Eating Disorder Goal Setting

Anorexia nervosa is a psychological disease characterized by an intense fear of becoming obese, a disturbed and distorted body image, significant weight loss unrelated to other illness, refusal to maintain normal body weight, and amenorrhea. Bulimia is an episodic pattern of uncontrollable food bingeing followed by purging. It is characterized by awareness that the pattern is abnormal, fear of being unable to stop eating voluntarily, depressed mood, and self-deprecation. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia are the two most common eating disorders. It is difficult to get an accurate assessment of eating disorders due to under-reporting. Athletes, in particular, are very secretive because they run the risk of being dropped from the team if the problem is discovered. They will only share the problem when the problem is almost catastrophic and professional help is needed. As a coach, I have known that at least six of my athletes suffered from this self-destructive behavior.

Research demonstrates that goals are a powerful means for effecting behavior changes. Goals that directly influence behavior focus a performer’s attention on important elements, increase motivation and persistence, and facilitate the development of new learning strategies. Goals that indirectly influence behavior can alter important psychological factors, such as self-confidence, anxiety, and satisfaction.

Structure a COMPREHENSIVE goal-setting program to help an athlete overcome either disorder.

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Eating disorders can have a significant impact on the health and well-being of both athletes and non-athletes across the country.  These conditions are commonly intensified by outside pressure from peers, media, and coaches.  As stated by Weinberg & Gould (2011), the over emphasis on weight rather than healthy living practices in many sports has led to increases in the number of cases involving eating disorders over the past 50 years (P. 466).  It is important for sports and healthcare professionals to be aware of the common causes and signs of an eating disorder so that they can intervene prior to the conditions becoming life-threatening.  Weinberg & Gould (2011) discussed that eating disorders are often the results of increased pressure to maintain or achieve a particular weight, low self-esteem, and sociocultural pressure (P. 470).  As a coach associated with a young adult athlete competing in sport competition there is a significant opportunity to influence the athlete in a positive way to prevent or eliminate eating disorders from their normal routine.  One of the most devastating eating disorders seen mostly amongst female athletes is anorexia nervosa.  A critical tool that a coach possesses to assist athletes suffering from this dangerous disorder is the ability to create comprehensive goal setting programs and plans to decrease the influence of the migrating factors associated with the disorder.

As a coach, it is important to understand how important a goal-setting program can be.  As mentioned by Weinberg & Gould (2011), an effective program can help an athlete: increase self-confidence, increase motivation, and adopt positive behavior practices (P. 346).  With this information in mind, it is important to understand the principals behind proper goal setting models and techniques.  Weinberg & Gould (2011) note that there are three types of goals that athletes should set: outcome goals, performance goals, and process goals (P. 344).  If the athlete is suffering from anorexia nervosa or bulimia it would be important for the coach to help the athlete come up with specific and realistic goals that do not encourage poor diet and eating habits.  For example, the athlete should focus on these three types of goals as opposed to setting goals associated with body image or weight loss.  Some athletes might improperly set a goal to lose 20 pounds during the offseason.  This goal is improper because it could lead to added pressure to obtain the goal which could cause severe eating disorders.  Instead of focusing on obtaining a decreased weight it would be more appropriate to discuss a goal related to increasing performance or improving the mechanics of their sport.  If a weight related goal is unavoidable, it might be a positive suggestion to have the athlete focus on increasing lean muscle mass or improving strength and flexibility rather than dropping pounds.


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One of the most important aspects of setting goals to decrease the prevalence of eating disorders is to increase the athlete’s self-esteem.  Weinberg & Gould (2011) indicate that the most effective way of doing this is to set realistic goals that the person can obtain with the appropriate amount of effort (P. 349).  If the goal is too difficult or unrealistic than the athlete may give up hope and become less motivated to perform which could lead to lower self-esteem.  A coach should set both long term and short term goals so that the athlete can appreciate the success that they have obtained and desire to continue on the path of the goal program.  An example of a positive long term performance goal would be to be able to perform 70 pushups within two minutes.  A good short-term goal for this athlete would be increase their overall pushup count by at least 5 each measure session.  The coach could set up a workout routine that incorporated measured sessions every 1-2 weeks in which the athlete would have 2 minutes to accomplish as many pushups as possible.   After training and exercising everyday over the 1-2 week period the athlete could focus her attention on reaching that short term goal as opposed to focusing on the long-term goal.  As these short term goals are met, the athlete’s confidence will increase and they will have a greater sense of pride in their own abilities and accomplishments.  In this scenario the coach did not focus on anything weight related; however, a side-effect of the increased confidence would be an increase in self-esteem which would diminish the potential for the development of an eating disorder.  If setting goals for athletes that are suffering from eating disorders it is often most effective to not focus on weight related goals or issues but instead to encourage alternative goals that distract attention from or eliminate desires to control weight in an unhealthy manner.


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It is also important to maintain a positive level of communication with the athlete which incorporates positive feedback and goal evaluation.  If an eating order is discovered, it is vital for the coach to reassure the athlete of their self-worth and encourage them to improve in other areas rather than focusing on their weight.  It is important to not alienate the individual but instead to reach out to the athlete during their time of need.  The coach could arrange private meetings with the athlete to discuss what they view as important as far as athletic competition and personal accomplishments.  As discussed by Weinberg & Gould (2011), the individuals personality and own motivations are what should drive the development of each goal (P. 352).  A coach can implement their own specific goals for individuals; however, goal setting is most effective if the athlete is involved with the development of their own athletic and life goals.  This involvement will provide a deeper sense of commitment and motivation to obtain the goal than if it was imposed upon them by an outside force.  The coach should not demand a change of perception of what is important to the athlete but instead they should try to mold the opinion and perspective of the individual toward positive behavior increasing self-appreciation.



Weinberg, R., &, Gould, D. (2011).  Foundations of sport and exercise psychology.

Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics

Catalina Magee

Founder of Trend Prive Magazine, America.Guide, Christianity.Global and Roast.Global. Romanian-born American, "seasoned" in Italy, "cooked" in Germany and currently serving in Israel. NCIS Special Agent in Charge EA.

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