Driven to Excess: The Cost of Going for Gold

BlogHer Original Post

Elite athletes are the epitome of passion and prowess, embodying everything we love about a good competition. Most have spent the majority of their lives striving to reach the pinnacle of their sport: becoming an Olympic medalist. But what's the true cost of going for gold?

Right now, the women and men who will compete in the upcoming Olympic Games in London are understandably kicking their work outs into high gear to build the physical, mental and emotional stamina needed to perform at their peak. However, because the media's spotlight now confers celebrity status on today's athletes, a new component has been introduced into their training regime: Appearance.

The glorification of ripped abs, muscular physiques and magazine-worthy bodies leaves many athletes vulnerable to disordersed behavior, including eating disorders. Not surprisingly, research shows that the personality traits needed to become a top-performing athlete are also the building blocks for Anorexia Nervosa. High expectations, perfectionism, competitiveness and drive can spiral into excessive, ritualistic exercise, distorted body image, tendencies toward depression, and preoccupations with weight and dieting.

A Norwegian study of 1,620 elite athletes found that in sports like gymnastics, figure skating, diving, and track which emphasize maintaining a lean build almost 50 percent of female athletes met criteria for eating disorders. In addition, sports like wrestling place tremendous pressure on the athlete to maintain, lose, or gain weight, because one's weight division determines his or her competitor.

Feb. 11, 2012. United Kingdom, Athletics - Aviva Indoor UK Trials & Championships. Jessica Ennis in action during the women's High Jump. Credit Image: © Steven Paston/Action Images/

While it's true that men and women alike are prone to eating disorders, research shows that female athletes are significantly more susceptible. In a recent interview with Marie Clare, British heptathlon world champion Jessica Ennis described the emotional conflict she experienced because her muscular body -- essential for excelling in her sport -- made her feel "not feminine."

In the face of all these pressures, how can our elite athletes (as well as the rest of us!) succeed without succumbing to an eating disorder? After thirty years in the field, I have a few tips:

  1. Cultivate self worth from within. Most of us allow feedback from outside sources -- including sports achievements -- to determine our worth. True self-worth comes from the value we place on our own thoughts, feelings, ideas, and actions.
  2. Learn biology! When we truly understand the miraculous feats our bodies perform every moment, we learn to listen to its signals and respond to its needs: hunger, thirst, fatigue, pain, etc.
  3. Focus on the benefits of sports, such as health, strength, stamina, and stress relief, rather than the number of calories burned or the effect it will have on physical appearance.
  4. Connect with others, who inspire and authenticate your healthy voice, choices, and deeds.
  5. Lastly, remember that the real gold in life comes from believing in ourselves as the unique, resilient, amazing human beings we are. No athletic performance or medal can replace genuine self-love.

Now I'm curious about how you "weigh in" on the subject: How can we strive to be our best mentally, emotionally, and physically -- while remaining free from eating disorders or other disordered behaviors?

Patricia Pitts, PhD is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, founder and CEO of The Bella Vita Eating Disorder Program.

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