How to Know When a Young Athlete's Exercise Is a Problem

By Roberta Sherman, PhD
Reprinted from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Fall 2007 Volume 5, Number 4
c2007 Gürze Books

Sport participation can be very helpful to a young athlete in terms of developing self-esteem, self-efficacy, and sportsmanship. Unfortunately, it can also be a mechanism for the development of an eating disorder. Although unhealthy eating behaviors can sometimes be difficult to identify in the sport environment, recognizing unhealthy exercise can be even more complicated. In part, the difficulty results from the emphasis on rigorous training. Most coaches at the collegiate and elite levels believe that training is the single most important factor in enhancing athletic performance, and many believe that "more is better" regarding the frequency, duration, and intensity of training. Right or wrong, many of the current trends in sport, including those related to training, tend to filter down from the collegiate and elite levels to high school, middle school, and even younger levels of competition.

Sports at higher levels(i.e., collegiate and elite) usually have the most knowledgeable and well-trained medical and training personnel looking out for the athletes' welfare. Unfortunately, sports at lower levels tend not only to have less experienced and less informed coaches, but also tend to have minimal medical and training staffs. Thus, young athletes could be at significant risk.

In this article, I will provide suggestions regarding not only how to identify possible exercise or training problems with your young athlete, but also how you might take a more active role in making sport participation safer and more enjoyable for him or her.

Detecting Possible Problems

Part of the difficulty in identifying "excessive" exercise in athletes is that exercise or, more specifically, training, is so valued in the sport environment. Often people who train harder and/or more intensely are viewed as being "good" athletes. One way to detect a possible problem is to look at your child or adolescent's training compared to her teammates. Is she doing significantly more? If so, this may be indicative of a problem. Additionally, is she exercising more than the coach is requiring or recommending? If so, it may be suggestive of a problem.

However, this approach to identification is not always straightforward. Coaches are often looking for the athlete who will train harder than her teammates. It is difficult for a coach (and sometimes a parent)  to view an athlete who works harder and longer than the others as having a problem. On the contrary, these athletes are more often valued because  of their "work ethic".  Their extra training may be rewarded and reinforced. It is difficult to know if the athlete is simply a good, hard-working competitor, or a person with a problem. Nonetheless, this is a good place to start the identification process.

Because sports differ with respect to their physical requirements (i.e., cross country vs. softball, tennis vs. swimming, etc.), training demands will differ. But when attempting to determine if training is safe and healthy, it is often more helpful to look at additional factors. The obvious ones involve physical/medical symptoms. These might include menstrual abnormalities, stress fractures, recurrent injuries, and injuries due to overuse. Interestingly, many athletes who train intensely experience frequent colds and upper respiratory infections that are believed to result from decreased immunity related to their strenuous training. Many of these physical symptoms result from psychological issues related to exercise. Things to look for might include exercising against medical advice, exercising despite injury or illness, an inability to change an exercise routine, or exercise that interferes with everyday activities such as school, work, or relationships.

One final way to assess the appropriateness of an athlete's training relates to decreased athletic performance. A decrement in performance is a cardinal symptom of what has been termed "overtraining syndrome" or "staleness".  Other overtraining symptoms include appetite disturbance, depression, and "heavy legs, a sensation that athletes report feeling when they are experiencing overtraining. The recommended treatment for overtraining is complete rest. Ironically, many athletes increase their training when performance declines.

Parents can play an important role in making sport participation safer and more enjoyable. Since youth sport athletes are probably at greater risk than those who compete at higher levels, parents should take a more active role in monitoring the sport activities of their children to ensure their health and safety. A good place to start is to become knowledgeable regarding unhealthy exercise and weight loss methods often practiced by athletes, and how these can affect a child's health. Use reputable and well-documented sources of information regarding healthy sport training and competition. Additionally, parents should not assume that their child is healthy simply because she is performing well athletically. You know your child better than anyone. Be assertive with coaches when you are concerned, and don't hesitate to withhold sport participation until your concerns have been alleviated through proper assessment and treatment.

One last important point regarding the appropriateness of sport participation for children and adolescents is warranted. These issues related to training should not be misconstrued to mean that young people should avoid sport participation. What should be avoided are the unhealthy attitudes and behaviors that are often associated with exercise, both inside and outside of sports.

About the Author

Roberta Sherman, PhD, is a Psychologist in Bloomington, IN. She has consulted with the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee and has authored books and articles related to eating disorders and athletes.