I have a special place in my heart for athletes who are struggling with an eating disorder. My message to you is use the same mindset that helped you achieve athletic success to defeat “ED”.
I was a nationally ranked junior tennis player and played four years of Division 1 tennis at Brown University, finishing my career as the #1 singles player and one-half of the #1 doubles team. After taking a break from tennis for law school, marriage, and motherhood, I returned to tennis in my 40’s, playing competitively again and enjoying a 13-year second career as a high school tennis coach. This background underscores the fact that I understand how eating disorders develop in athletes, but even more importantly, I know first-hand that those same personality traits which drive athletic success and the development of an eating disorder can also drive recovery.
I speak from my own experience, but I am quite sure many of you can relate. My tennis career provided me with so many life lessons and experiences for which I will always be grateful. I was disciplined, motivated, determined, and learned how to set goals and work hard to achieve them. My perfectionistic personality propelled me as I practiced new skills until I mastered them. On the tennis court, I learned how to win and lose with grace. My tennis was a significant source of self-esteem through adolescence and college – it was my identity. It was also an outlet for emotions I did not know how to express and for the anxiety and depression not diagnosed until I was in my 40’s. Tennis also gave me the opportunity to travel around the country and make life-long friendships. When I returned to tennis, it once again contributed to my self-esteem and became a strong part of my identity. I became a well-respected tennis coach with much success on court.
For me, however, coaching was an opportunity to make a difference in young student-athletes’ lives. Of course, the many match wins and championships provided wonderful memories, but I would like to think I taught my players life lessons. At the beginning of each season, I told my players that I cared about them as a whole person, not just as a tennis player. I made sure they knew I was another adult in their lives who was there for them through the ups and downs of high school life. I also impressed upon them the importance of fueling their bodies properly for practices and competition, and how rest and recovery were necessary for optimal performance.
Unfortunately, during my more than a decade of coaching, I was struggling with my own eating disorder. As is common with any mental illness, the shame I felt kept me from admitting I was struggling. I was not giving my body the rest and recovery it needed, especially when adult-onset asthma kept me off the court.
When I returned to tennis, I received positive comments on how my body had changed. Unfortunately, the seeds of the eating disorder planted throughout my life fully bloomed into anorexia as I developed an intense fear of gaining weight, and my brain became consumed by thoughts about food and exercise. The eating disorder took hold as a way to cope with the anxiety and depression that resulted from serious asthma flare ups. ED helped me feel in control when asthma kept me off the tennis court and kept me from being the on-the-go mother of three that I loved to be. Not understanding that my “asthma funk” was actually anxiety and depression, I spiraled deeper into my eating disorder as a way to cope.
Fortunately, my dietitian had been an athlete herself. She understood the personality traits I possessed that had led to success in my tennis career but also had perpetuated my eating disorder – perfectionism, drive, obsession, and perseverance. She wanted me to apply those traits to my recovery. This time “ED” was my opponent on the other side of the net and a very strong one indeed. A critical piece was desire, because it wasn’t enough to want recovery, because I had to be willing to do whatever it takes. Desire and determination form the foundation for the recovery journey. I could lose games and even sets along the way but still claim victory in the match. I love professional tennis player Sloane Stephens’ quote, “You either win or you learn.”
A bad day in recovery or a missed shot is not failure, but rather, it is an opportunity to learn from it and move on. “Do the next right thing” I was told on many occasions.
In sports, we dig deep and use that mental toughness to be the best that we can be. In recovery from an eating disorder, along with professional treatment, we need to channel the innate personal qualities that have led to athletic accomplishment into the hard work of recovery from the eating disorder.
There are two important quotes that I used with my athletes each year to guide them on court. I also internalized them as part of my own recovery journey. The first one is Theodore Roosevelt’s “Believe you can and you are halfway there.” Self-belief is essential for both athletic success and recovery. Without that self-belief, there is little chance for success. The second is Winston Churchill’s “Never ever, ever give up,” says it all. Despite setbacks in recovery, or missed shots on the court, keep moving forward and take what you learn along the way. There are no shortcuts, but lasting recovery is possible.
In my memoir, “The Longest Match: Rallying to Defeat an Eating Disorder in Midlife,” (2021), I detail my life, filled with many blessings and privileges, but also with profound emotional pain, anxiety, depression, and ultimately an eating disorder. My tennis career which has given me so many gifts, unfortunately became intertwined with my eating disorder. With professional treatment and by channeling the personal qualities that led to success on the tennis court and in life, into the hard work of recovery, I was able to “rally to defeat ED.” There were twists and turns along the way, and food remains my medicine, but I dug deep, persevered, and have achieved a healthier balance in my life in body, mind and spirit. I am now living my authentic life and am passionate about sharing my story with others.
Betsy Brenner: Author, Speaker, and Peer Support Mentor
“The Longest Match: Rallying to Defeat an Eating Disorder in Midlife”