The Thief of Joy

Tags: Athlete Advice, Body Image, Mindset, psychologyRead time: 4mins

In today’s society, it can be hard to avoid constant comparison. We’re bombarded by other people’s highlight reels – their triumphant moments, the validation and admiration showered upon them through likes, kudos, and comments on social media, and the glorification of idealised bodies and food choices that are often meticulously curated, filtered, and unattainable. This phenomenon is particularly perilous for us athletes, where the spotlight often centers on performance and physical appearance, making it incredibly easy to succumb to the snares of the comparison trap.

But here's the silver lining: we possess the power to determine how we allow this influx of information to influence us. As elucidated by Social Comparison Theory, we have the choice to engage in comparisons with those who seem better off (upward comparisons) or those who appear worse off (downward comparisons). The direction we choose can leave us feeling either intimidated or confident, inspired or discouraged, motivated or self-critical.

Now, more than ever, it is vital to acknowledge the impact of comparison and to be conscious of strategies that can counteract detrimental thought patterns. Here's our guidance:

Regrettably, social media perpetuates the cycle of unhealthy social comparisons by displaying only the highlights of others' lives, underlining the importance of embracing strategies to mitigate its effects. Here's our advice:

  • Get to know your body. Every human’s dietary needs and optimal training levels are unique. What works for someone else may not be the best approach for you. Instead of comparing your food intake or activity to others, focus on meeting your own nutritional needs, relative to your health and performance goals. Consider reflecting or journaling on how you’re feeling after certain meals, and keep track of your moods and body image throughout a training cycle. 

  • Build your tribe: Surround yourself with others who exemplify, endorse, and encourage a healthy relationship with food. Look for like-minded friends or training partners with whom you can discuss your concerns and share experiences, and listen to the takeaways of those who have been through similar challenges. A supportive network can provide positive examples and give you the reassurance or encouragement you may need.

  • Listen to your body: Our bodies have evolved over millennia to provide hunger and fullness signals, sensations, preferences, and satiety levels. Do your best to be present during meals and avoid getting caught up in comparison about what (or how much) others around you are eating. Cultivate a positive and non-judgmental attitude toward your own eating habits.

  • Educate yourself: Expand your knowledge about nutrition, body positivity, and the importance of rest and recovery. Seek reliable resources, books, or professional guidance, rather than relying on anecdotes or unscientifically-supported advice from those around you.

  • Practice self-compassion: Be kind and compassionate toward yourself. Avoid negative self-talk about your eating habits or appearance. A positive mindset will help you maintain a love for sport, and a zest for life outside it. Try to treat yourself with the kindness and empathy you’d extend to others you love.

  • Play the long game: Endurance athletes build their aerobic engines over years. Taking on an ambitious training load that your body isn’t ready for or restricting your fueling for a short-term performance boost is more likely to lead to injury and burnout than it is peak performance. Be patient and focus on training consistently at a level that is sustainable for your life holistically, and give your body the energy it needs to support that training, to recover, and to avoid setbacks from injury or illness. 

Just bide your time. People who are beating you now may not be beating you a year from now - or five years from now, or maybe ten years from now. If you enjoy your running and go at it patiently, you'll be around ten years from now and you'll be the one who is up there. Everything you are doing now is part of the grand plan.” Bill Rodgers

  • Focus on health, not appearance: Shift your mindset to prioritise health and wellbeing over your appearance. Remember that nourishing your body supports your overall vitality, energy levels, and performance. Redirect your focus toward the positive impacts of your healthy eating and exercise habits on your energy levels, moods, sex drive, brain power, athletic performance and so on.

  • Seek professional help if needed: If your concerns about food and eating habits are interfering with your focus or day–to-day life, consider seeking guidance from a registered dietitian, therapist, or counsellor specialising in disordered eating or body image issues. They can provide personalised support and help you learn healthy strategies to combat harmful thoughts and habits.