-esteem issues and even dropping out of sports for boys who are fantastic athletes that are just a few years behind the growth curve and haven’t caught up yet. There are healthy ways to put on muscle, its our job to make sure we aren’t encouraging or turning a blind eye to the dangerous short cuts.
  7. Everyone is beautiful. Have you ever seen someone who didn’t fit the typical media driven definition of beauty that literally to you was the most beautiful person in the world? Their inner beauty mixed with their unique features were the parts of them that made them the teammate you loved. And when you see them they make you smile. That’s the beauty we want our players to find. The beauty in being their own imperfect but wildly wonderful self.  Sports are a great way to find that because of the opportunities to really bond with each other, shine through athletic abilities, show their unique personality, and build each other’s confidence in what makes them well…themselves!
  8. Comparison in sports drains tanks.  Athletes who compare instead of focusing on being their best suffer a miserable journey through their careers playing, and comparison is at the root of body image issues.  Getting comparison out of your team’s mindset will benefit everyone.


The words we use are powerful, even if we are speaking about ourselves. What our kids and athletes hear us say to them, about ourselves, and about others becomes their inner voices. Our goal should be strong, healthy, happy, and confident athletes, and remembering to address and plan for body image insecurities is a vital part.  Getting to know each player and players learning more about each other, means they build relationships that are not just skin deep, and opens opportunities to talk about these kinds of insecurities with peers who understand.

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