The ability of a serious athlete to push herself to the limit can be a unique gift. Over the past 30 years, more athletic opportunities have opened up to women than ever before; now that sports play an important role in the development of young women, many aspire to be champions and opt to “go for it.” Thus, the question becomes how to encourage your child in her athletic pursuit without letting it get overly consuming or destructive to her.
Encourage her to strive for excellence, not perfection. What’s the difference? Excellence is achievable; perfection isn’t. The athlete who shoots for excellence sets high but realistic standards, appreciates her progress, enjoys the sport for its own sake, and understands that mistakes are an inevitable-and valuable-part of the learning process. The athlete who seeks perfection, on the other hand, may drive herself to do whatever it takes to be the best, sometimes at the expense of her physical and emotional health.
To support your athlete in her quest for first place, it helps to be aware of the challenges that may lie ahead. As we discussed in Chapter 3, participants in competitive physical activities that link body size to performance-such as gymnastics, figure skating, ballet, and long-distance running-are particularly vulnerable to developing an eating disorder. The thinness ideal promoted by these sports cultures can pose a nutritional risk or play a role in the development of binge eating and purging. Some athletes find it upsetting that the musculature needed for optimal performance increases their weight. Injuries happen even to the best athletes, but those who are undernourished are at higher risk.
In thinking about the emotional health of your athletically talented child, remember that competing will bring her not only the joy of winning, but also the disappointment of losing. Her undertaking requires enormous dedication. Will the benefits of vying for a championship outweigh the potential personal costs?
Is she willing to give up other desirable activities in order to practice? Athletes in perfectionistic, competitive environments focus intensely on beating everybody, a style that challenges the trust necessary to make friendships work. How will this impact your child? Try to establish an ongoing dialogue with her about these issues so you can address them proactively and effectively.
While some athletes achieve immeasurable stardom, others reach various degrees of success. There may come a time when your child is no longer willing to do all that is necessary to make it to the top, even if she’s almost there. How will you feel and respond? Regardless of whether she wins the gold medal, encourage her to enjoy her accomplishments and keep the costs to the other aspects of her life as low as possible. Reassure her that she has options and there is a way out. Discuss the value of learning to accept one’s limitations and cope with losses. In addition, she should devote some attention to her emotional and social growth, which will also help shape her future.
David B. Herzog, M.D., Debra L. Franko, Ph.D., Pat Cable, RN
David B. Herzog, M.D., is the Harvard Medical School Endowed Professor of psychiatry in the field of eating disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and the director of the Harris Center at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Debra L. Franko, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Counseling and Applied Educational Psychology at Northeastern University and the associate director of the Harris Center at Massachusetts General Hospital
Pat Cable, RN, is the director of publications at the Harris Center.