Eating Disorders Are a Problem Among Elite Female Soccer Players, Study Finds women soccer

Anxiety, depression and eating disorders are significant, if often hidden, problems for elite women footballers competing in the Women’s Super League and Championship.

The first scientific study to examine the prevalence of mental health problems among leading players in England found that 36% of 115 respondents to a confidential survey showed symptoms of an eating disorder. Meanwhile, 11% showed signs of moderate to severe anxiety and another 11% struggled with moderate to severe depression.

While similar rates of anxiety and depression have been recorded in both the general population and other elite athletes of both sexes, the incidence of eating disorders appears to be higher among female soccer players.

Ninety percent of participants believed that receiving some form of psychological help would improve their careers, and 86% said they wanted or needed clinical support at some point during their playing career.

Lead author Carly Perry, from the School of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston, found that only 50% of clubs represented by participants received psychological support. “It is vital that football clubs encourage help-seeking behaviors,” said Perry, who is particularly concerned about the prevalence of eating disorders in the top two divisions of English football.

Moving the goalposts

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Indeed, weight, and in particular its control, proved to be a recurring theme. “Our results show that 35% of footballers are currently trying to lose weight, and 45% said they had tried to lose weight in the past four weeks,” Perry said. “Importantly, this data was collected during the competitive season. It is therefore warranted to examine how and why players try to lose weight during the season.”

She is concerned that eating disorders may almost normalize in the context of gaming. “Highly disturbed eating outcomes were not associated with a current need for psychological support,” Perry said. “We believe this finding warrants further investigation, as it may indicate that eating disorders are not self-detecting.” Instead, it is possible that they will be normalized in the footballers’ sporting environment.”

Anxiety and depression seem to have been exacerbated lately by a combination of the Covid-19 pandemic and the game’s rapid professionalization. “In addition to the increased stress faced by elite women athletes during the Covid-19 pandemic, we suspect that the new demands placed on elite women’s football (e.g. media roles, fan engagement, sponsorship and commercial partnerships) stem from the rapid professionalization of the Women’s football resulted in England increasing anxiety symptoms,” Perry said.

Mental health can also depend on a player starting games regularly, with the study showing those who invariably started in the starting XI had significantly less anxiety and depression than those who stood on the sidelines.

“Future research is needed to find out how to better support players who don’t start,” Perry said. “Footballers who do not start games on a regular basis may need additional staff screening to allow for the prevention and early detection of mental illness.”

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