Making a college gymnastics team is a huge feat that gymnasts work their entire careers to accomplish. Then having to compete for another four years is an even loftier goal.
Unfortunately, many gymnasts have not learned to manage their own nutrition and schedules in healthy, sustainable way.
There is already an increase in disordered eating and eating disorders on college campuses, and that even gets trickier with navigating the crazy busy schedule of a student athlete without the parent support they used to have.
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Most College Gymnasts Never Learned How To Fuel Their Bodies
Think about it. A Junior Olympic (now called Developmental Program) gymnast trained 20-30+ hours a week from grade school through high school. Outside of normal training there was likely physical therapy appointments, outside strength and conditioning, and likely sports psychology appointments.
Some gymnasts have been privilege enough to have worked with a sports dietitian nutritionist during their JO career, but the vast majority have not.
Even worse, most gymnastics clubs do not bring in qualified professionals to help teach parents and gymnasts how to properly fuel during sport, which is really problematic at high levels of gymnastics.
Most gymnasts show up to college not really knowing how to cook, how to fuel in and around practice, or how to grocery shop/make simple meals when they live off campus. Many university sports nutrition programs try and help athletes in this way by teaching cooking classes, doing grocery store tours, etc. But, most universities only employ 1-3 dietitians for ALL of athletics, so it’s hard to get a lot of 1:1 support.
Diet Culture Is Rampant In Gymnastics Culture
The other big issue most college gymnasts face when they go off to school is that diet culture has already been engrained in them through the sport, their parents, and their coaches.
They’re taught to restrict to “stay small”, are told that “carbs are fattening” when they’re not, and it’s very common for gymnasts to go to either extreme when they’re on their own. Some over-restrict when they get to college and develop worsened disordered eating if not a full blown eating disorder. This is often due to pressures of trying to please new coaches, wanting to make line up, being around teammates who also likely are engaging in unhealthy food behaviors, etc.
Or, now that the gymnast is finally on her own and allowed to eat what she wants, she may go through a period of overeating/binging that then might get complicated by restriction which can develop into a very viscous cycle of disordered eating.
Either way, the biggest disservice in our sport is not teaching high level gymnasts how to fuel properly and adequately from a young age. That would help mitigate a lot of struggle and heartache, especially with teaching and empowering them to fight back against diet culture.
Gymnastics Has High Rates of Disordered Eating And Eating Disorders
Because of the aesthetic nature of a sport like gymnastics and their goal of perfection, many gymnasts (close to 50-65%) will struggle with some form of disordered eating or eating disorder.
What makes this statistic even higher is the reality that most college gymnasts come from very elite level club programs which not only don’t support proper fueling but encourage restricting, promote inappropriate nutrition advice, and hold unrealistic expectations about what a gymnasts body should look like when it’s a young woman.
This often leaves the college-bound gymnast underfueled and with a lot of disordered thoughts and behaviors around food and body image.
Then, the transition in and of itself to school is a very stressful life event and for many worsens these disordered thoughts and behaviors, which are likely one of the gymnasts only coping skills. Gymnasts are often taught to ignore feelings and emotions, to just “suck it up”, and so often food and body is the one thing they feel they can “control”.
Gymnastics is A Unique Sport with Specific Nutrition Needs
One of the last issues around the high prevalence of college gymnasts who struggle with nutrition is the unique nature of the sport. Many medical providers do not understand the in’s and out’s of the sport which make it difficult to optimize care.
A general sports dietitian may not have the proper training (especially in disordered eating/eating disorders) to help high level gymnasts without harming. Sports psychologists aren’t always trained in disordered eating or eating disorders, and just working with gymnasts to support “mental toughness” isn’t adequate. Orthopedists and sports medicine may not recognize the underfueling and RED-S that is contributing to high rates of overuse and non-healing injures, or just prescribe birth control to “protect the bones” when the athlete is glaringly underfueled.
Thankfully times are changing and many universities have access to appropriately trained providers, but some do not or some choose to employee providers who are improperly trained.
For instance, there are several university gymnastics teams who choose not to use their athletic department’s sports dietitians (which is fine) and hire their own from the community.
The issues around this is that many of these “nutritionists” are not trained, qualified individuals. Many of them were gymnasts themselves (often at that university), but that alone does not qualify someone to care for young adult athletes. Many of these “nutritionists” still have disordered eating or eating disorders themselves and support inappropriate practices that cause harm
Helping College Gymnasts Learn to Fuel for Optimal Performance
The very first summer a collegiate gymnast sets foot on campus represents a great opportunity to start teaching them how to fuel and nourish their body for optimal performance and longevity in the sport.
Trying to do gymnastics for another four years in college after already having competed for 10+ years is a huge task.
Now more than ever nutrition really matters for these gymnasts, and yet many don’t “figure out” their nutrition until later in their college career.
Proactive support is always best, so this is where parents of college-hopeful gymnasts can help them and hire a professional (or bring one into the gym) to start educating. Not only will this set them up for collegiate success but will make a huge difference in their club gymnastics career. For some, this could be the difference between realizing the college gymnastics dreams or not. Many gymnasts fall short of their collegiate gymnastic dreams, and a big cause is long-term underfueling that causes leads to injury, burnout, poor performance.
If you have a college-hopeful gymnast, our online course for parents of competitive gymnasts is a great place to start.
If you are a current college gymnast, we invite you to check out The Balanced Gymnast Method™ Course or contact us about 1:1 coaching.