Chapter 31 – Bobby
“Coaching is a profession of love. You can’t coach people unless you love them.” – Eddie Robinson
I met Bobby shortly after I had run my marathon. He agreed to be my coach despite the fact that I was still struggling with food and body issues. In addition, I was injured and could hardly walk at the time. Bobby was convinced that the two of us could create a healthier path to running again for me, and his passion and optimism rubbed off on me so much that I even thought for a brief moment I was ready to let go completely of the illness that I had clung to for the majority of my life. Though this freedom never quite occurred, Bobby did help me begin to express myself more and ultimately opened a door to a much happier life. His constant and unconditional support allowed me to begin to investigate my own self-worth, something that had been completely and totally torn apart by past traumas and the internalization of harsh comments by others. Though we no longer work together as coach and athlete, we remain closely bonded as friends. I'll let him tell our story:
Firstly let me say that it is both an honor and a privilege to have worked with Lize as her running coach and now to be her friend. This leads into what I feel is the most effective asset in the process of being a support to those unfortunate enough to suffer the horrors of anorexia – empathy. Remember, I am only a running coach with training in sport psychology, hardly the credentials I needed when it came about that I became someone known for having some insight and facility with anorexic distance runners.
I was fortunate enough to realize very early on in my work with these athletes that the running was often likely to be the compulsion that had replaced that abhorrence for food.
From a plain exercise physiological point of view, the lighter the runner the higher their Vo2Max. This is their ability (measured in milliliters) to utilize oxygen per kilogram of body weight. This is a key performance factor in endurance events. The lighter the athlete therefore, the better they perform – hence the warped “reward” that these athletes receive for losing so much weight. Of course this period of heightened performance is finite as the effects of the illness start to shut down the system with its all-too-often inevitable outcome – terrible, terrible illness, anguish and even death.
At the risk of sounding simplistic, let me lay out the loose process I follow when an athlete entrusted me with the truth of their condition:
Never view the illness as a simple case of misaligned thinking that can easily be corrected by a nice logical heart-to-heart conversation.
Gain permission from the athlete to be forthright – negotiate the space to be honest. When working with athletes who have clearly dealt with the illness since their youth, I often request to speak with the “adult,” when it is clear that the “child” is very much present in a trying/challenging situation.
Be wary of creating false hope as to the length of time or the possible linear course that the healing process may take.
Have a healthy take on the curability of the disease – I told myself that an athlete is either in remission (and working damn hard at it), or caught in the throes of the thing. Thinking that a runner (or any anorexic person for that matter), is fully and finally cured is a fallacy that can lull the supporters of the person into dropping their guard and miss crucial clues that could help prevent another acute phase.
Be utterly constant and unconditional in your love and support. Also be unwavering in the standards you set as acceptable; for example I refuse to offer coaching when the athlete is below a medically determined minimum weight. I never, however, dropped the athlete from my program when this occurred, only refused to allow them to train.
I would only coach such athletes with the existence of a team consisting of the coach, psychologist (or some effective type of psychotherapist) and a nutritionist. I would not move forward without the okay from these two persons. Of course, all these team members had to be totally trusted and accepted by the athlete. The athlete also has to be totally okay with open and clear communication between the three support members, other than the usual accepted confidences that these specialists must abide by.
Lastly, let me say that I coach by agreement and never more so than with the condition of anorexia. If an athlete trusts me, I honor that trust for the duration of the coaching relationship and beyond.
I hope that these thoughts are of some use to others who are part of the world of anorexia.
For many, there is a set belief that an anorexic can never fully overcome the illness. A coach must constantly keep an eye on anyone who has struggled with eating issues in the past. It's very easy for someone who has had an eating disorder to start sliding back into bad eating patterns when training or stepping back into competition. Most people who have had struggles with food and weight do better with a positive, one-on-one coaching style that avoids punishment or negative feedback based on performance. The focus with these kinds of athletes should clearly be more on motivation and personal achievements than on weight. Training and racing at the elite level can put an athlete at risk for developing an eating disorder. With good coaching and guidance, an athlete can remain healthy while reaching their athletic goals.
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