TrueSport Expert and licensed clinical psychologist, Dr. Melissa Streno, joins host Kara Winger on this episode of the TrueSport Expert Series to discuss body types in sport and how to avoid body image pitfalls.
Learn more about Melissa Streno.
Kara Winger: Hello. I’m Kara Winger, your TrueSport Expert Series 2022 host. In this session here in Colorado Springs at the gorgeous U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum, we’re going to talk about body type with Melissa Streno. Thanks for being here.
Melissa Streno: Thank you for having me. Very excited to be here.
Kara Winger: Awesome. So, body type the elephant in the room often, especially with women athletes. But let’s talk about it. There are some sports that body type is stereotypically important. Can you talk about the pressures of those height, weight, body image kind of situations in certain sports, maybe more than others?
Melissa Streno: Yeah. I mean, as you know, as an athlete, but also outside of sport, too, we live in a world where there are specific ideals for body types, body image. So, it comes from society, parents, coaches, teammates, recruiters. And we live in this world that’s surrounded by these expectations and pressures on how to look, how much one should weigh for not just a sport, but even positions within a sport. And I think while there’s been movement and addressing and building awareness that this is a very real thing and very impactful on one’s career, one’s health, one’s mental wellness, there’s still a lot of room to go and a lot of conversations to be had. It’s a very, very hot topic. And I’m glad that we’re talking about it because it’s so important.
Kara Winger: Yeah. It’s always impressive to me when people can learn to really shirk those stereotypes and be proud of their different kind of body type. Have you seen when it is beneficial to be different? Like how it can be beneficial to have a different body type in sport and how that impacts people’s mental fortitude in their sport?
Melissa Streno: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s important to remember, too, that while we’re kind of accustomed to thinking that there are certain body types or ideals because we grow up with it, like we were talking about earlier, helping people break that down and recognize that any body is OK for sport regardless of what it looks like or the weight, the shape, the size. So, trying to help them move away from appearance and actually focus on what do our bodies allow us to do? What does our body stand for? I think a lot of work around like values driven connection to your body. So, what’s important to me and what’s authentic to me or the athlete? And how does that influence how I treat my body? How do I fuel my body? How much do I exercise? How much do I sleep? How do I talk about my body? So, I think it’s recognizing that, yes, there are ideals, but we know for performance based outcomes and we know for just general mental health and wellness, that it’s really important to have that body acceptance and really work towards not even just body positivity, but body neutrality. Which is, I think, a term and an area of conversation that’s becoming more common these days as well.
Kara Winger: I love that, that you don’t have to put so much focus on what your body is doing and what your body looks like. I definitely feel like that’s been my life, like this is just my body. I’m neutral about it. It’s here. It’s serving me well. And let’s keep moving forward. In the javelin, it used to be so, so common for taller women with longer arms to throw really far. In my career, the last 12 years of professional javelin throwing that has transformed. Like, in the last five years, most of the medalists in the world at the major championships are much shorter than me. Their tools are so different. And it’s been fascinating to watch the progression of the sport in that way. So, anyone can do amazing things no matter what their body looks like.
Melissa Streno: I love that example, and I think we’re lucky to have real life experience talking about that right here. I think we’re seeing that in so many sports, and I think part of that is that a lot of women, men, transgender athletes, everyone is I don’t want to say everyone because that would be great. That’s the ideal hope someday, but a lot of athletes are being influenced and are choosing to do this for themselves, they’re fueling their body, like I said, based on what they know their body needs. Instead of that comparison and competition and trying to strive to meet this ideal that was once there. And like I said, it’s still very much alive and present in a lot of settings and a lot of athletic settings. But really working to honor and recognize that maybe my body’s stronger in a larger body or taller, shorter, you know, whatever that physical characteristic is, and then moving beyond that and recognizing like for my performance what is best for me. And as a result, I think we’ve seen a lot of changes physically, and I think it’s really positive for the younger athletes who are growing up and what they’re seeing is very different than what maybe we saw growing up and what was the expectation. And so, the hope is that there’s less critiquing, there’s less shaming around specific body types, appearance, weights, and all of that. And instead really owning however your body shows up and being really proud of how it performs because you’ve taken ownership of fueling and resting, caring for both the body and the brain.
