• Niall O'Carroll

Thinner is better? The impact of a coach's words

Having been fortunate to work at the business end of elite sport for many years there is one question that repeatedly bothers me. Does messaging on how an athlete looks influence how they perform? In recent years, we have seen Rebecca Adlington savagely criticized on social media for her appearance despite being a multiple Olympic and World Champion swimmer. Olympic Heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis-Hill spoke of her upset when a senior member of British Athletics told her she was getting fat. In Baseball, Prince Fielder of the Texas Rangers recently did a naked photo shoot for ESPN magazine to answer critics who focused on his appearance rather than his record. You may say that Rebecca Adlington doesn’t need to pay any attention to moronic statements on Twitter about how she looks or whether she has gained weight post performance.

However the volume of this nasty abuse clearly distressed her. We watch Jess Ennis-Hill do remarkable things on the track and think she is superhuman but a stupid remark about her weight stings her. Baseball fans taunt Prince Fielder due to his size and he feels that he needs to shut them up by publicly showing it doesn’t hurt him. These may be athletes who have achieved great things in their sport but they are also human beings with all the same insecurities as the rest of us. Recently, I sat with a young lady who had the courage to speak about her struggles with anorexia for a book I am writing on athletic transition. She firmly believes that the bullying and taunting about weight gain she received from her coach was the cause for her illness. "I was never told I was fat anywhere except in the gym...He was obsessed with weight, I was never thin enough" (Athlete name withheld on request). This article is about the impact of language, especially in relation to weight, on an athlete’s mental wellbeing.

There are sports where aesthetics are an important aspect of the marking system, there are sports with weight limits, and there are sports where bigger is better for elite performance. Does this mean that the performance of these athletes is dependent on their looks? Of course not. Athlete’s achieve success through an iron will to succeed, endless hours of preparation, dedication and good coaching. The power of an athlete/coach relationship should never be underestimated. It is often the closest bond in the athlete’s life. In many individual sports like gymnastics, athletics or boxing you may have the same coach from the age of 4 all the way to the Olympics. The coach is the person who maps their career path, devoting endless hours to nurturing their talent and is often the most likely person for an athlete to confide in when things are difficult. Imagine the damage to a young athlete’s self esteem if this person is the one who is abusive or makes fun of their size? 

A couple of months ago I did a presentation for a number of elite coaches in gymnastics. The principle aim of this talk was to encourage coaches to consider how their language impacted on the athletes in their care. I asked them to consider the impact of telling a gymnast they were overweight. Especially in women's gymnastics where the elite performers at the Olympic level are often little over 15 years of age. One of the national coaches at the event asked me 'what should we as coaches do if we know they are carrying excess weight? If they don't look good in their leotard it could cost them marks". I replied that Gymnastics is a sport of aesthetics, and it is about gymnasts doing remarkably complex routines whilst maintaining good lines, poise and grace.  Is there a need to give the message to the gymnast that the key to their success is how they look in their leotard? Surely it is about how well prepared they are. I explained that building a conditioning, nutrition and technical program to educate the gymnast on what is healthy and how this will benefit them in achieving their targets is a more logical approach. Get your gymnasts involved in the process. It is not about shying away from conversations about weight but it is about explaining to each individual what their performance goals are and why it is important to manage their conditioning.  It is about engaging the athlete in the planning process so they understand why they need to maintain their conditioning. Get expert advice and in the case of younger athlete's engage the parents in the process as they are the one's who need to take responsibility for fuelling their children.

A simple shift in the way a message is delivered could have a massive impact. How many coaches can really say how their athletes respond to their negative messages in private? An adolescent girl may laugh out of embarrassment with her squad when the coach passes a comment that she is carrying some extra weight, but does she laugh in private? My young contributor with the eating disorder certainly didn't.  That said, eating disorders are far too complex an issue to simply blame the coach. There are many potential issues which can come together to create a 'perfect storm' inside a vulnerable person's head. It is certainly clear that the coaches fixation on weight  in this instance exacerbated the matter. What I am asking you, the reader, to consider is the impact that words can potentially have on the emotional state of an athlete.

