the Olympic sports

New study to investigate body image perceptions in retired Olympians

A new research project backed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will aim to discover body image perceptions in retired Olympians.

Led by Loughborough University in collaboration with colleagues from the University of North Texas, USA, and Lund University, Sweden, the global study will be the first of its kind.

Commencing November 2020, the project will delve into the psychological and emotional health of elite-level athletes after retirement. Additional insight will explore the individuals’ retirement experiences, including how these experiences have affected relationships and quality of life.

The research will also establish methods to implement psychological techniques to support athletes during the transitional period.

Lead researcher Dr Anthony Papathomas, of Loughborough University’s School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences explained:

“We’ve known for a long time that athletes, during their competitive years, often experience body image concerns and disordered eating. But what happens when they step off the podium to live the rest of their lives? Do concerns about food and weight persist? Improve? What allows one athlete to cope well with changes and another to struggle mentally? This project is unique as it is the first to explore the relationship Olympians have with their bodies once they retire.”

Professor Trent Petrie, University of North Texas, said:

“Throughout their lives, athletes have relied on their bodies to achieve their goals and dreams and, through these experiences, their bodies become central to their identities and well-being. 

“But when they leave sport, and the physical activity and training that is part of it, they must develop new ways of relating to, and thinking about, their bodies.  By studying how Olympians relate to their bodies in retirement, we are supporting their future mental health and well-being.”

Karin Moesch, Lund University, and the Swedish Sport Confederation, added:

“Studying how Olympians relate to their bodies once the spotlight has switched off will also help us support athletes in developing a healthy lifelong relationship with their body. The applied focus of this research is crucial; we will develop a psychoeducational tool to support athletes and coaches better manage body image across the transition out of sport.

“This work with the IOC is a commitment to the wider, long-term mental health of elite athletes.”   

Drawing on interactive, open-ended interviews with 30 retired Olympians, participants will be recruited from the UK, Sweden, and the USA to ensure a range of cultural experiences can be represented.

Following the initial findings, the researchers will design and deliver a pilot psychoeducation workshop targeted towards elite athletes, particularly those who have retired or are near retirement.

This comprehensive training package will equip attendees with key knowledge, evidence-based psychological skills and coping strategies to help support healthy body image into retirement and beyond.

The full results of the study are expected in spring 2021.

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 20/173

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2020 QS World University Rankings and University of the Year by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2019.

Loughborough is in the top 10 of every national league table, being ranked 7th in the Guardian University League Table 2021, 5th in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2020 and 6th in The UK Complete University Guide 2021.

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