Kara Winger: Yeah. There are so many things that are athlete driven in this world that you just somehow have this confidence in yourself that you can push forward and show the world that you can do this sport, whatever it may be, even if you don’t look like the other people. So, athletes do that really well. How can coaches facilitate more of that? Like shirking stereotypes, like moving past what they expect an athlete to look like?
Melissa Streno: Great question. So, this is not just for athletes, right? As humans, we are prone to critiquing ourselves, comparing, competing in that way. So, I always recommend for coaches that they’re first and foremost aware of how they talk about their bodies, how they talk about other athletes on the team, even their non-verbal reactions like what they’re putting out there as their expectation for how one should look to perform well, to get a starting spot. Also, you know, when you’re traveling or when you’re spending a lot of time in the sport environment, you see what your coaches are doing in terms of eating, how they take care of their body, how they talk about their body. So first and foremost, being really aware of what that looks like for them, knowing that the athletes are sponges, they’re going to absorb everything And then second of all, I think really encouraging those reminders of what does your body do? What are you proud of your body for, again? What does it stand for? How do you perform best? And helping them use that energy to focus on their performance for a better outcome, for optimal performance, instead of getting so caught up in what else is around them? I think really encouraging body neutral, body positive, other role models. There’s a lot of athletes out there really promoting that, which is awesome. I think using that platform to really stand for that. And so, coaches can help facilitate that, introduce them to that. And then I think coaches can help them find a routine that really focuses around taking care of themselves and what they need, listening to their body. And that promotes a lot of self confidence, too. So, you kind of get the performance piece as well, which is really nice for the coach to see.
Kara Winger: Yeah, very cool. I’ve had such good examples of coaches that have been patient with me through injury too, and I know that. So, like my injury history is extensive, but my first really major injury I think happened because I was too lean, not eating for performance but eating for vanity as a younger athlete in like 2012, tore my ACL after a couple of years of probably nutrient deficiency and in the aftermath of that to have people in my life that really encouraged like taking care of your body with food, with sleep, with all of the things that you’re talking about to optimize performance and allow your body to heal. I think there’s so much complexity in there with it’s not your fault that you were injured, you didn’t know certain things, but now that you do, you can implement those and be more appreciative of not only your body as an athlete, but how your body can heal too. So, body image in terms of like functionality, I think is something that is really a fun topic, too. Be grateful for these limbs that you have and the way that your body works, even if it’s a little bit different than it used to be.
Melissa Streno: Yeah. You bring up a good point with injury, right? I think that’s a time where we see a lot of athletes have to stop and kind of redefine their relationship with their body. For that reason. You know, sometimes, like you said, tears, injuries resulting from, you know, not eating enough, not getting enough nutrients, overextending their body in terms of energy expenditure, just too much exercise, too much movement. And when they’re forced to stop, it’s a real challenge because they actually have to connect with the fact that their bodies healing. They have to slow down and moving, moving, moving and following what everybody’s telling them to do and to eat and to not eat has been something they’re just so used to. It’s kind of autopilot. And to recognize that they might actually have to shift how they fuel their body and what they fuel their body with, sometimes more, different variety, whatever that is, really helps them kind of redefine what that relationship is with food, with exercise, with their body, and then decide moving forward how they want that to look and that change is so hard when they’ve been used to that their entire life. And getting used to a body that maybe feels different to be in, you know, it’s a very visceral, physical experience, but it’s also a real cognitive emotional challenge because this comparison and this competitive thoughts that have helped them so much as an athlete, be really successful have also hindered their relationship and overall health with their body.
Kara Winger: And ability to deal with stress. That’s always my thing when I’m injured. Like I want to go for a run, but I cannot because I’m two months out of ACL surgery, you know, and like figuring out how to be more at peace with what your current physical situation is, no matter what that looks like, is such an important tool for confidence in performance, as well. So, I have never done a weight class sport. I have very good friends who are wrestlers. I’ve been taught how to wrestle, hiliariously, and it’s just such a different world for me. It’s like weightlifting, there are weight classes, wrestling, judo, more than that, like so many different times when these athletes have to meet a certain standard to compete. So, how can coaches, parents, like those athletes wrap their minds around making that a healthy thing rather than a real pressure and hindrance?
