When Athletic Pressure can Harm Youth

Posted on by Alyson Jones. Posted in Blog, Huffington Post.

The human body is fascinating! It has been part of the human journey to understand and study how the human body works and achieves what it does. There has also been a strong focus on physical appearance in our society, and oftentimes athletes are considered the apex of what the human physical form should look like. Athletes are often defined through their ability to achieve physically, but there is much more to a person than just their physical accomplishments. There is no denying that it is awe inspiring to see a human body driven to excellence. The Olympics, sport championships and the triumphs of the human body and spirit continue to inspire us all.

The scrutiny of the human body is not just saved for the professional athletes; it is also a large part of the world of the adolescent athlete. Adolescence is an amazing time of discovery and growth, but it is also a difficult time filled with self-consciousness and judgment. One of the roads to popularity and success in the adolescent world is to be a successful athlete with a “good body”. For girls the pressure to be “fit” is often a mask for the expectation to be skinny. For boys there is the increasing pressure to be “ripped” with the much admired six packs. These images that bombard our youth can create destructive expectations and patterns of behaviour.

Most adolescents want to be popular and accepted by their peers. This intense desire for popularity and success can create an unhealthy dynamic that can lead to significant psychological struggles and long term problems. Eating disorders are increasing in both males and females, and the onset is happening at a younger age all the time. Fit and athletic youth are not immune to this; in fact they are at a high risk for these problems. The pressure on the teen athlete to achieve and maintain success in their athletics can lead to excessive control of their food intake and exercise routine. It is not uncommon for eating disorders and exercise obsessions to emerge even in the teens that appear successful, in good shape and well adjusted.

It is important to remember that we are holistic in nature. Not only is the body growing during adolescence, but the personality and the brain are growing and changing as well. To support healthy development youth need proper nutrition, sleep and care during these periods of great growth. The MORE Philosophy is based on the principles of movement, opportunity and reality which can lead to an exceptional life. We want our adolescents to be moving and participating in their lives, but we do not want to ignore the reality checks along the way. The reality is that disordered eating and unrealistic expectations can harm our children, and impair their long term physical and mental health.

Exercise and movement is healthy. Self-discipline is a good thing, but not when it is embedded in self-hate. We need to provide opportunities for our youth to test themselves, and push themselves to see what they are made of. We all need to understand the strengths and limits of our bodies and minds in order to contribute our authentic self to the world. Self-discipline can become self-hate when it pushes a youth into deprivation and distorted thinking.

It is important for youth to dig into their lives and be willing to test themselves. We need to encourage our youth to learn from mistake and keep moving forwards, but we also need to help our youth recognize healthy boundaries and self-care. Not every youth is meant to be a super athlete, but this does not mean they should not be participating in athletics and exercise. Confidence and ease in the body can be built through physical activities that bring a young person a sense of accomplishment and joy. This could mean any type of physical activity and sport, either as part of a team or more solitary in nature. We do not have to be the best to enjoy the movement and joy that comes from stretching ourselves and accomplishing healthy goals. We need to bring balance into the equation as it is a key to success. We need to remember to help our young athletes understand that developing their character is just as important as developing their body.

It is time to replace those destructive images of perfect bodies with healthy and realistic images of both athletic accomplishment and healthy eating. The body is an amazing vehicle and each person is unique and special. We do not have to be perfect to be fit and healthy. Beauty and success come in many different packages, and in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Food is not the enemy, but rather food is the fuel that can keep our young people moving towards an exceptional life.