But let’s see how this could relate to building a culture where body shaming doesn’t infiltrate our teams and affect our athletes’ mental and physical health.
In terms of body shaming, one person making a negative comment about their body is like one person peeing in a huge, chlorinated pool- unpleasant but unlikely to be dangerous. However, the pee doesn’t just stay in one little bubble around the person who released it. Once the pee is in the water, it spreads out and touches others. If more and more people begin using the pool as a toilet, the water will become dirty and murky. Eventually, nobody will want to come to practice or training, and people might not want to swim anymore.
As a coach, I would have young athletes visualize this. We would talk about how our words are just like the pee- they spread through the air and affect the whole team. The impact of our words may be small at first, but over the course of a season, negative comments can accumulate and affect team culture. It’s helpful to take some time to allow young athletes to identify exactly what common, casual comments might make their teammates feel less comfortable in their bathing suits, or in their bodies overall.
As a leader, the coach sets the tone for the team, so I’ll do my best to create a positive environment for the athletes. I will respond to any negative comment I hear at practice, plan time for team-building activities and model respectful communication. However, I’m not in the locker room, or in the carpool to and from practice, or in the athlete group chats. I can’t do it alone. I need every single team member to actively engage in creating an environment where athletes can thrive. So I give them ownership. I explain that as a coach, I stay on the pool deck. The pool itself is the athletes’ domain; whether they keep it clean or fill it with pee is their choice. I say this to empower the athletes. I want them to recognize that their muscles are powerful and their minds are too. When they speak to their teammates kindly, thoughtfully and intentionally, they contribute to a culture that allows every athlete to finish the year strong and healthy, physically and mentally.
Once the groundwork is laid, it takes time and effort to nurture a healthy team culture.
Here’s what you can do to ‘keep the pool clean’ throughout the season:
- Remember words are powerful- Teach athletes that our words impact everyone who hears them, so making a negative comment about yourself (or your lunch) may lead a teammate to look at their own body (or food) more critically. Developing athletes often recognize that they shouldn’t make negative comments about others, but don’t realize the harm in criticizing their own selves.
- Model compassion- Many older, more skillful athletes underestimate how much their younger teammates look up to them. Teach top athletes that if younger ones are around, they are likely to be listening and taking every word to heart. It’s important for top athletes to model respectful self-talk. This is something that takes practice!
- Express feelings, not judgement- It’s important for athletes to have vocabulary to discuss their thoughts and feelings about their body. Teach them to express their feelings with statements like “I’ve been feeling insecure about my body lately” rather than label their body as “fat” or “ugly”.
- Build positivity- Everyone can contribute to the team’s energy by giving a broad array of meaningful compliments. Teach athletes to compliment each other on skills, effort, improvement and sportsmanship, rather than weight, shape, and appearance or aesthetics.
Accidents will happen. If you use the ‘pee in the pool’ analogy with your team, when you hear negative comments about food or weight you can whisper “don’t pee in the pool” (or feign shock and exclaim “Did you just pee in the pool?!?!”).
Body shaming, teasing and bullying in relation to appearance can be challenging to address, but it is possible, and worth it. There’s nothing quite like diving in a crystal clear pool on a bright sunny morning.
For more guidance on building positive sporting cultures, you can download the Body Confident Collective Sport Guidelines here.