Optimizing Sport Performance by Looking Beyond Weight

December 22, 2021

Athletes are well attuned to the conversations in sport surrounding weight and performance. Whether you’re an athlete, coach, healthcare professional, or fan, you don’t have to look far to observe the narrative in sport that says controlling weight will directly impact performance.

Unfortunately, this belief holds many myths and misunderstandings. This narrative is amplified by the pressures of diet culture and sport body stereotypes that exist within athletics. Sport body stereotypes refer to oversimplified beliefs about how athletes should look and interpretations about what this means for performance. These stereotypes can differ based on sport type, playing position, and culture, among many other variables. They are found in words and subtle (or not so subtle) messaging. Such stereotypes drive comments about being “built” for a certain sport. They are reinforced when media and broadcasters choose to highlight an athlete’s body (positive or negative) over their skill, effort, and performance. These messages can trickle into coaching philosophies, training plans, thoughts, conversations, and behaviors. Moreover, they can influence one’s perception of themselves as an athlete and their self-worth.

When undue emphasis is placed on weight for performance, athletes often find themselves in a vulnerable position. We know that as an athlete becomes more focused on changing their weight or body composition, the risk of disordered eating and eating disorders grow.

Given how pervasive the weight and performance narrative has become in sport, it is understandable that athletes – and those working with athletes – may come to adopt similar perspectives. If this narrative sounds familiar to you, you are not alone.

  • Perhaps you are an athlete struggling with the pressures of weight or body stereotypes.
  • Or a coach seeking other avenues to redirect the focus away from weight/body shape.
  • A family member or friend of an athlete dealing with disordered eating/eating disorder.
  • Or a medical provider caring for an athlete that is overly focused on weight/body image.

This conversation reaches far and will require a collective effort to change!

Weight is certainly ONE factor that MAY impact performance. Weight criteria is also built into many sports (e.g., wrestling, rowing) so we cannot realistically avoid the topic completely. However, we do know from research and practice that how an athlete performs is the result of so many other factors far beyond weight and body shape. Physical training, mastery of sport technique, mental skill, wellbeing, and environmental factors are just a few of the known variables to directly impact performance. Ironically, the more an athlete focuses on manipulating weight to improve performance, the more time and energy is diverted away from factors that actually help improve performance.

To get the conversation going we might ask athletes, those working with athletes, or even ourselves the following:

  • Where do I need to put more attention?
  • What behaviors can be added to meet this need?
  • By focusing too much on weight, what factors are neglected? In what way?
  • In what way does neglecting these factors negatively impact training/performance?

We all can work together to focus on tangible ways to mitigate the overemphasis on weight WHILE maximizing performance.

Ashley Brauer, PhD, is a clinical and sport psychologist who specializes in the treatment of mental health disorders and performance concerns among athletes. Dr. Brauer helps athletes navigate mental health and sport concerns at the outpatient level with Mind Body Endurance in New York City. Additionally, she collaborates with The Victory Program at McCallum Place in St. Louis to provide consultation on eating disorder in sport. Dr. Brauer completed her master’s degree in sport and exercise psychology at Lund University in Sweden and the University of Leipzig in Germany. She earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Saint Louis University with an emphasis in sport psychology. Dr. Brauer completed her APA-accredited pre-doctoral internship with a specialization in health psychology at the University of Missouri. Dr. Brauer’s clinical and research interests focus on the intersection of clinical health and performance psychology, including injury/illness, eating disorders, and sleep. Dr. Brauer is widely published and has presented at multiple national-level conferences.