Melissa Streno: Yeah, it’s such a fine line, you know, and there’s not anything specific. There’s not a I wish there was, you know, a recipe or some guidebook, but everybody’s body is different. Everybody’s needs are different when it comes to energy and all of that. So, what I try to help athletes work on and their coaches and their support team and there’s dietitians, I work very closely with the dietitians around this as well, is first and foremost making sure that whatever they’re doing with their body to fit into that weight class or to go up a class or down or meet a particular weight is making sure that what they’re doing is healthy and that their body is going to be able to sustain that. So, I always recommend having dietary support, medical support when that’s happening. But it is really challenging, especially when the pressures from a coach or from a parent or a teammate that they have to fit in, which is what we’re talking about trying to move away from. So, that’s where that fine line comes in. And sometimes it’s recognizing that maybe my body is healthier and my mind is healthier at a different weight class or ideally not out of the sport completely, but really having to evaluate is what I’m doing to stay in this weight class sustainable. If the goal is to have optimal performance and to keep progressing up a level every year, every quad or whatever that is, is what I’m doing right now sustainable. And if it’s not, really having those conversations and the deciding if this again is medically something that stable, that’s healthy, that’s safe, that’s supported, and if not figuring out with a dietitian, with medical support, you know, what is the best route. But it is really challenging when, you’re right, we talk so much about trying not to focus on numbers and how one looks and yet to actually compete in their event hours before or a day or a couple days before they have to step on a scale. And that number has so much power and control and we’re trying to take that power and control away, so, it is a really hard balance.
Kara Winger: I can see where it could be really fun if you were like really interested in nutrition and you love to cook and you could find these ways to make it a really positive, like fun puzzle to you know, not necessarily control every ounce of what’s going in your body, but if you are happy and healthy at the weight that you can do that in and really learn about the food that you’re fueling yourself with and all that stuff, it could be a really positive thing. It’s just about empowering the athlete maybe with the knowledge to do that stuff in a sustainable way.
Melissa Streno: Well, and as you know, a lot of these athletes, especially the high level athletes, have been doing this sport or have been competing or training for the sport for years and years. Right? So they’re just used to something. And it’s hard. Change is hard, right? It’s uncomfortable it’s unfamiliar. But you’re right that once they learn that, oh, maybe if I’m eating this or I add this in, my body actually will feel better. I’ll have more energy not just to compete in sport, but to sleep, to think, to remember stuff in school, to connect with my friends, to hold relationships that they actually might feel better, too. So, it’s also trying to kind of break this myth that having more or changing what they have to do to fuel their body or to treat their body well actually could have some really positive benefits on other realms of their life, but also their performance. They might feel stronger.
Kara Winger: 100 percent. In 2019, I finished fifth at the World Championships and won a couple of other really big meets that was really fun. Like that was the best that an American woman had done at world championships in the history of the competition. Well, it’s really funny because my husband, he hunts and so he processes meat and like that is actually really cool nutritionally because he’s an incredible chef as well. So, he uses every part of every single animal. Even the dog gets to chew on the leg. You know wild so she’s getting all that stuff too. But so, we have these like big time scales so he can weigh the meat and package it and all that stuff and in 2019 I felt really good and I really, I know that I was too lean when I hurt my knee the first time. So, I hadn’t paid attention to the scale for like the years in between then and 2019. And I just was curious at some point in 2019 I was like, I’m really strong, I’m throwing well I feel really, really, really good. So, let me just see what I weigh. And I had no idea that the scale would say heavier that I’d ever been, 200 pounds. So, it was a very strange experience but also one that I was just like, oh yeah. OK.
Melissa Streno: Well, I think too, it’s harder. There’s the reality like in some of the sports we talked about specifically where you do have to get weighed on a scale, it’s inevitable. You’re going to have to see that number, have to pay attention to that as you get closer to competition or performance or whatnot. But I think it’s also recognizing like how much power and control do I give to the number, to the scale, or how much of that part of my routine is driving how I actually take care of my body versus what you described. Just like, I feel really good in my body. I feel strong, I’m listening to what my body is telling me, my hunger cues, fullness cues, energy exertion, all of that. And then whatever happens with my weight happens, but I feel good in my body. I’m curious for you, you mentioned earlier about just the shifts in the body type kind of ideals or expectations within Javelin. Where do you think that shift happened or where did that change in terms of what was expected?
