I Can Not Stress This Enough: Protect. Our. Athletes. NOW.

To begin, over 35 million youth partake in sports each year in the United States. Seventy-five percent of those athletes are verbally abused. Translated, that means 27 million children under the age of 13 each year are being yelled at by an adult coach.

If we flash forward to middle school age, seventy percent of youth athletes have now dropped out of their sport. You do the math. Currently, it is more important than ever to protect these young athletes after several youth abuse cases have come to light.

We know this abuse is going on, but to what extent? We all love the sports industry. Let’s face it, if we did not, I would not be writing this very post you are reading right now. But how can we love an industry that is seemingly becoming more and more corrupt as the days go by?

In today’s blog, we dive into several “taboo” subjects in youth sports. For that reason, I am going to put a warning on this blog. This blog entry contains talk of eating disorders, physical abuse, verbal abuse, and more. Stop reading now if any of those subjects are triggering matter.

To enhance your reading, I am going to break this blog down into two separate sections of information. To begin, let’s start with eating disorders.

Eating Disorders

Common eating disorders include anorexia and bulimia, but did you know there is one that occurs in twice the number of individuals with anorexia and bulimia combined?

Over 45 percent of female athletes have or have battles an eating disorder.

Let me put this in the simplest way possible.

Anorexia is when an individual stops eating altogether or starts eating drastically less to the point of starvation. Over 24 million individuals in the U.S. each year struggle with anorexia. To break it down further, over 13 percent of those 24 million are athletes.

Bulimia is when an induvial will eat like normal but exhibit harmful behaviors afterwards. This person will eat a meal and then feel guilty which leads to periods of excessive exercising, purging, or not eating at all.  Over seven million people in the U.S. face this subtype of eating disorder each year.

Binge Eating Disorder, formally diagnosed for the first time in 2013, is present in twice the number of individuals each year that struggle with anorexia and bulimia combined. This eating disorder is characterized by periods of restricting food or eating excessively heathy followed by a binge on “junk foods.”

Learning to spot the warning signs of an eating disorder is crucial to athlete safety.

With so many athletes struggling with an eating disorder each year, how do we spot the signs?

NationalEatingDisorders.Org has excellent resources when it comes to dealing with such topics. Click the link below to dive more in depth: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/warning-signs-and-symptoms.

For a quick run-down, warning signs are often as follows:

  • Exhibiting behaviors related to being overly conscious concerning health
  • Refusal to eat certain foods often labeled as “fear foods”
  • Skipping meals
  • Withdrawal from activities
  • Excluding oneself from friends
  • Mood swings
  • Feeling cold
  • Rapidly losing weight and muscle tone
  • Fainting
  • Dizziness
  • Dental problems
  • “Gaunt-looking” skin

While these are just a few examples of warning signs, please note that warning signs in each individual can vary, which is why it is so important to know your athletes as well as all signs of eating disorders.

Mental, Physical, And Verbal Abuse

Mental and verbal abuse are also prevalent in sports. While some sports have more documented cases of abuse than others, this is a topic that should not be taken lightly.

Recent studies have shown that 50 percent of athletes suffer from mental or verbal abuse from coaches, which translates directly to depression and anxiety from a sport they chose to love at a young age. In my opinion, that is 50 percent too many.

For a prominent example, Simone Biles—no introduction needed—was suffering from a severe case of the “twisties”, known as a mental block in gymnastics, in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Biles was ridiculed online to an extreme. Not only were non-athletes writing “you have let us down and are being lazy,” sports coaches were doing the same. “If that was my athlete you would be taken off the field. What a shame. Such a great talent gone to waste. There goes our chances of gold.”

Simone Biles was ridiculed by coaches from other teams and other sports worldwide for choosing to withdraw from several 2021 Olympic competitions due to a tough mental block due to pressure put on her. Photo Courtesy of Time Magazine.

I want you to read these statements over one more time for me.

Doesn’t this sound like coaches were treating Biles like an object rather than a HUMAN.

Let’s look at another case of treating a human like an object used for athletic prestige.

Elena Mukhina.

