Teammate with anorexia

Originally Published: March 4, 2005
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Dear Alice,

Well, I am a student in college and I play soccer with a girl who has an apparent problem with anorexia and I don't know how to approach the situation at all. She is a type of person who takes everything personally and can sometimes take the blame for things that isn't her fault. She is an overachiever and very sensitive, she tries to be the best in everything that she does. She is an excellent student and a great soccer player. Now I am not a really close friend to her... but I am very concerned. I knew that she had a problem last year, but now that she has come back from summer for pre-season, it has gotten worse. I thought that it would possibly get better, but it apparently hasn't and I really don't know what to do. I thought that her closest friends would take charge and find her help, but they haven't and it doesn't help that she is a difficult person to approach, so me and some of my fellow teammates don't know what to do. So that is why I am writing to you to ask you for your advice. I am scared that something bad is going to happen since she pushes herself so much in soccer and rarely eats. We had practice the other day and it was 75 degrees out and she was wearing a sweatshirt b/c she was cold and she also is extremely tired all the time and can't hold her bladder that well. I am afraid that she will have a heart attack soon...

Please help me,
Danielle

Dear Danielle,

Your concern for your fellow teammate is understandable, especially since you suspect, based on her behavior, that she has an eating disorder. It's difficult to talk with someone with an eating disorder, especially if s/he is not ready to face it. And since you are friendly with her, this may place additional pressure on you for wanting to help her. It is also difficult to know how to approach her, especially since the result may not be what you would like.

An eating disorder is a call for help. Perhaps because you've acknowledged your teammate's behavior or secret, it might make her feel more deserving of getting help. It's important to know that she may not welcome your concern, and may even be furious or deny your observations. If this is the case, difficult as it might be, you could think about finding another time to approach her, when she might be more receptive to your concern and caring.

Here are a few suggestions:

You can tell your teammate that you're concerned about her and her behavior, that you have noticed certain things, and list what you have seen or noticed, stating them in a way that is not critical, just matter of fact. Let her know that you support her to get help and will be there if she needs to confide in someone, if you are comfortable with this.

Approaching your teammate might make her feel supported, eventually, even if it seems as though she doesn't appreciate it at the time. You can also approach her with another friend or teammate. This may be more effective than talking with her by yourself. However, if the entire team were to talk with her, she could feel overwhelmed or attacked.

You can also talk with your coach. This is especially important, because your coach might ultimately have the most influence on your teammate's getting help. For instance, your coach could tell her that she will not be able to participate in practice or playing unless she sees a health care provider and/or medical team that can work with her specific needs.

For the conversation, stick to telling your teammate how concerned you are for her health and how you feel, and talk less about weight, her eating, or her appearance. Here are some language suggestions you can use:

"(Your teammate's name), this may be difficult to hear, but I'm concerned for your health and I'm here for you if you want to talk about it..."

"As a teammate and friend, I am genuinely worried about what is happening to your health..."

"I feel nervous about bringing this up because I am afraid you will not see this as supportive, but I'm really concerned about you..."

If you need more guidance on how to help or if you feel you can use some support yourself, you, yourself, can make an appointment for a consultation about your teammate with a therapist at your school's counseling service. Also, read the Related Q&As listed below.

Regardless of how your teammate reacts, give yourself credit for thinking about, handling, approaching, and/or confronting her. It's clear to Alice that you care.

Alice