Why Body Image Is An Issue In Athletics

body image

We have these ideas about the ideal physique for our sport, event, or position. When an individual player looks the part, we tend to think they are exceptionally talented. The media will pick these physical specimens as the athletes they turn into superstars.

It’s pretty difficult to live in this culture and overcome the suggested correlation between appearance and performance.

As a younger athlete, I didn’t put much value on physical appearance. That could be due to naivety. Weight didn’t mean much because each year I grew more prominent and I grew faster. Amongst my high school competitors, there wasn’t much of a correlation between body type and speed.

Eventually, puberty ends (thank goodness). You stop getting taller. You stop getting better only because of physical maturity. In my experience, this is when body image first came into play. For others, it began much earlier, and the exposure just continued to grow.

Body Image: A Serious Stressor

If we know body image is just one more unnecessary stressor in an already pressure-filled athlete life, why do we allow it to continue?

Comparing ourselves to the ideal shape will only establish a negative body image. How can we expect ourselves to perform at a peak level when we keep reminding ourselves that our vessel isn’t good enough?

The statistics are out there. BT SPORTS surveyed 110 female athletes across 20 different sports. 80% admitted to feeling the pressure to conform to a particular body type. Imagine that! Eight of every ten female teammates are struggling to accept their bodies.


While most studies have been done on female participants, we cannot ignore the fact that men are facing the same dilemma. I’ve seen way too many male athletes more concerned with how weightlifting is improving their appearance rather than their performance. Everybody is susceptible.

Let’s Conquer This

What means are athletes willing to take to conform to the ideal body? It’s no secret that harmful methods are used. Athletes can their lose grip on reality and begin chasing an image in place of performance.

How do we put an end to this? Education? Reflection? Let’s not be silent about this anymore. Coaches, let’s not be afraid to talk to our athletes about how they are feeling about their bodies. Athletes, allow ’s fearlessly communicate our concerns.


Let’s get this right. If we are putting in the appropriate work and eating a healthy, nutritious diet, our bodies will adapt to the ideal form for top performance. That ideal form will look different for everybody.

Where We Get Caught Up: Comparisons

It all starts with comparisons. We strive to be better, so we look at our role models. Often, we don’t have access to their training plan, so we try and model what we can see… their body type.

Maybe we already have a standard in our head. Of course, we want our fans, spectators, and competitors to see us and think we’ve done a great job preparing physically for the competition. We can get so outwardly focused that we miss the mark. The real target is in the performance, not the appearance.

Comparing With Others

To accomplish the same task, two people may require a completely different body type. Take the high jump for example. One elite jumper may be stick-thin while another could be muscularly bulky. If they tried to look the opposite, it’s likely that they would significantly underperform.


If we know this is the case, why do we refuse to accept that our ideal figure could fall in the middle of the spectrum? What is wrong with looking average? Or even more tricky, what’s wrong with being on the less-desirable end of the spectrum?

Throw away the spectrum. Stop trying to fit into someone else’s mold. God designed us all differently, and we are wasting energy by fighting it. One body may store more fat to function optimally. Another person may turn into some version of the incredible hulk in their prime.

All I’m saying is that winning doesn’t require a 6-pack. Some people are genetically blessed in that area while others would have to take drastic measures (which would compromise performance) to replicate it.

Have you ever done the same training as your teammate and had opposite results on the scale? That’s called adaptation.

Everyone needs to adapt differently. Have you ever been beaten by somebody who was farther away from the ideal shape than you? Yes. Clear your head of “ideal.” It doesn’t exist.

Comparing With Yourself

This can be tricky, and this is where I got trapped in over-stressing body image. Think back to your best performance ever. Take a mental snapshot. What did you look like? How much did you weigh? This is what we get caught up in. So many things went into the production of that performance, yet we can end up simplifying it to one thing: our appearance.

I know what I weighed in my best meet ever. Every year after that I tried to replicate it unsuccessfully. However, weight wasn’t the reason I performed well at that particular meet.

I had a lot of confidence, an incredible training plan, good sleep, great support, an injury-free year, and reliable technique. I gave credit to the scale and took the above things for granted.

To reproduce that performance, I felt like I had to reproduce that body. In reality, that particular size wasn’t the best fit for me. To continue improving, I needed to add strength and speed.

Often that comes with weight gain. I compromised the process by manipulating intake to maintain a figure that WASN’T EVEN PRODUCTIVE.

We have to be willing to accept change. Sports performance is often an experiment. Your body will not always look the same exact way. But if we are stuck chasing this one particular image, we take away from the ability to find an even more productive prototype.

My advice is this; do the training and eat the right way. Allow your body to shape itself. Your body knows what it needs to do the tasks you are asking it to do. During various stages of life, this may look different.

Where We Go Wrong With Scales

The best friend of the body-image trap is the scale. If you want to exacerbate your negative body image, hop on the scale more often. Please don’t.

Comparing your abs to someone else’s stomach is subjective. Looking your tone compared to others is subjective. Comparing your thinness is subjective. The scale is objective, meaning the results are not based on personal judgment or opinion. We can get attached to this objective measurement because we know it is true and reliable.


While the measurement may accurately describe your given mass, it says nothing about your performance. The same thing goes for body-fat measurements. Assuming they are accurate (many forms have a wide range of accuracy), they cannot tell you how well you are about to compete.

In training, we often perform some baseline testing. Some examples include over-back shot-put, standing long jump, and max clean. If my over-back shot-put performance is less than a personal best, I don’t go into a competition thinking I’m doomed.

It’s only one measure of power. My coach once explained to me that the scale is ONLY ONE MEASURE. It provides a little bit of information, but it doesn’t predict performance.

Let’s appreciate the scale for what it is. The scale provides a scientific data point with no specific correlation. Over time you can track changes and see how that correlates with your body’s readiness, but even that needs to be analyzed carefully because your needs will change.

The Truth About Our Bodies

To wrap things up, let’s review some truths. That fact that our bodies function so efficiently is mind-blowing. Humans are intricately designed. The cardiovascular system, pulmonary system, endocrine system, digestive system, etc. all function in coordination with each other. There are so many processes working correctly to keep us alive. Let’s appreciate our bodies for a moment.

Additionally, our bodies are created to adapt. We have evolved as a species to meet the needs of our environment. On a shorter-term perspective, we adapt every day. Our muscles get stronger or weaker.

Our mitochondrial enzymes and capillary densities change with exercise. Different types of training will affect metabolic pathways differently. Let your training dictate your adaptations.

Do not let your desire to conform to a certain image dictate your training. Performance improvements don’t happen that way!

Finally, let’s address the truth about media. Elite athletes don’t stay in peak form year-round. The body just can’t do that. The images of our roles models typically display a figure that is in competition mode.

During the offseason, some weight gain and extra fat are often necessary. Realize that the images you see aren’t maintained all the time.

In summary, you are uniquely made! Embrace it. Train hard and smart. Eat enough and choose healthy options. Let your body adapt to its peak form. Realize that your peak form may look very different from somebody else’s peak form.

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