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USA Volleyball’s response to COVID-19 and guidelines toward Return to Play.

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Note: this article was edited from a synonymous story published in the Spring 2018 edition of Volleyball USA.

Athletes from all sports and backgrounds have body image issues, and girls in volleyball are no different. Countless players struggle with disordered eating and unhealthy habits, and numerous external factors and pressures do nothing but aggravate those habits. It’s critical that everyone in our volleyball community – coaches, parents, players and administrators – make a conscious effort to better understand this issue.

Pressures 

Admittedly, volleyball attracts athletes who are long and lean. Players who don’t naturally tend toward that physique can stand out, and this issue is exacerbated form-fitting uniforms that can make some of those players even more self-conscious. Further pressure comes from the people and competitions around an athlete: to win the game or get the scholarship. 

Sometimes the ideas of weight and performance get jumbled together when they should be understood separately. Additionally, coaches and parents may pressure athletes by talking about weight in unhelpful ways or inadvertently giving them misinformation. Finally, we are constantly inundated by curated snapshots of other people’s lives and constantly judged on our own via social media. The pressures of creating a certain image have skyrocketed.

Performance Versus Weight

Kate Machado is a registered dietitian who works with teams at the University of San Diego as well as club and high school athletes. She says that she sees, “some of the girls who are getting collegiate volleyball scholarships say they don’t really care about performance, they want to have a good bikini body. The priorities get shifted, even if they are talented and well-informed. It comes down to the old standard that tall and skinny goes together.”

There is no “right body”, though. Dr. Nick Galli, a psychologist from the University of Utah, says that creating a healthier environment for young athletes involves understanding that appearance or weight and performance are not the same thing. “The key is to separate weight and appearance in messages about performance whenever possible,” he says. “Focus on health behaviors influencing performance rather than weight and appearance alone.”

The fact is, the performance should be the thing that matters. Points aren’t scored by being thin, there is no magic number that you should weigh or template that your body should follow. Yes, fitness is important for an athlete, but the best measures of your fitness are how you feel and how you perform, not just the numbers on a scale or your image in the mirror.

Coaches and Parents

There’s a lot of information about nutrition, and not all of it should be believed. According to U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee senior sports dietitian Shawn Hueglin, too much misinformation makes its way to young athletes. “Some information is old, and some is taken from other sports,” she says. “This can cause athletes to develop poor fueling habits that are not specific to the sport demands. Athletes fight those habits in college and beyond.”

Coaches and parents who provide information to athletes need to check their sources or consult a professional. Moreover, while they may give out accurate, generalized information on healthy habits, Machado suggests that they probably should not give out specific nutrition advice to athletes unless they are dietitians.

A second problem area is excess testing. There are many tools to test body composition, something Hueglin says can be useful and helpful “when done appropriately with a specific goal that is related to performance on the court.” Without a purpose, education or feedback about the results, those tests just put unnecessary pressure on athletes.

Weigh-ins are also a controversial topic. Just looking at a number based on weight is not useful; it’s more important to know your body and what is fat versus what is muscle. Use a scale that breaks down the amount of muscle, fat and water weight you have.

Hueglin says that weigh-ins should be combined with body composition assessments and be used for a specific purpose. She also cautions against team weigh-ins as it can turn into an unhealthy competition.

The Highlight Reel

With the rise of both traditional and social media, we are overwhelmed with images that show what we are “supposed” to look like every day. Not only that, but we have images that show us what we are “supposed” to eat like! Machado warns that photos of food on Instagram can be just as harmful as images of perfect bodies. “It’s not a realistic meal that you could eat daily,” she says. “You can’t make it look that pretty, and its nutrients might be out of balance from what you need. It’s just false perfection.”

When viewing those posts on social media, remember that you are looking at other people’s highlight reels, not their lives. You are seeing the best meal that they could make and the best angle and lighting that shows their body the way they want you to see it. Do not judge yourself in any given moment based on someone else’s best moment.

Coaches and Parents

Weight and appearance are difficult subjects for coaches and parents to address. There’s a consensus that you should not be talking about weight or appearance at all unless you are a professional.
 
Machado recommends that it come from a dietitian because, “when it comes from a coach, it feels like, ‘I won’t get to play because of the way I look. The coach thinks I’m fat. I’ll lose weight.’ And then they do it in an unhealthy way.”

The conversation that you can have is around performance. If an athlete is not performing the way they’re capable of, ask what is holding them back or how they are feeling. Hueglin says that there are often underlying issues that lead to disordered. Maybe the athlete is reacting to comments from the people around them or they’re particularly stressed. Finding out those triggers might help you address the problem.

If you do want to talk to your child about general nutrition, frame it in terms of performance. Galli recommends giving advice on which foods to eat at certain times to aid performance. Machado adds that it’s important that athletes view the weight issue as changing their nutrition habits rather than just dropping weight quickly. If athletes think about dieting rather than making healthy choices, they may play at a lower level because they’re not fueling themselves properly. 

Tips from the experts

An athlete’s body is a tool. It must be treated well so it can work properly. Here are some tips to do that:

  • A varied, flexible diet that is enough to support training and competition demands
  • An 80/20 rule where 80 percent of your food is selected to support training and 20 percent is selected for the enjoyment of food
  • Get a good breakfast and lunch. Have some protein in the morning and don’t rely on vending machine food or crackers for lunch.
  • Eat fresh proteins, fruits, vegetables, and eggs. Shop along the outside of the grocery store and stay away from processed food found in the middle. 

There are several pressures that cause young athletes to develop disordered eating and poor nutritional habits. Be compassionate, be supportive and promote a positive body image. 

Cassidy Lichtman was a member of the U.S. Women’s National Team during the 2013-16 quadrennial. She was a two-time AVCA First-Team All American setter at Stanford (2007-08) and an assistant coach in 2016 when the Cardinal won the school’s seventh NCAA championship in women’s volleyball.