Chelsi Ricketts is a kinesiology doctoral candidate in the College of Education. In a March 2023 study published in the Psychology of Sport and Exercise Journal, Ricketts explored the topic of body image and athletic performance.
The body is central to sport participation, as athletes depend on their bodies to carry out various sports skills. Thoughts, feelings and behaviors related to the body (i.e., body image) also become more salient in activities like sports, where the body is experienced not only for what it looks like, but also for what it can do.
Athletes may experience difficulties striking a balance between what their bodies are expected to look like in society, versus how they are expected to function in sports. For example, bodies considered to be the athletic "ideal" in some sports (e.g., visibly toned, but lean and thin) may consist of more muscle mass and definition than the traditional feminine "ideal" of thinness. Likewise, in lean sports like wrestling and track, bodies considered to be ideal may consist of less muscle mass and definition than the traditional masculine "ideal" of muscularity.
This, coupled with a range of other appearance and performance related pressures may lead athletes to battle with negative thoughts (e.g., “My legs are too muscular”), feelings (e.g., discontent), and behaviors (e.g., disordered eating) related to their bodies.
Not only can these negative body-related thoughts, feelings and behaviors be disadvantageous to athletes’ well-being, but they can also contribute to a reduced sense of competence, confidence, accomplishment and ability in sports, which could have negative implications for performance.
Unique to sports participation, is the opportunity to develop a close bond with the body, due to an awareness of its various competencies. Therefore, sports can serve as an avenue to promote love, respect, acceptance and gratitude for the body, or in other words, a positive body image. Athletes with a positive body image are appreciative of their body’s unique features, health, beauty and functionality, regardless of societal or sports-specific body ideals. They recognize their bodies as deserving of appreciation, regardless of their shape, size, weight, or level of muscularity. These athletes are more likely to have positive experiences in sports, such as greater confidence and flow states, both of which are integral to successful performance.
But why? Why do positive perceptions of the body contribute to better athletic performance?
Various psychological factors go into successful performance, including concentration, motivation and confidence. When an individual has a positive body image, they are less vulnerable to experiencing body image disturbances that could distract them from sustaining the concentration, motivation and confidence necessary to perform well in their sport. In many ways, positive body image could play a protective role in the lives of athletes, with outcomes transcending sport, and also extending to overall physical health and psychological well-being. Importantly, psychologically healthy athletes are better able to show up and show out in their sports.
How then can we support athletes’ development of a positive body image?
Teaching athletes how to love, respect, accept and appreciate their bodies involves highlighting to them the various reasons their bodies are worth celebrating and appreciating. For example, the body sustains life, allows one to play their sports, allows one to communicate with others and allows one to engage in activities that they enjoy. Helping athletes identify personal reasons why their bodies are worth celebrating may be an even more powerful strategy. After training sessions, coaches could ask athletes to reflect on a few things their body allowed them to accomplish during training. Sports psychology practitioners could include open-ended prompts during sessions to help athletes identify some things they appreciate about their bodies (e.g., "I appreciate my body because…").
Sports can be a vehicle for helping athletes develop more positive body image perceptions. As sports stakeholders, and even friends, family, teachers and mentors of athletes, we can help them achieve more fulfilling sport experiences and outcomes by highlighting that their bodies are valuable for more than its appearance, and also for the various functions that it serves.
Learn more about how Spartans are advancing the science behind sports.