People have judged my female figure in the strangest of situations – not only in obvious places like swimming pools and yoga classes, but at conferences and in other professional business contexts too. Ever since I can remember, it’s been all too common for people to approach and ask, “are a climber?”

I used to be quite puzzled, not really knowing what to say, so I would simply reply “yes, how do you know?”. I have learned over the years that my body shape reveals it: big shoulders, toned biceps, small hips, strong calloused hands and fingers. I understand that my body shape doesn’t fit the ideal, western feminine template – Thin and toned are considered beautiful, but throw in a pair of bulging biceps and wide shoulders, and people might start to look at you differently. When someone would approach me with the assumption that I’m climber, even though they were right, used to make me feel really uncomfortable. If my body shape stands out so much, I would ask myself “is it normal to look like this?”

The female athlete’s body image is multidimensional. It depends on the situation – whether the athletes view their bodies in a sport or social context (Krane et al., 2004; Mosewich et al., 2009). Gaining and maintaining muscles in climbing is absolutely acceptable for female climbers, well, it is even mandatory if you want to improve your performance and get stronger. Luckily, it has also become more accepted as a female athlete to be muscular – both in a social and in a sport context. Yet muscle bulk such as greater muscle size or mass is still often avoided – it is still not congruent with socially accepted feminine body ideals (George, 2005). It is a super complex and tricky situation. Is it really all about the looks? What are we willing to give up in order to look a certain way or in order to perform at a certain level? How can we learn to just not care about our looks and body image?

Intrapersonal conflicts like this, maybe paired with insecurity, may lead to a cognitive dissonance and therefore imbalance, and, in turn, potentially contribute to female athletes’ unhealthy or restrictive dieting (Beals & Manore, 1994).

So, on the one hand, there is this intrapersonal conflict of how to conform to body ideals which may lead to unhealthy eating. What now, if someone else puts our attention on this topic? And this time, I’m not talking about some stranger that randomly walks up to you in a yoga class, asking whether you were a climber (because you looked like one). What e.g. if your coach addresses your body shape – maybe even in an inappropriate way? We know that interpersonal feedback about body image, especially from close people such as coaches may equally contribute to similar problems (Kerr et al., 2006; Muscat & Long, 2008).

I was lucky to have never directly experienced a situation like this. However, there is one situation I would like to tell you. I was 21, and at that point doing Bouldering Nationals and some close-by World Cups. I was at home, gathered around the dinner table with my family. We were talking about competitions when my dad brought up an “old story”: When I was 16, one of the coaches in our old gym had said to him that my climbing career would be over soon. Before that I had not done too badly in the international youth comps, making several podiums. But then I had grown, I had put on weight, I had developed female features, bigger thighs, bigger butt. I had gone through a normal development from a girl to a woman. So that coach had told my dad was that my climbing career would be over soon – I wouldn’t have the right body shape anymore, I would weigh too much. Even though I remember feeling really relieved that my dad wouldn’t have told me that story back when I was 16, I still felt upset at that coach. Even at the age of 21, I felt attacked, ashamed, embarrassed. How would I have handled that at only 16? Luckily, I didn’t waste more than 3 minutes of time and energy thinking about this incident. I still really enjoyed climbing, probably more than ever now that I lived in Innsbruck and I felt physically strong and good. I can guarantee though that I would have felt differently if I was told to be too big back then.

I know of several situations where female athletes weren’t as “lucky” to be told such comments only years later. How would you e.g. feel if your coach, just before you compete in an international youth comp final, tells you that you would be more successful if you rather look like this other girl? How would you feel if you were asked whether you really still needed that bar of chocolate?

I haven’t made up these example – they actually happened, and I am sure there are many more examples like this. In hindsight, of course, it wasn’t meant that way. “It was a joke. Don’t take it too seriously. I didn’t mean it”, the coach would say, “I didn’t really think about what I was saying". Well, is it actually or even appropriate to joke about your athlete’s body image, about your athlete’s physical appearance like this? Would you laugh about jokes like this if this was you? Does the insensitiveness and unawareness of a coach justify the potential consequences?

When do coaches communicate body images, what’s rather helpful & what’s not?

First of all, coaches need to become aware of when the verbal and non-verbal communication of body images in sports even starts. The opportunity for dialogue between athletes, coaches, parents and other staff begins where once we create awareness.

In this study by Coppola et al. (2014), six categories could be identified of where coaches verbally and non-verbally communicate sporting body images – some of which where rather helpful, some not.

  • Encouraging healthy & fit sport bodies

Encouraging health (e.g. healthy eating) and fitness (e.g. muscle gain) through good nutrition and physical development as a coach can be very positive, specifically within the sport and training environment. Healthy, fit sport bodies are better nourished, more energetic – and therefore also more capable for performing strong in trainings or competitions.