Kara Winger: Well, there were historically a few women that were smaller stature that would throw really far. But like I said, in the last five years, there’s been just more and more and more. And I think there is an efficiency there that I don’t have. I have this six foot two wingspan. It takes a long time for these legs to get down onto the ground to then pull on the javelin and throw it really far. So, once women saw someone like them throwing far more of them just tried it. And it’s been really neat to see coaches encourage that too, the variety in body type. So, I’m not sure where it started, but it’s coming from every corner of the globe, which is a really neat thing. I was the American record holder for 11 years and it was broken this past season by a woman who two time Olympian Maggie Malone is much smaller than me. Just so much evidence of the same phenomenon that I’ve been watching internationally for a really long time. So, it’s neat to see that shift because it just makes javelin more accessible to the world, and that’s what I care about.
Melissa Streno: And maybe that’s just it too, is there’s more interest from young age getting into sports that maybe historically a woman wouldn’t be interested or a man or you know, that that’s just happening naturally. And so, different body types and different sizes and weights everything are coming in and making it work for themselves and making themselves feel strong, healthy. And that’s going to shift kind of what we see in sport in terms of what those ideals maybe have been in the past.
Kara Winger: So, I swam in high school competitively, hardest sport I’ve ever done. It’s like you literally can’t breathe underwater as a human, right? And that was an interesting experience. Those are my soul sisters, my teammates. But to be a high school girl, very gangly, in a swimsuit in public, performing as an athlete was an interesting experience in terms of body image and body positivity or neutrality. But the wildest thing I think is that I can still wear those suits from high school. So I am like 60 pounds heavier, a very different kind of athlete than I was as a swimmer. But it’s still a really important part of my training. And now it has become this kind of comfort zone that like I was great at something else in the pool and now I’m great at the javelin and I can marry those because even though my composition has changed, my frame is very similar and I want to tell people that that happens, too. Like you can change, but also remain the same in a lot of ways and be reminded of great times in your life and confidence in all of those phases.
Melissa Streno: Yeah, you bring up a really good point too, as you were talking that reminded me of uniform pressure and just how different it is as a swimmer and then track and just how much pressure can come up when you’re supposed to look a particular way in what you’re wearing. So, when you bring up swim suit and how it looks in a particular body size, I think that’s a really good thing to be aware of in how we talk about our bodies and again, kind of going back to what we were talking about earlier, just being authentic with what our bodies need, being proud of our bodies, what it stands for, what it allows us to do, and the fact that you were able to do two sports at very high levels is pretty impressive.
Kara Winger: Well, thanks. Basketball shorts were much more forgiving.
Melissa Streno: More material.
Kara Winger: Yes. One of my favorite style faux pas that isn’t necessarily a faux pas because whatever you want to wear that makes you comfortable, is fine, is shorts over tights, in the nineties you know, and early 2000s. That was definitely the look and to transform to like really full body head to toe spandex in my sport is not that different from a swimsuit, but to just be in a place that you’re confident and whatever that uniform is like you said, uniform pressure is a real thing. So, whatever you can do to make yourself feel confident in that uniform is important.
Melissa Streno: Yeah. I think recognizing like you choose how you feel your body, you choose how you describe your body and that it’s not just about appearance. You know, if we can focus on other things about ourselves, about our identities, that how we look does not define who we are. And so those uniforms and how we look in the uniforms because everybody’s going to look different does not define who that person is or who that athletes is.
Kara Winger: Yeah. And functionality, too. Again, like how does your body function? How does the uniform function for you? I need to be very flexible in my shoulders. And sometimes in a sports bra, like my traps get a lot of pressure on them. I have to be really intentional about what I’m wearing under my uniform to allow my body to move in the way that I need it to. So, little tips and tricks, individual needs, address them so that you feel as powerful as possible when you’re performing in sport. So, thank you for all your input, Melissa. It’s been great talking to you about body image and body type in sport. This is TrueSport expert series 2022. Thanks for being here.
