Netball: Pressure builds on eating disorders

By Dana Johannsen

Food issues are a challenge for female sports. Photo / Thinkstock
Food issues are a challenge for female sports. Photo / Thinkstock

There is growing concern across the Tasman that the increased profile of netballers in the new professional era has been a trigger in recent cases of athletes developing eating disorders.

Netball Australia is currently managing some health issues of a few top-tier players, whose weight loss has been the subject of locker-room gossip and internet rumours.

While the causes of such problems are deep-rooted and complex, the increased exposure of the athletes in the media has been highlighted as one factor.

Australian national coach Lisa Alexander believes the pressure of playing on television every week and the increased promotional and modelling opportunities for players can be a factor in female athletes developing an unhealthy body image.

"It's always a challenge for female sports in general because of the highlighted nature of the body and how females are portrayed in the media, it's definitely a concern," said Alexander.

"It can become a very difficult problem, it's not just about looking good in a photoshoot - it's much, much deeper than that and I think that is the challenge for everyone."

While in the past there have been one or two isolated incidents of eating disorders with New Zealand players, which are well-known in netball circles, Dr Kylie Wilson, who works as a mental skills coach with the Silver Ferns, does not believe the same issues are a factor here.

"In my work with the players, I've never had them bring up any issues around television or what they look like [in the media]. I think with some of the younger athletes it's not about eating disorders, it's more about body image issues and to my knowledge it hasn't progressed to anything more serious than them just managing how they feel about themselves," she said.

Alexander stressed that eating disorders were not rife in netball, nor was it a problem unique to the sport.

In her 20-plus years of top level coaching experience she said it was not something she has "struck a great deal".

Dane Baker, a sports dietician with High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ), said overseas evidence had shown disordered eating was prevalent in sports where athletes' physiques were on display such as gymnastics, swimming and diving, and there was an emphasis on maintaining a prescribed weight goal.

From the outside it is easy to think that elite athletes would never be at risk of such problems. The assumption is that their concerns for health and performance would outweigh anything else.

But Netball Australia chief executive Kate Palmer points out sportspeople face the same cultural and social pressures to conform to a perceived ideal body image as everyone else.

"I always say sport is not immune, we reflect society in every single way," said Palmer.

It is important to note that eating disorders are a complex psychological illness, the drive to thinness comes just as much from internal factors as external ones.

Dr Wilson, who works with athletes in a wide range of sports in her role at HPSNZ, said most athletes were perfectionists.

"That can be healthy perfectionism or it can get a little bit unhealthy, which is what we call neurotic perfectionism. If sports attract those types of people with neurotic perfectionist dispositions, then that's probably why athletic populations have a high prevalence of eating disorders."

In many respects, netball does a good job of promoting a positive body image among both its athletes and the wider public.

Silver Fern Cathrine Latu made headlines last year when she hit out at a netball fan who posted disparaging remarks about the shooter's weight on Facebook.

At the time Latu told the Herald the comments struck a nerve not because she is sensitive about her size, but because she believes attacking athletes over their weight sends the wrong image to youngsters looking to get involved in sport.

"It really makes me mad that people like that could possibly get into other people's heads and make them feel like they're not worth anything," said Latu.

"I'm trying to make a difference and I hope I can make people realise no matter what size or shape you are you can play sport."

Alexander said the sport recognised it had the ability to influence women in a positive way by showing the players are "extraordinarily fit and tough athletes, but still very healthy".

- NZ Herald

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