Strength and Conditioning Coaches, Professional Boundaries & Eating Disorders

I recently came across the description of some disturbing behaviour from a young client with an eating disorder. It related to two behaviours of the strength and conditioning coach staff at their training facility. i) The S&C coaches had encouraged the athletes not to eat pudding at lunch. As far as the athlete was concerned there was also ii) the threat that should the coaches see an athlete eating pudding at lunch, they'd come and take it away from them.

image of burger and drink in red danger sign

Banning types of food is a bad idea

Its actually hard to know where to start with this. Now I'm not here to dissect what was actually said, as it doesn't really matter. The NLP presupposition 'the meaning of your communication is the response you get' its a useful one in this instance though.  I hope that the paragraph above makes you at least feel uncomfortable. Either way, I'll try to explain how, and why this sort of rhetoric can be utterly destructive to an athlete, and why it should not be a problem that occurs at all.

The weight of an athlete and performance

Undoubtedly, these comments were uttered with a positive intent. Yes, weight plays a role in athletic performance. Yes, eating less processed foods, and eating more, colourful, fresh fruits and vegetables is going to have a broadly positive impact on health, well-being, body composition and on athletic performance. Yes, the S&C coach wants to help improve many if not all of these things in their athletes.

However...

This is a population of potentially vulnerable individuals. Of individuals with perfectionist tendencies. These people will often struggle to appropriately process and assimilate information regarding any sort of food restraint.

There is a very fine line between advice around food restraint and being a food bully. I think this falls on the wrong side of that line. Coaches must respect that their words come from a position of authority, and carry more weight. What implications might this approach have for someone with lower self esteem, or poor body image. We want to build our athletes up, not break them down.

Consider the shame and embarassment and even fear that would be created from such an statement or the environment it creates. Not exactly conducive to 'high performance'.  There is a place for almost any food (in moderation) in a healthy and balanced diet. It almost goes without saying that we don't want to be linking any food group or type to negative emotional states. The generality of this unguarded comment has clearly been misconstrued and has unfortunately resulted in almost the opposite of the intended effect.

Few S&C coaches are actually adequately trained and qualified to dispense appropriate nutritional advice on weight loss. Just because weight and body composition is related to athletic performance, S&C coaches MUST NOT be mistaken in thinking they can or should advise on the matter. If you do think its something worthwhile changing, engage with qualified professionals. I've said this before, but unless you understand the physiological and psychological consequences of such advice, its best to keep your mouth shut. Now I don't know if these coaches were qualified or not to dispense such advice, but I'd argue that if the individuals involved had been qualified, they probably wouldn't have delivered the 'advice' it in the way they did. Food choices, although we might not be aware, can extremely personal to us and carry or convey underlying values and meaning. Quarrel with these at your own peril.

Ultimately, the overriding issue is that the mental health of an athlete must be prioritised before performance, especially if performance is your end goal. Perhaps this is a statement that not all of you will agree with, but without this hierarchy, I believe we’ll be seeing a few more Phyrric victories than necessary. Remember, we’re people first, and everything has a cost!

Codes of Conduct

Be honest, how many of you know any of the codes of conduct of your professional organisation? Whether accredited with the UKSCA or not, I would strongly urge you to all revisit your professional or personal codes of conduct from time to time. I know at least one coach at the organisation involved in the above anecdote to be UKSCA accredited, and while this is not a whistleblowing exercise, there are arguably several points within the UKSCA codes of conduct that have been disregarded from just one seemingly innocent throwaway comment. I’ve copied out some of the most relevant ones to this situation below, but please take the time to read through the rest though, it’ll certainly be worthwhile:

  • Not to exceed my own competence, expertise and qualifications in any aspect of any services I may provide, and not to carry out work above my level, as in the Scope of Practice document.
  • To refer to an appropriate professional any matter which appears to lie or does lie within another specialist’s area of expertise.
  • To seek appropriate advice in any situation where I may lack the necessary experience or competence.
  • I agree at all times that I will act in the best interest of the athlete/client.
  • To comply with all Child Protection, Vulnerable individuals, Racial, Sexual and Disability Discrimination legislation.

The UKSCA Codes of Conduct

When it comes to eating disorders, just one comment can be the precipitant for someone developing lasting problems. So when it comes to nutrition, unless qualified, you really are best off following Kelvin Giles' advice:

In coaching you will have thousands of opportunities to keep your mouth shut. Take advantage of all of them.

Know your ethical and professional boundaries. Respect them. For adolescents and their nutrition, they are perhaps best left largely alone. If you must do something, broadly educate them on what constitutes a balanced diet, be emphatic when it comes to the serious risks of underrating or purging behaviour. Only once they are older, and when they have consistently demonstrated they have no problems with food, should a qualified and trained professional begin to approach them with more specific or targeted dietary interventions (with caution) IF necessary.