Hollie Avil’s painfully honest, and extremely brave, article in The Telegraph (22nd May) about her retirement from triathlon, at the age of just 22, reminded me of the power that poorly chosen words can have. In particular coaches’ insensitivity about, especially female, athletes’ weight.
Similarly it has been revealed in the media recently that Commonwealth heptathlon champion, Louise Hazel, and Jessica Ennis (now British record holder after her excellent performance in Gotzis at the weekend), have both been called ‘fat’ or ‘overweight’ by high-ranking figures within UK Athletics.
Fortunately for the state of athletics, Ennis and Hazel have shrugged off these second-hand comments. However for Avil, who was told in person by another coach at the Triathlon Junior World Championships in 2006 that she needed to watch her weight if she wanted to run quickly, the words hit more of a nerve. As she wrote in her article, ‘That comment planted a seed in my head that didn’t need to be planted.’
On its website, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) warns that ‘the healthy body image of some female athletes can suffer through sport’. Faced with the sight of incredibly lean and slight African athletes who win the majority of middle and long distance medals, it is perhaps no surprise that, as Hazel put it, ‘people think that you have to look like you are completely emaciated to actually be in physical shape’. Importantly though, and as Hazel goes on to say, ‘that’s not the truth’. Yes it is true that carrying less weight will, often but not always, enable you to run quicker – it’s just simple physics: it takes less energy and force to move a lighter weight than it does a heavier one.
Trying to lose weight, when already balancing the physical stresses of training at an elite level, is a dangerous game. As Avil found out, not eating properly or sufficiently impedes performance progression and often leads to injuries and illnesses, as the body struggles to cope with insufficient nutrition to fuel training and replenish the depleted energy systems, and consequently greater depression.
Eating disorders are frequently caused by a desire for ‘perfection’ and greater control; under the stringent control of governing bodies and training regimes this problem is even more prevalent. I know, I’ve seen many athletes, girls and boys, eating only one meal a day (even when training twice!) to get down to ‘racing weight’. I’ve even tried it myself in the past. It only provides, if any, short-term gains and can cause far more detrimental problems.
Body weight undoubtedly has an impact on sporting performance, but, excluding extreme examples, it should never be the first thing that coaches try to change about an athlete, and even then there are more helpful ways than off-hand comments or the insensitivity of labelling someone ‘fat’. In 2010 Chris Solinsky shocked many people when he broke the American 10,000m record and, in doing so, became the first non-African born runner to break 27 minutes. Perhaps more importantly, at 73kg he was heaviest person ever to do so – 9kg heavier than the 29 other athletes to have run that fast. Just as Avil and her friends joked that she ‘still had [her] big swimmer arms and needed the body fat to be buoyant’, Solinsky joked that his friends told him he’d broken the ‘fatty world record’.
Many athletes are able to see the funny side of body composition differences, but words can hurt. With great power comes great responsibility: coaches must do the best for their athletes, training partners must support each other,