Care of the Athlete (and the Self) Creates a Winning Team

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The recent Winter Olympics buzz inspired me to write about something that troubles me about athletics and sports today: the focus on winning and being there for the team at the expense of the individual athlete. Even in individual athletic pursuits, there is often a focus on competition. The outcome becomes more important than the process. While setting goals can be motivating, I also wonder if so many people lose the joy of moving the body by focusing on the finish and not on the race.

I work with many athletes and former athletes in my nutrition therapy practice. It’s astounding how many of them have challenging relationships with food. You would think that athletes, whose bodies are their instruments, would have increased reverence for food as their fuel. Many of them do, but I am always amazed at just how many also have a lot of conflict and struggle around food.

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Athletic people should ideally be the most in-tune with their bodies. Their bodies are highly capable, and sometimes they depend on these well-trained bodies for a major part of their livelihood. But, more often than I’d like to see, athletes can become quite disconnected from their bodies. They often ignore pain, strain, and fatigue because they don’t want to let the team down. The focus is on winning or finishing or getting the best time or lifting more than they did yesterday... And if a coach has told them that they need to stay thin or lose weight to be top at their sport, then they often engage in dieting behaviors — and sometimes even develop eating disorders — in an attempt to perform their best. Ironically, the dieting and disordered eating often shortens their career or leads to debilitating injuries that last for decades. Some athletes, like football players, are even encouraged to overeat, which can have a lasting impact on their relationship to food and later health.

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It made me think about the way in which all of us “perform” in our lives. Do we operate from our own desires, dreams, appetites — or are we trying to please our “coaches” or “teams?” Are we enjoying the moments of our lives — or are we chasing some goal, some “should” that keeps getting bigger and bigger the more we practice?

Let’s think about this…

  • When you exercise, are you doing it because it makes you feel great and it’s loads of fun — or are you trying to look a certain way for a certain someone or have a certain image? Do you listen to your body when it says it’s time to rest, or do you have a set amount of exercise that you must do in order to feel good about your workouts?
  • When you make a choice about what to eat, do you choose from what you really want to eat and what you know feels best for your body and palate — or do you eat what you think you should, based on someone else's assessment of what is best for you?
  • Are you living your life on your terms, making your own choices? Do you consult with your “team” of loved ones or advice-givers around you, considering their needs and ideas along with your own — or do you give up your own needs for the team, doing what you think you should do?
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My last blog post was a reprint of Sondra Kronberg’s article about eating disorders recovery called “Listening Inward.” She wrote about the importance of operating from a frame of reference that is inside ourselves, honoring our own truths and hungers and preferences instead of those of the people around us. If an athlete is doing that, she is more likely to notice that twinge in her knee and stop, instead of pushing on through pain and hurting herself. If a coworker recognizes that her body wants warm, grounding food and choses the hearty soup, she will feel centered and soothed all afternoon — instead of grabbing the salad, like everyone else around her and feeling hungry, distracted, and unsatisfied afterwards. If we all listen to our hearts and work to create a life that holds meaning and enjoyment for us, then we can say “no” to the things that don’t resonate with the life that we want. We can also say “yes” to the things and people that line up with our values and dreams.

Maybe you didn’t beat your best time, but you ran the race with your friends beside you for a good cause. Maybe you didn’t win the game, but you took many wonderful deep breaths under a clear blue sky. Maybe you didn’t lift as much weight or swim as many laps as you did when you used to go to the gym regularly, but you recommitted to your health and well-being by starting to exercise again. Maybe you didn’t dance as long or as hard as the people around you, but you shook your thang and you loved it.

Bud-Bud and Boo try out snowboarding.

Bud-Bud and Boo try out snowboarding.

Enjoy moving — even if you don’t win the gold medal. Enjoy eating — even if you didn’t create the perfect meal. Listen to your body and its wisdom before you jump on the next diet and nutrition fad. In my experience, healing our relationships with food is comprised of the slow, hard work of changing habits and thought patterns, and no quick-fix nutrition solution will do it. Trust yourself above all else. Don’t forget yourself, when trying to be part of a community, family, or workplace. Feed yourself well so that you can move through life the way you want to: with strength, courage, and not overly influenced by your “team.” Life can be a challenging journey. Appreciate your growth, your unique gifts, and the way that taking good care of yourself helps you move through your unique life with grace. You will truly be a better “team player” if you are taking good care of your Self first.