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  • Using Elite Athletes to Create a Healthy Body Image in Youth... Tips for Parents and Coaches

    by Guest Blogger | Aug 10, 2016

    By: Christy Greenleaf, Ph.D., and Caitlyn Hauff
    University of Wisconsin Milwaukee
    Department of Kinesiology

    From August 5 through August 22, the ACSM Sports Performance Blog is featuring a special content series in celebration of the achievements of elite athletes participating in international competition. Be sure to follow the blog as well as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (acsm1954) and share using #ScienceofSport.

    Bodies come in all shapes and sizes and nothing highlights and celebrates body diversity more than international competition among elite athletes.  Athletes of varying heights, weights, muscularity, leanness and physical mobility demonstrate their expertise and skill during their events. Whether an athlete is lacing up a pair of baseball cleats, diving head first into the water, securing a prosthetic leg before a race, or taking a seat in a wheel chair and rolling onto the court, audiences become captivated not by the type of body that athlete has, but by how these athletes are able to use their bodies during competition. The display of all types of bodies (and body movements) becomes a great opportunity for parents and coaches to use highly visible athletic competition to promote healthy body image and support body appreciation.

    Helping young people focus on what an individual’s body can do (rather than what they weigh or how they look) is a great place to start while watching athletic events. By emphasizing ability, skill, and function, parents and coaches can combat the unhealthy societal message that everyone’s body should look a certain way in order to be healthy or attractive. Physical activity and sport provides a wonderful setting in which to help young people focus on physical function rather than physical appearance by developing fitness, learning new skills, and improving personal performance. The determination, tenacity and spirit displayed by elite athletes over the next several weeks are a prime examples of how an individual with any type of body can strive for greatness and persevere through adversity.

    Parents and coaches can also help young people identify healthy role models and can serve as role models themselves. By avoiding negative body talk and engaging in health promoting physical activity and eating behaviors, adults provide powerful examples of positive body image for kids. Likewise, using highly visible athletes as examples, parents and coaches can help all types of aspiring athletes focus on developing strength, endurance, and power as a means to succeed. By watching competition in person or on television, audiences are able to admire athletes for their physical abilities, recognizing that aesthetics have little bearing on performance outcomes and adopt positive role models that empower individuals to believe hard work, sweat and mental toughness are what lead to success.

    As elite athletes continue to push limits and challenge the status quo in the coming days, they act as a positive reminder of the amazing things the body can do. Regardless of one's weight, height and physical appearance, these athletes prove that dedication, determination and discipline are what lead to success, not numbers on a scale or size charts.  For more information about eating and exercise practices that support healthy bodies, please visit

    Christy Greenleaf is a professor specializing in psychosocial aspects of body and physical activity. Caitlyn Hauff is a doctoral student studying social media, body image, and physical activity. 

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