Mukhina was a Russian gymnast in the late 1970s destined for greatness. She was, in all essence, her generation’s Simone Biles.

Mukhina was often pushed to her limits by her coaches. In a 1979 documentary of the Soviet National Gymnastics Team, Mukhina’s coach was featured discussing her extensive training regimen. A video, which followed afterwards, shows a clearly tired Mukhina practicing.

That same year, Mukhina missed several competitions prior to the 1980 Olympics in Moscow due to a broken leg caused by over-training. Her coaches were often pushing her past her limits by forcing  her to complete dangerous tricks that were impossible to land. Mukhina says this was, “so her coaches could be recognized for their accomplishments of creating a great gymnast rather than watching out for her safety.”

Elena Mukhina was poised to become the next great gymnast before an injury while being over-trained rendered her quadriplegic.

While training for the 1980 Olympics, Mukhina landed wrong completing a Thomas Salto pass, a gymnastics element involving a 1½ backflip, followed by a 1½ twist, and ending in a forward roll. While anyone now can see this is dangerous by the ending element of essentially landing in a forward roll, her coaches “knew” she could do it.

On July 3, 1980, just two weeks before the Moscow Olympics, Mukhina was practicing the pass when she under-rotated the Thomas Salto element, landed on her chin, and snapped her spine immediately.

The fall left her quadriplegic.

In the documentary More than a Game filmed 11 years after her injury, Mukhina recalls pleading to her coach that she did not feel safe doing the Thomas Salto pass. Mukhina says, “my injury could have been expected. It was an accident that could have been anticipated. It was inevitable. I had said more than once that I would break my neck doing that element. I had hurt myself badly several times, but my coach just replied people like me don’t break their necks.”

Mukhina, pictured above just years before her death, was left paralyzed after being treated like an object rather than a human. Mukhina recalls the first thought that ran through her head after her fall was, “thank god I don’t have to train or compete anymore. I’m tired.”

Like I have mentioned one time already in this blog, read that again.

Another athlete in another time still being treated like an athlete, not a human being.

Sadly, Mukhina succumbed to her injury in 2006 due to long-term complications.

Aside from gymnastics, over 30 NCAA athletes have died from heat-stroke during summer practices, and the number keeps on getting bigger and bigger each year.

Athletes are often dying from heat stroke due to coaches not recognizing the signs, as well as wanting to “push” the athlete “to their limits” to “make them a man.”

The most publicized case in recent years was none other than 19-year-old Jordan McNair. McNair was a football player at the University of Maryland who became a victim to heat stroke on the field during a summer practice. Officials say that McNair’s body temperature soared to 106 degrees on May 29th while completing a vigorous outdoor workout involving 100-yard sprints with no break.

Jordan McNair suffered from a fatal case of heat stroke during a summer workout at the University of Maryland.

McNair was not able to hydrate correctly, and sadly collapsed. Since not a single soul on his team or coaching staff could point out the warning signs of heat stroke and thought he was “sick,” McNair was not even placed in an ice bath to get his core body temperature down.

McNair died 15 days later in the hospital.

So what are the warning signs of heat stroke, and how can we prevent another Jordan McNair case from happening?

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) states the following as signs of heat stroke:

  • Confusion, altered mental status, slurred speech
  • Loss of consciousness (coma)
  • Hot, dry skin or profuse sweating
  • Seizures
  • Very high body temperature

The CDC also states the following as first-aid if you notice heat stroke in any individual:

  •  Call 911 for emergency medical care.
  • Stay with worker until emergency medical services arrive.
  • Move the worker to a shaded, cool area and remove outer clothing.
  • Cool the worker quickly with a cold water or ice bath if possible; wet the skin, place cold wet cloths on skin, or soak clothing with cool water.
  • Circulate the air around the worker to speed cooling.
  • Place cold wet cloths or ice on head, neck, armpits, and groin; or soak the clothing with cool water.

While eating disorders and signs of abuse are sadly prevalent in our world, we all need to do our part to reduce that number. Any number in any of these cases is UNACCEPTABLE.

We must do better, and we must be better. We must think of the athletes, and most of all, we need to protect the athletes. PROTECT THE HUMAN BEINGS.