Melissa Streno: Thank you for having me.
TrueSport Expert and licensed clinical psychologist, Dr. Melissa Streno, joins host Kara Winger on this episode of the TrueSport Expert Series to discuss body types in sport and how to avoid body image pitfalls.
Learn more about Melissa Streno.
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Hi. I’m Trevon, Trey, Jennifer. Team USA wheelchair basketball player, paralympian, and true sport athlete. Today, I want to talk to you about goal setting. And there are three things that I would like you to know. First, successful athletes set goals and a planned roadmap. Second, goals should be written down, assessed over time, and changed if necessary. And third, goals need to be challenging in order to be worthwhile. As a freshmen at Edinboro University, I was a part of a team that made the national championship game. And at that time I recognized I was the low man on the totem pole, but I felt in my heart that I knew my dreams were so much bigger than winning a national title. I wanted to make Team USA. I knew what achieving my lofty goal was not going to be easy and that I would need to work hard every day.
So, as a reminder, I created a pyramid of goals that I kept right above my bed. This pyramid reminded me of the accomplishments that I was working towards and visually represented my need to create a solid foundation underneath me before reaching the top. In the bottom roll of my pyramid of goals I listed goals such as obtaining my bachelor’s degree, becoming a scholar athlete award recipient, and becoming an All-American. The middle row listed winning a national title and playing for a professional team. And at the top row, the most challenging of them all, I listed becoming a gold medalist for Team USA.
By understanding that there are smaller stepping stones to achieving my ultimate goal of being on Team USA, I was able to stay motivated and to stay focused on completing the smaller stepping stones fully before moving onto the next one. Now I’ll be the first to admit that not every goal that I listed on my pyramid was accomplished, but seeing my goals every day when I went to bed, I was able to push through the days that I felt like doing nothing in hopes of achieving the bigger picture. Remember, create a clear goal roadmap, assess your goals often, and continue to challenge yourself. I hope that you never stopped dreaming big or reaching for the stars. And I look forward to seeing where your roadmap takes you.
Hi, I’m Kara Winger, Olympic javelin thrower, and true sport athlete. Today I want to talk to you about body image and I have three things I’d like you to know. First, healthy thoughts often lead to healthier bodies. Second, there are varying body types and no one’s body is exactly like another. And third, true beauty goes deeper than the skin. As a multi-time Olympian, I’ve experienced a lot of variation and progression in my training. My coaches and I adapt to my training frequently, all with the goal of supporting my long-term success and health in the sport of javelin. I’m talking to you about body image today because sometimes even with the best of intentions and a common goal in mind, the changes you make to your training habits can prove to be detrimental if made for the wrong reasons. In the lead up to the 2012 Olympic trials, I was told in order to improve my performance on the field, I should try to become a leaner, skinnier version of myself.
So I changed my diet. I went along with what I was being told to do, even though I’d had great success at a slightly heavier weight and higher body fat percentage, and became much leaner than ever before. It seemed like a successful change at first, but I didn’t have nearly the results I’d had before. And I believe becoming leaner than my body naturally wanted to be was what caused my ACL to tear. In the end, it cost me heavily going into the 2012 London games. The takeaway for me, and hopefully for you, is that it’s important to know what works for you and your body and to not compare yourself to others. You should do your research and experiment with your diet to find what makes you feel the best, rather than focusing on what you look like. Today, if I feel like having a chocolate chip cookie, I have one, just not every day.
I’ve learned what a properly balanced meal for my body looks like and I recognize food as the fuel that keeps me throwing. I hydrate and allow myself time to recover. And I listen to and communicate with my body so that I can be the best version of myself. In the end, you are in control of how you see, treat, and respond to your body. We only get one and it’s amazing to discover how many things our bodies can do. Be a true sport athlete. Love who you are in this moment and get excited for all the places your body will take you.