I have been fortunate to watch some of the best senior and junior gymnasts in the world practice and perform in the past two years. I am in awe of their talents and of their close bonds with their coaches. In fact in my experience, there are many excellent people delivering high class coaching in the sport across the globe. The national coaching structure at British Gymnastics encourages young coaches with modern attitudes to build holistic programs for the future. This in no small part has contributed to BG becoming a global leader in the development of young talent which is evidenced by the recent success at the Artistic World Championships where both the men and women’s teams medalled for the first time. The Junior Men’s team have won 5 European Crowns in a row and have the current Youth Olympic champion not to mention having a host World Champions across the Gymnastic disciplines from Acrobatics to Trampolining. An investment in top quality coaching education and resources is at the heart of this success. However that doesn’t mean that coaches always get it right. Much of my work with BG encouraged coaches to build awareness of how their behaviour impacted on their gymnasts. To understand that the language they used could potentially have a massive impact on the long term development of young gymnasts. One of the key messages in relation to weight management was that it is never appropriate to discuss with a child their weight gain or loss. It was more appropriate to address this with the child’s parents.  I also encouraged coaches to consider that a S&C, technical development and dietary program be laid out with the gymnasts input. This would not focus on how the gymnast looked in their leotard but on how their body could gain energy to perform at their optimum level. This was equally applicable for weight gain and loss. In fact praising a child for how they look in their leotard after losing weight also sets a dangerous precedent. In that child’s head there is the potential to see weight loss as a route to praise and become focussed on weight loss instead of aiming for appropriate performance condition. The power of language should never be underestimated. 

So let’s look at this from other sports perspectives. Are Boxers told they look good once they've lost enough weight to make their weigh in? Are Jockeys congratulated on their presentation once they make the weight to ride a thoroughbred?  Is an athlete standing at the start line of a 1500 meters told they look awesome because they lost an extra 5 pounds. I certainly hope not.  It is not about looks in these sports but about getting the job done. Many athletes are damaged from an early age by bad messaging in relation to weight. Boxers use many unhealthy methods to make a weight for a fight. How many of them are educated on a healthy approach to maintaining an appropriate weight between fights? Quite often a boxer is encouraged to starve himself to make a weight and then binge out after the weigh-in to add sometimes up to 14 pounds before they enter the ring. Often they gain large quantities of weight between fights. Many Jockeys I have spoken to mention a diet of coffee and cigarettes to keep their weight down. In sports purging and binge eating become the norm. Coaches have  role to play here in educating the athlete on what is a healthy approach to conditioning all year round.

 When you consider the mental and emotional damage being done to young sports participants by people who, by and large aren't qualified to give advice on nutrition, it does become concerning. What, for example does it do to a 16 year olds self-esteem to be told they look too fat? To be told you have 4 weeks to lose 8kgs. To be told that the reason you lost is you were overweight. Sport is a tough business and only one person can win a gold medal every 4 years. I am not here to wrap athletes in cotton wool and I absolutely accept that every participant in sport has to take responsibility for their own conditioning. I am merely asking the question is there a better way to educate them? I think there is.

 I have had some thoroughly enjoyable conversations with Sarah-Christian Carlson, nutritional coach of many MLB players. Sarah-Christian is very much about encouraging her athletes to understand how different foods make them feel. To build a level of self regulation in the player to appreciate the concept of energy in and energy out. In baseball, the focus is more on bulking up than losing weight but the principle of the impact of language still applies. Just because a guy looks like he is carrying a couple of extra pounds does not mean he can't do a job for his team. If those extra pounds are stopping him from performing at his peak state then the coaches need to focus their messages on his need to lead a fitter and healthier lifestyle. Where is the benefit to the player, the team, or the coaches in using negative messaging about his appearance?

Coaching is a difficult occupation particularly when working with talented kids. There are the pressures of competition, the demands of parents and the rules in relation to safeguarding which occasionally appear restrictive and unnecessary. I applaud anyone who gives up their time to coach kids in any sport. I would simply ask you to consider the damage that taunting and teasing someone over weight has on an adolescent’s self-esteem. Gary Neville, former professional footballer and assistant coach to the England Team manager defines his view of a great coach as someone who develops four key factors in his players "his tactical awareness, his physical condition, his technical ability and his mental strength." (quoted here). The best coaches recognize that they may not be an expert on all four areas and ask for professional guidance. When it comes to the challenge of managing an athlete's weight (be it gain or loss) the logical thing is to consult someone with Strength, Conditioning and Nutritional experience.

The good news is that the vast majority of coaches are committed to bringing out the best in their athletes. We should never forget the influence of great coaching on the performance of athletes. Mostly these coaches give up their time for little or no reward. They sit in the shadows while their athletes claim the limelight. I am in awe of the dedication of coaches at all levels of sport. This article, I hope, highlights the power of messaging in the healthy development of a well rounded athlete. It can be an integral part of your coaching toolkit. I ask coaches everywhere to pause for a moment the next time you are frustrated with your athlete’s conditioning or performance and consider if there is a better way?

I like to think so.