Body Image in Sport

Sports Psychology Tips: Body Image in Sport

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Does the pressures of sport impact on how you view your body?

Body image is a very common issue, especially in sports where being thin or just making the correct weight is seen as a positive or where being underweight increases your chance of winning.

Sports like gymnastics for instance put athletes under a great deal of pressure as they often have to follow very strict diets and have to overcontrol their weight.

In other sports such as martial arts, there can be an obsessive attitude around dieting in order to increase the chance of a victory.  In fact, some martial arts athletes tend to lose a significant amount of weight just before the tournament using unhelpful strategies. This is in order to fit in to the category below to give them the best opportunity to winning.

Excessive dieting in the most severe cases can be accompanied by the abuse of drugs which can help to lose significant amounts of weight, quickly.  In addition,  Dieting industry promotes more and more “effective” ways of losing weight easily without effort, providing a misleading message towards healthy eating.  Added into the mix, many of the products sold by the Dieting industry can lack important nutrients especially for the growth.  The restriction of calories intake therefore can affect healthy development in young athletes.

The combination of the culture of dieting and media pressures to be thin can often bring athletes to skip meals, starve themselves or be very selective and rigid towards specifc types of food that are necessary such as carbohydrates.  These extremes mean, controlling your own body weight can be very harmful especially in those young athletes whose body and brain are still developing. The excessive dieting can also lead the person to switch between starvation and binge eating.

Extreme dieting combined with the consumption of a huge amount of food can increase the chances of developing an eating disorder, of further lowering self-esteem, feeling guilty and shameful which in some cases can mean the development of depression.    

But what is really behind this behaviour?

Lacking self-esteem is a big part of this.

Self-esteem is the value that you attribute to yourself, the view that you have of yourself.  When self-esteem is strictly related to body weight and shape, unhealthy dieting can develop as a problem.  On the top of this self-perception, athletes with low self-esteem often think that others are critical of them and they often feel judged.

Placing things in a socio-cultural perspective, it can be argued a large part of what influences our body image and dieting is down to society where it is highly emphasised that to be beautiful you must be thin, to the extent that models are generally slimmer, compared to the ones of the 60s.

The need to be perfect, to have an ideal body is often unachievable and does not take into account the reality of the average person’s weight and shape.  Low self-esteem is particularly present in adolescents as they have to adjust to many changes in their life and in their bodies.

So how do we develop a positive self-view?

A positive self-perception has to do, not only with achievements and positive realtionships in the present, but also with how you view yourself based on your upbringing.  It is important in childhood to receive praise and positive reinforcements in order to develop a positive self-esteem.

The opposite, receiving excessive criticism, being put under a great deal of pressure or expectations or having been neglected by parental figures or carers, as well as having experienced bullying from the peers, can negatively impact on self-esteem.

A person who from an early age is exposed to a negative environment is very likely to automatically display a large amount of negative self-talk which is characterised by critical thinking, rumination and a distorted perception of reality.  These types of people will perceive that everything they do is never enough and if something goes well it is taken for granted, whilst if they do a tiny mistake it will be perceived as a massive issue and a confirmation of their low self-value.

To summarise, excessive dieting and unhealthy eating are related to the person’s self-esteem which can originate from childhood and adverse life experiences.

A low self-esteem can lead athletes to have a large amount of negative self-talk and excessive critical thoughts which interfere with their performance and consequently reinforce a negative self-view.

Below are 3 ways to address this issue so that you develop more positive dialogie with yourself, as well as re-processing the old conditioning aspects which can interfere with your performances.

Tip 1: Work towards having a healthy diet.  Seek support from a specialist, to assist you with your day to day diet ensuring it includes all the nutrients that you need for your stage of development and your specific body shape and metabolism.

Tip 2: Value yourself as a person beyond your body image.   Your personal value is much more than a shape or a weight, it is a based on your experiences, emotions, values, ethics and relationships that have been established in your life.

Tip 3: Address your critical thinking.  Often behind body image issues underlies low self –esteem. Excessive or destructive critical thinking is like a fuel low self –esteem and give yourself a distorted perception of what reality actually is.

I hope you enjoyed this article.

If you’d like to learn more about this topic and how to take control of your self-esteem why not sign up to the “The Mental Edge”  where you’ll receive regular tips and advice.

To get in touch for one 2 one Clinical and/or Sports Psychology Coaching with Alessia Bruno.  ONLINE calls are available.

Best Wishes 

Alessia Bruno

Clinical Psychologist, EMDR Europe Consultant and Performance Coach based in Southern Italy.

T: +44 7734 697769

E: [email protected]

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