Hi, I’m Izy Isaksen, Team USA, Modern Pentathlon, Olympian, US Army Sergeant, and True Sport Ambassador. Today, I want to talk to you about being a good sport. There are three things I’d like you to know. First, real winners act the same toward their opponent, whether they win or lose. Second, follow the rules and be a gracious winner and respectful loser. And third, sportsmanship reveals your true character.
I started competing in Modern Pentathlon eight years after my older sister and three-time Olympian, Margaux Isaksen, began competing. I soon realized that people often compared the two of us. I would overhear spectators and teammates asking, “Who’s the better athlete,” and “Who’s going to beat the other.” Instead of letting outside pressures create a negative experience for us, I chose to practice winning and losing with grace and respect. I know that it would have been easy to let our hyper competitive mindset affect our relationship, but instead we decided to support and cheer for each other, regardless of our own performance. My experience of competing against and being compared to my older sister, taught me to focus on how to perform at my best, rather than putting wasted energy into wishing for others to fail.
I believe that sportsmanship reveals true character. So, no matter what situation I encounter during competition, I know it’s important to always treat people with respect and be a good sport. Remember, be a fierce competitor, find grace in all your victories and losses. And I hope to see you out there.
Edwin Moses: You’re a coach. Maybe what you want is very simple, for everyone to just run in the right direction, score for their own team, to try and try again and again. Maybe you want your athletes to become all stars. You want them to earn trophies, medals, win titles. You want them to reach the highest height their sport allows. And wanting all of that, of course, that’s good. But as every great coach discovers, developing a great athlete means nurturing, nurturing the even greater person within. Truth is, you have even more influence than you know.
You have the ability to affect even deeper change, to take what’s in your hands and do something even more extraordinary. You can be both the coach who provides the skills needed to win the game and the coach who helps them learn and succeed beyond the sport, to become all stars wherever they land in the future, and to enjoy their lives more now, because the confidence and courage they find working with you will stay with them when they need it the most. There are games to be won, lives to change. Coaches have the power to do both.
I’m Edwin Moses, and the lessons I’ve learned through sport have challenged me, guided me, and shaped my life forever. What kind of coach do you want to be?
At first glance, dietary supplements look the same. They seem safe and healthy, but just because the label says a product is a dietary supplement, that doesn’t mean it’s safe. Unfortunately, you can’t tell whether a product is safe or not just by looking at the label. Most vitamins, minerals, fish oil, and other supplements containing nutrients are probably just fine, but supplements are not evaluated or approved by FDA before they are sold. Although it is rare for vitamins or minerals to be contaminated with drugs, there has been at least one case of a vitamin containing an anabolic steroid.
At the other extreme are products that contain drugs, stimulants, anabolic steroids, or other hormones. Even though these are not technically dietary supplements, many of them are labeled as supplements. For example, body-building products sometimes contain anabolic steroids or Selective Androgen Receptor Modulators, known as SARMs, or other hormones. Some pre-workout or energy products contain illegal stimulants like DMAA, ephedra, or other amphetamine-like stimulants. Weight loss products might contain prescription drugs like sibutramine, or hormones, like human chorionic gonadotropin, also known as hCG. All natural or herbal sexual enhancement products might contain hormones or Viagra-like drugs. Products like these can harm your health and career, but they’re for sale online, in some nutrition stores, and they’re labeled as dietary supplements.
When you pick up a supplement, especially one that promises performance enhancement, you don’t know if it belongs in the “Mostly O.K.” pile or in the “Dangerous” pile. After all, two products might look the same, but one might contain just amino acids and other legitimate ingredients, while the other also contains anabolic steroids. Because of this, FDA has issued a warning about certain categories of supplements: body building products, weight loss products, and sexual enhancement products. Be extremely careful when considering a supplement in one of these categories. We strongly recommend that you avoid products in these categories.
Even when FDA tests supplements and finds dangerous ingredients, companies sometimes refuse to recall them. Sometimes, they simply repackage their product and continue selling it under a new name. Just because a product is on a store shelf doesn’t mean it is safe. You need to do your research and be an informed consumer. The dietary supplement industry is enormous. Supplements that appear to be safe could actually be dangerous products in disguise. If you use dietary supplements without doing your research, you may be taking serious risks with your health and your career. Please visit USADA’s Supplement 411 for more information about dietary supplements.