Written by Isabella Pallotto ‘19
As mentioned in a previous blog post, cheerleaders face a unique risk for eating disorders based on revealing uniforms, weight requirements for stunting purposes, and aesthetic ideals that come with representing their school on national television. Like other athletes, cheerleaders are pressured by coaches to maintain a certain weight. A 1996 study by Reel and Gill reported that almost half of the cheerleaders in their study sample felt that body weight and shape were important to their coach.
Researchers Whisenhunt, Williamson, Drab-Hudson, and Walden (2008) developed an intervention designed to reduce weight pressures from coaches among cheerleaders. The present study’s intervention targeted middle and high school cheerleading coaches, hoping to increase their knowledge about eating disorders and decrease behaviors (i.e., mandatory weigh-ins, tryout weight limits, negative comments) that contribute to weight pressures.
Forty cheerleading coaches were recruited from various coaching conferences. Participating coaches attended a workshop titled “Using Psychology to Improve Your Squad’s Performance” (Whisenhunt et al., 2008) and were sorted into either the intervention or the control group. The control group listened to a 1-hour presentation on relaxation training, problem solving, goal-setting, sleep hygiene, diet, and avoidance of drugs and alcohol. The intervention group received a 1-hour presentation on the identification of eating disorder symptoms, how to refer athletes with eating disorder symptoms, and what specific coach behaviors contribute to weight pressures. Intervention group coaches also received optional supplementary reading materials on eating disorders in athletes, a medical referral form, handouts on nutrition and eating disorders for athletes and parents, a video designed to combat societal pressure to be thin, and video discussion questions to talk about with their team. After each presentation, both the control group coaches and the intervention group coaches completed the same assessments.
Following the 1-hour presentation at the conferences, the coaches in the intervention group had more knowledge about eating disorders than the control group. Eight months after the conferences, the intervention group coaches reported engaging in more behaviors to prevent eating disorders on their cheerleading squads.
I’m a coach, what can I do?
- Be educated: Understand the different types of eating disorders (anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, orthorexia) and their symptoms.
- Educate your team: Ensure that your team understands the negative consequences an eating disorder can have on their health and their overall athletic performance.
- Understand that hyper thin/hyper muscular ≠ better: Society and the media dictate to adolescents and athletes that being thin (marketed towards girls) or muscular (marketed towards guys) will make a person happier and more popular. Focus on building self-esteem and body-positivity among your team. Happiness and self-confidence should not be tied to one’s appearance.
- Be upfront: Make it clear to your team that you will refer any athlete who is demonstrating eating disorder symptoms for their safety. Be open and available for athletes who are struggling to come to you for help. Encourage your athletes to come to you if they are worried about a teammate exhibiting eating disorder behaviors.
Whisenhunt, B.L., Williamson, D. A., Drab-Hudson, D. L., & Walden, H. (2008). Intervening with coaches to promote awareness and prevention of weight pressures in cheerleaders. Eating and Weight Disorders, 13, 102-110.