As a former collegiate swimmer, 6 year professional cheerleader for the NFL and current professional choreographer, I have been playing sports all my life and know the sport culture all too well. Now as a clinical sport psychologist, I have been able to apply my personal athletic experiences coupled with clinical knowledge to help better understand the mind and body connection for athletes as it relates to performance and specifically body image.
An athlete’s body is a performance tool that is displayed in their athletic environment. It is a norm in the sport culture for athlete’s bodies to be critiqued by fans and coaches (Greenleaf & Petrie, 2013). I especially felt this critical pressure as a professional cheerleader dancing in front of thousands of fans on game days and on national television. I also similarly felt this body surveillance culture as a collegiate swimmer while on the diving block about to dive for a race. It is often believed that a swimmer’s body type affects their athletic performance depending on what stroke they are swimming. In the most recent news, Simone Biles felt the pressure from the sport culture to perform when she intuitively knew that her mind and body were not in alignment with each other. She therefore chose to acknowledge her own mental health challenges and chose not to push through the pain, which goes against the sport culture of no pain no gain.
As one could expect with this external pressure, it is common for many athletes to experience body image pressure and eating disorders that are directly linked to their performance ability (Reel, SooHoo, Petrie, Greenleaf, & Carter, 2010). However, the body surveillance sport culture can have long lasting detrimental effects on an athletes’ emotional and physical well-being.
In my dissertation research on “How Retired Professional Cheerleaders Adjust to Retirement”, the research data demonstrates that retired cheerleaders and majority of athletes experience the body surveillance pressure in retirement due to the external pressure being embedded and intertwined into their psyche and athletic identity (Rossell, 2020). This external pressure can cause an athlete to develop body image disturbances that can lead to an unhealthy perception of oneself causing body dysmorphia, low self-efficacy, social physique anxiety and a grieving process of their athletic identity.
On a youth sports level, studies reveal that this societal pressure can cause young high school girls to engage in caloric restrictions in order to be perceived as having a body that aligns with societal expectations of a cheerleader’s physical appearance. Similarly, retired female athletes overall felt their athletic identity was damaged due to a change in their body type in retirement. This therefore resulted in body image dissatisfaction, identity challenges, and eating disorder tendencies (Papathomas, Petrie, & Plateau, 2017). As a retired professional athlete myself, I can definitely attest to the mind and body challenges that come with changes to physical appearance in retirement and feeling as though it is not aligned to my previous athletic identity.
As a whole, it is important to understand that both current and retired athletes of all athletic levels are susceptible to experiencing challenges with mourning the loss of their athletic body image identity, anxiety, eating disorders and overall mental health. It would be helpful to explore sport psychology concepts with eating disorder clients and athletes as a way to conceptualize the depths of their athletic identity and body image ideals. Sport psychology concepts can be a useful tool with clients to better understand the complexities and impact of being an athlete.
- Greenleaf, C., & Petrie, T. A. (2013). Studying the athletic body. In E. A. Roper (Ed.), Gender relations in sport (pp. 119 –140). Rotterdam, the Netherlands: SensePublishers. https://dx.doi.org/10 .1007/978-94-6209-455-0_
- Papathomas, A., Petrie, T. A., & Plateau, C. R. (2018). Changes in body image perceptions upon leaving elite sport: The retired female athlete paradox. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 7(1), 30–45. https://doi.org/10.1037/spy0000111
- Reel, J. J., SooHoo, S., Petrie, T. A., Greenleaf, C., & Carter, J. E. (2010). Slimming down for sport: Developing weight pressures in sport measures for female athletes. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 4, 99–111. https://dx.doi.org/10.1123/jcsp .4.2.99
- Rossell, Kayla (2020). How Retired Professional Cheerleaders Adjust to Retirement. John F. Kennedy University. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2020. 27999555. https://www.proquest.com/openview/2b878e10ac909ab017506e097f1d6360/1.pdf?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y