Elite GB sports stars struggling with eating disorders, reveals Burnley-born mental health nurse and Preston S.E.E.D clinical director

Many elite GB sports stars are being sucked into the blackhole of eating disorders, according to a Burnley-born medic.

The mental health nurse is warning about the dangers of pushing the body too far as ever more leading athletes in fields like rowing, cycling, swimming and gymnastics seek treatment at her eating disorder clinic.

Shelley Perry, S.E.E.D clinical director, says more awareness is needed about how to help world-class sports competitors remain healthy while training at the top of their game.

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Shelley said: “They get to that level where they have a hyper-focus on their sport. It becomes the only thing that matters to them. Their body dysmorphia is often really intense because they are so aware of what their body is doing and they experience it in an extreme way.

Image of an elite athlete competing in a relay race. (Photo by ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty Images)

“Many are super toned all the time but if they are like that when they are not practising for a race then something is wrong. They shouldn’t be working at five percent or less body fat long-term because the brain can’t cope with it. It can only cope with that for a short period.”

In the long-term, developing an eating disorder can cut an athlete’s career short and push them to rock bottom, leaving their bodies and minds too broken to remain in their sport, according to Shelley.

She said: “One client I worked with was an elite tennis player by the time she was 27. She had severe anxiety but never received any help. She’s now 40 and not only can she not perform professionally but she can’t play tennis at all.”

Commenting on the gap in support for top players, she added: “They need to have a healthy approach but they’re not getting the coaching in that area. They need a lot more food than we do. There’s a lot of science involved.

Shelley Perry outside Breathe Therapies Eating Disorder Help & Wellbeing Services.

“Coaches might know about the sport but they don’t necessarily know about the body in terms of what’s required. If you restrict food, then the brain changes. Nobody teaches trainers that. Then the athlete is stuck in an eating disorder. The coach might push them and push them and say, ‘You need to lose weight to be better at running.’

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“But they’re not teaching them the safe how-to.”

Shelley has seen first-hand how life-saving it can be when a coach is tuned into their athletes’ mental health needs, saying: “My daughter is a gymnastics coach. She coaches GB girls. I say to her, ‘You need to be checking their diets.’

“We have had a lot of her girls in the clinic because she’s able to pick up if there’s a problem.

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - JUNE 23: General View during day two of the Aviva 2012 UK Olympic Trials and Championship at Alexander Stadium on June 23, 2012 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
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“I’d like to see other coaches coming forward and getting some training and seeking out the signs and symptoms and knowing where to signpost their athletes and how to support them.”

To find out about accessing mental health support and advice from S.E.E.D, visit https://www.seedlancashire.co.uk/

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Shelley Perry has suffered from an eating disorder in the past. Photographer - Neil O'Connor.