  • Sport and training environment

Athletic body image can be communicated through prescribed training plans and coaches’ evaluations of athletes’ training. Training plans are certainly helpful to enhance the performance and are therefore encouraged to be followed by coaches. The encouragement of following such training plans can be perceived as keeping bodies strong instead of conforming to body ideals. For some athletes, tracking the physical development can lead to an increased confidence about both their performance and bodies because they can see their progress. In general, the encouragement of athletes by coaches to track their physical development in training as well as the communication of body image might sometimes be useful but is not always considered as supportive. In fact, it is sometimes also seen as a criticism.

  • Body comparisons and criticisms

Comparisons or criticism of athletes’ bodies by coaches is generally rather seen as a negative and unhelpful form of coaches’ body image communication. Research recommends that coaches should generally avoid critical comments and body comparisons (Thompson & Sherman, 1999). Comparisons like this could be between two athletes: one who has the “ideal weight” for a sport with another one who doesn’t. It is particularly upsetting if athletes feel like they trained hard gave everything, and are told that their weight is still not enough.

Critical comments by coaches about female athletes’ body can not only be considered as rude but possibly also have an effect on their self-esteem. Often, if your thighs are too big or if you don’t feel like you have the ideal body shape for your sport, you are already self-aware of it. Having this pointed out, potentially even in front of the other athletes or “as a joke” can be quite harmful.

If coaches criticise athletes within teams – even if it’s in an individual sport like climbing, they should be aware of what role this athlete plays in the group. It might be an important member of the team. It would be therefore not only upsetting for the athlete who is criticised but potentially also for the team mates since they consider themselves part of this team. It could potentially have effects on the whole team.

Criticism of athletes not fulfilling a certain body image, being e.g. “too big”, have been threatened to not be allowed to participate in a competition. This extreme form of criticism is another very negative and unhealthy form of communicating body image and can, in turn, lead to unhealthy dieting.

Athletes themselves have reported that weight, as well as comparisons and criticism, are irrelevant as long as they are qualified or still perform well. But whilst athletes generally dislike their coaches to make body comparisons and criticise them for it, they appreciate it when coaches recognise athletic body change. It is effectively viewed as an initial, supportive way of communicating sport body image.

Coaches’ critical comments can lead to athletes experiencing social physique anxiety, disordered eating and unhealthy dieting (such binge-eating or dietary restraint), as well as feeling guilt, shame, and anxiety (Biesecker & Martz, 1999; Greenleaf, 2004; Kerr et al., 2006; Muscat & Long, 2008). It is also incredibly stressful for athletes when coaches compare their bodies to those of others because they feel pressure to conform to body ideals (Mosewich et al., 2009).

  • Coaches’ recognition of athletic body change

From the athletes’ point of view, more discussions with athletes about body image, and more specifically body change would be beneficial. More discussions are considered as positive because they usually mean better guidance and suggestions about body change. Very often though athletes feel like they don’t receive enough direction from their coaches with respect to healthy eating.

Coaches’ recognition of body change should therefore include both appreciation of body change and direction for maintaining a nutritious diet with the help of an expert, such as a nutritionist. However, team meetings with nutritionists are generally considered as ineffective, particularly if there are no regularly follow-up appointments. More effective would be individual trainings and support for athletes.

  • Individualised athlete-centered training

Coaches providing individual training suggestions is considered as very supportive and helpful for the athletic body image. It is recommended to use the technique of goal-setting to communicate helpful, constructive & individual training suggestions and body image differences between athletes. It is important to recognise these individual differences, particularly when developing training plans, because all our bodies are unique. By setting goals, coaches can individually communicate with athletes about their bodies. Setting e.g. a goal for an ideal weight range as opposed to a specific weight is also an effective strategy when it comes to a healthy communication of body image.

Coaches’ communication of constructive training feedback and suggestions is very helpful. Alternative suggestions such as “try this instead of that” is very valuable. If coaches suggest body change to individual athletes, they should do so sensitively and preferably in a conversation. Before discussing the body, it is recommended to make positive comments about e.g. the athlete’s skills.

  • Coach as a role model

Coaches can be either positive or negative role models when it comes to the communication of body image. Positive role models are coaches who model healthy eating and exercising in order to communicate a healthy body image. It is in fact highly respected if coaches practice what they preach and set a good example. However, hypocritical behaviour and unhealthy role modelling in terms of eating is considered as unhealthy role-modeling and often therefore is disrespected by athletes.

What were your experiences? What kind of communication by your coaches have you found rather helpful and supportive? What have you found to be rather unhelpful?