Wednesday 11 December 2019

Inexperienced bodybuilding coaches are a threat to 'vulnerable' teenagers - industry experts

The number of Irish teenagers competing in bodybuilding competitions at a national level has surged throughout the past decade
The number of Irish teenagers competing in bodybuilding competitions at a national level has surged throughout the past decade

Patricia Murphy

Many Irish teenagers introducing themselves to bodybuilding may be putting their trust in inexperienced coaches, according to a leading figure on Ireland's bodybuilding scene.

President of the Republic of Ireland Bodybuilding Federation (RIBBF) Mick Bullman said these coaches may not have young bodybuilders' best interests at heart.

The number of Irish teenagers competing in bodybuilding competitions at a national level has surged throughout the past decade but experts believe the sport can have a negative impact on vulnerable adolescents who are ill-prepared for the pressure.

“Some people end up training with the wrong people," Mr Bullman told

"As with any sport it’s about working with the right people and working with a good coach who has your best interests at heart but also knows your limitations."

Bullman believes that the lack of legislation surrounding the qualification of personal trainers is dangerous to those unaware of the value of experience.

“There’s been an eruption of personal trainers in this country, with so many courses on Personal Training and Nutrition, but finishing those does not make you a good coach necessarily.

“Experience is vital. There are fantastic coaches out there, but there needs to be a standardised level of coaches because in my opinion a lot of them are pushing people a bit too far and getting too involved in the personal lives of those they’re training."

Ann Marie Last is a competitive bodybuilder and a personal trainer at Strength and Wellness Westsidem Blanchardstown
Ann Marie Last is a competitive bodybuilder and a personal trainer at Strength and Wellness Westsidem Blanchardstown

The RIBBF president does not believe age is a factor when it comes to a person’s ability to cope with the pressures of a sport, but admitted that those involved have to be tough and able to cope with the reality of competition.

“It’s very tough and you do have to be tough going into the sport,” he said.

“People begin training and they see the change in their bodies, and like how they look.

“The lads in the gym might say ‘You’re looking great’ and maybe a photograph gets a lot of likes on Facebook.

“When it comes to competition though it can be tough. The judges have to make a decision. You could have ten of the best bodybuilders in the world and one of them has to come first and one of them has to come last. It’s the way it is and some people struggle with that,” he added.

The competitive sport calls for an extremely stringent diet and training regime in the four months ahead of a national competition but mental wellbeing can often be under-prioritised in favour of a focus on being ‘stage-ready’.

Systemic Psychotherapist Anne McCormack revealed that sports with a focus on physicality such as bodybuilding prove dangerous for young people if their mental wellbeing is not being nurtured throughout the process.

“Bodybuilding is so tied up in physicality and there is so much emphasis on body shape, but mental wellness is often pushed aside,” says Systemic Psychotherapist Anne McCormack.

“The mind is also a muscle and it needs to be strong to be able to cope with the feedback on their physicality and the strict routines they are implementing.

“Without an emphasis on the mind, teenagers can be vulnerable to mental health difficulties,” she said.

The pressure of competition also may pose a threat to young people during what McCormack calls ‘Identity Formation’, the period in which an adolescent is discovering who they are and where they derive their confidence and self worth from.

Competitive body-builder Ann-Marie Last (34) admitted that those committed to competition need to be aware of the difficulties they will face ahead of a show.

“It’s a very hard sport in that it takes a lot of commitment and it eats up your free time. It’s hard. You’re so focused and driven for a period of time and when the competition is over there’s always an anti-climax. It’s a come-down and it can be tough to cope with,” said Ann-Marie, who is also a personal trainer at Strength and Wellness Westside in Blanchardstown.

“It’s very hard mentally but once you have the support there, it lessens the pressure of competing,” she continued.

“You have to be able for it. You’re standing up there to be critiqued. Judges have to make a decision and everyone can’t be the winner.

“In my opinion, age isn’t a factor. It’s your ability to cope with the financial, mental and physical pressures that comes with the competition. It’s a great thing to be involved in but you have to be tough and I think you either have that or you don’t."

Meanwhile, BodyWhys, an organisation that supports Irish people coping with eating disorders, said the stringent diet associated with the sport can be the catalyst for a development of unhealthy attitudes to food and exercise in vulnerable people.

Services co-ordinator at BodyWhys with the group Harriet Parsons said this can occur in young people who are vulnerable.

“I used to be a ballet dancer and some people were very grounded and were able to find a balance and cope with the pressures while others took the sport to extremes with excessive focus on diet and their weight," she said.

“Being involved in high pressure sports doesn’t necessarily cause eating disorders, but teens with a low body image and self-esteem can be vulnerable because they can end up investing all of their sense of self into their body, based on what other people think and seek external validation."

Parsons believes that the line between being involved in a sport in a healthy way can be blurred and the point at which unhealthy routines are developed can be hard to pinpoint.

“Teenagers need to ask themselves how they feel when they’re away from training or if they have a day off. Are they anxious? Do they feel like they can’t get through it?

“The question is what is the line between being committed to a competitive sport in a healthy way and developing obsessive and destructive attitudes towards food, weight and self worth?

“Eating disorders are definitely not just a teenage problem but the average age of onset is between 19 and 24 years old. There are so many transitions and first time experiences in those years and those challenges can impact on a person’s sense of who they are,” she added.

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