Dear Coach of Teens,

First, thank you so much for your time and effort.  Sports are an incredible opportunity to learn how to work together as a team, and to learn new skills or get better at something you may not be very good at.  It's also a great bonding experience and chance to have fun. 

And of course it's an opportunity to move and connect and be in our bodies which feels so good both mentally and physically.  So again, thank you for making the time for teaching these skills and guiding these experiences.

There is just one thing that I want to talk about if you don't mind.

I want to point out a few things that may be going on for teenagers and give you a heads up on how to handle them. You may know this already in which case - who hoo! - carry on. But if not, please give these tips your consideration.

As you probably know, being a teenager is a wild ride. So many hormones, so many life lessons, so many changes. A bodies are changing non-stop during this time.

Some bodies will get tall really fast, some won't get tall at all.  Some will have acne, some glasses, some curly hair and some straight. Some will have all arms and legs and some will be all boobs and hips or all muscle.

This isn't about sexuality, although I’m sure someone could write a great post on that too. Overall, this post is intended to normalize something that is often pathologized by parents, doctors and yes, even coaches.

During middle school and puberty, most teens will gain a considerable amount of weight. Did you know that gaining up to 25 pounds or more is normal at this time?  This is not only normal, but it is necessary, especially for female bodies which are biologically preparing for childbirth. 

Given the culture that we live in, and thinking of the majority of people that you know, how do you think these teens are going to feel about this?

Often teens are shamed for their weight gain or they feel very self-conscious about it.  They shouldn't, it's entirely normal. Some teens are also naturally bigger and heavier than others and always will be. That is completely normal too.

All bodies are different and all bodies are good bodies.

First and foremost, the athletes need to know and remember this.

“Athletes come in all shapes and sizes.  Long and lean should not be a recruitment criteria and does not equal athletic. Points and rebounds, steals and assists, making the right play at the right time is NOT based on body size—- and lateral quickness or lack there of is NOT a weight issue.” (This is a direct quote from Dawn Desilets Sulmasy, a middle school basketball coach who has seen bodies of all shapes and sizes crush it on the court.)

To help teens appreciate their bodies, here are a few things NOT to do:  (I know mistakes will be made, we are all only human, but if we can all be aware of the impact that one coach's comment can make, or one parent or one teacher, then we all might pause before we speak. )

Please don't equate health with thinness.

Please don't comment on someone’s body.

Please don't talk about your own eating habits and workout habits.

Please don't say that teens (or anyone) need to work out harder if they ate a large meal or to burn off calories.

Please don't talk about burning calories during practice.

Please don't talk about calories at all.

Please don't compare bodies.

Please don't talk about foods as being good or bad.  Even talking about foods as healthy or unhealthy can have unintended negative consequences.

If you hear or notice that teens are comparing bodies or talking about not eating, be sure to emphasize they may need to eat more than usual when playing sports and that our bodies don't perform well without adequate food.

 Never ever suggest that someone lose weight to increase their performance. All studies show that weight loss usually leads to weight gain which is just the tip of the iceberg in the harm that this suggestion can cause.

A teen who wants to please and is already a practicing perfectionist might aim to be the "best" at doing what you suggest, starving themselves to change the shape of their body. which leads to life threatening eating disorders or disordered behaviors around food that can last a lifetime.

There will often also be  feelings of shame and inadequacy sparked by a statement like this, no matter how innocently it was intended. 

To learn more - check out this article talking about recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics on the dangers of dieting and how to talk about food and body with children.

You can also google "athletes and eating disorders" if you want to know more about how athletes are often inadvertently taught to approach food. For example, from the National Eating Disorders Association website: "In a study of Division 1 NCAA athletes, over one-third of female athletes reported attitudes and symptoms placing them at risk for anorexia nervosa." 

One third! That's rather mind blowing. But it proves my point that I am not just trying to make your life more difficult.  This is serious and you can help.

What are some things you can do to support healthy body image?

At team gatherings, encourage your athlete to eat a wide variety of foods. Foods that nourish and fuel and are satisfying and fun and don't judge anyone for what they feel like eating that day.

Encourage athletes to eat enough. Growing bodies need lots of food not to mention athletes.

Discourage any comparison of bodies or sizes.

Highly discourage any talk of diets or restriction. It will mostly lead to bingeing which is often accompanied by more guilt and shame, not to mention the dozens of other health implications that come from not getting sufficient nutrients. 

Do your own work to be comfortable with your body image and your weight so you don't inadvertently bring your issues and put them on these girls shoulders. They already have enough on their plates with their own body image, they don't need to deal with yours too.

If you suspect that a player might have an issue with food or body, refer them to a professional who can assess the behavior and help find the appropriate treatment. For more tips, download the Coach and Trainers Toolkit from the NEDA website.

OK - so thanks again for your time. I feel better knowing we had this talk.