Goal setting for disordered eating: General Outline of Sport Situation

A 14 year old female competitive figure skater has presented with a body mass index of 18.4 which is just below the threshold for healthy body weight has recently gone seen a drop in performance since undergoing menarche. Her mother notices that her daughter has been dropping in weight recently and brought her in to see the sport psychologist because she notices a decrease in her consumption. Upon questioning, Chelsea responds that if she wasn’t so fat she would not have gotten her period. Chelsea says that she has not been able to master a particularly difficult jump that she has been working on and that she is trying to lose weight so that she will be able to make the jump and show the other skaters and her coach that she is a good skater. She says that when she goes to make the jump she imagines what she must look like to the other skaters and that she thinks they will mock her body or think poorly of her.

Theoretical Background

Figure skating has been in the increase in the United States. The sport is very rigorous and demanding and the risk of injury is high because the athletes start very young, some as young as 5 and they are asked to perform jumps and spins that require substantial core strength to withstand centrifugal forces by the age of 8. Training can last more than 30 hours per week and is a mix of on the idea training and other condition such as strength training and ballet (Lipetz & Kruse, 2000). In addition to these physical demands, the athletes are also judged on their aesthetic appeal with preferences for  small lean figures and low weight (Dwyer, et al., 2012) Thus it can be seen that figure skating is mentally and physically demanding and requires a great deal of motivation and goal setting to excel in. Unfortunately this dedication can manifest into body disorders and disordered eating leading to the Female Athlete Triad i.e. disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis (Lipetz & Kruse, 2000).

Disordered eating is prevalent in female athletes. Weight cycling in particular is a concern. This refers to the gain and loss of weight prior or after competition. These eating habits have negative effects on the body and the athlete’s performance. There can be increased risk of injury, osteoporosis, reduced self-esteem and poor performance. It has been seen that in some female figure skaters, menstruation has been delayed for a year (Lipetz & Kruse, 2000).Typically elite athletes employ some form of goal setting in their activities. Psychologically there are several kinds of goals, two of which have been identified as especially important; performance goals and mastery goals. Performance goals are aimed to show that the athlete is skillful while mastery goals are concerned about improving ones competences regardless of appearance. A person can then engage in approach – avoidance goal framework, resulting in the 2×2 achievement goal framework shown in the table.

Achievement Goal Framework
Approach Avoidance
Performance Performance Approach Performance Avoidance
Mastery Mastery Approach Mastery Avoidance

Research shows that in general mastery approach goals lead the athlete toward positive adaptive strategies while mastery high avoidance can lead to maladaptive cognitions including the fear of loss, worrying and lack of motivation. Performance approach goals create a high feeling of competitiveness along with a fear of losing. Performance avoidance leads to maladaptive thinking as well (Scoffier, Corrion, & d’Arripe-Longueville, 2013). Studies of female figure skaters show that both types of performance goals are associated with a more negative strategies and higher prevalence of poor eating habits. The Mastery Avoidance group had the lowest level of self-regulation of behavior. This is not seen as positive thinking because the mastery avoidance group was a greater fear of failure and decreasing sense of motivation. Figure skaters who adopted a mastery approach to goal setting were given a level of protection against developing eating disorders (Scioffer, Gernigon, & d’Arripe-Longueville, 2011).

Overall what the research is suggesting  is that there are specific types of goals that can increase the prevalence of eating disorders in young female athletes in sports where appearance is very importance, including figure skating. Therefore based on the research the goal setting treatment should try to get Chelsea to stop following the goals that are performance based and any that are mastery avoidance and solely focus on goals that are focused on mastery approach.


There are several problems. Figure skating is a sport that places great demand on the female body to be thin. Part of mastering the sport and being competitive requires a commitment to aesthetics and a certain body type. It is not possible to change the sport itself but through goal setting it is possible to help Chelsea see her body in a more positive light. Additionally Chelsea is having difficulty making the jump because she feels as if her peers and coach are watching her and judging her poorly because of her body.  We need to get Chelsea to stop focusing on the other people around her and focus instead on herself and what is happening during the jump.

The first step is to do a needs assessment for Chelsea. I would ask her what she believes her maximum acceptable weight would be. If it is an unhealthy weight then it would be necessary to talk to her about the physical strength that she needs in order to perform the jump. From there we can develop a plan for her to maintain that weight through healthy eating practices. We can even create a schedule of foods for Chelsea to follow that will provide adequate nutrition for her over the next few months. This nutrition plan should be drawn up with the help of a nutritionist to ensure that Chelsea moves out of the unhealthy weight range and into a healthy one.  In order to monitor the success of this goal, Chelsea’s emphasis should be on sticking to the schedule rather than weighing herself. Weighing should only happen when needed.

We need to reframe the athlete’s perception about weight and instead focus on other aspects of performance. She is being distracted by her focus on her weight and it is creating performance anxiety. We can use self-talk to “break” her out of the negative cycle she has found herself in. Self-talk phrases should be positive in nature in order to boost her confidence and regulate arousal. Whenever she feels as if she is getting into a mindset where she is becoming self-conscious she can used self-talk to focus on other aspects. We can set get goals for her to use self-talk when she gets on the ice and prepares to take her jump. In order to monitor this goal we can ask Chelsea to keep a log of the times that she uses the self-talk. This will help us gain an understanding of the way that Chelsea is using self-talk, whether it is positive or negative and make any necessary corrections. We should see progress in the regularity and positivity of the self-talk.

I would recommend that Chelsea develop an associative strategy when it comes to her jumping. Currently she is focused on external factors instead of what is happening with her body when it comes to the jumps. The associative strategy will help bring her attention back to elements that are within her control. This strategy will also be useful for her in completion in order to draw attention away from the crowds and reduce her level of self-consciousness. In order to support this attention strategy she should regulate her breathing before entering the ice and develop a ritual that comforts her. It could be as simple as pausing for a moment to gather her thoughts. The aim of the ritual, breathing and the associative strategy is to try to get Chelsea to enter into a flow state, where she will be completely focused on making the jump. This will improve her performance.

Currently Chelsea is focused on performance goals rather than mastery goals. She wants to show the other skaters that she is a good skater. Instead we need to get her to focus not only on actionable and measurable aspects of performance such as making the jump but also on the reasons why she wants to make it. That will be the difficult part. I would recommend that she practice without the team when she can, and that she attempt to change the direction of her thoughts. She needs to build her self confidence in her own ability so that she knows that she is as good as the others. This will take consistent practice.

Additionally, it might be wise to have a discussion with Chelsea’s coach about the emphasis of weight on the team.  By encouraging weight loss to an extreme it could be contributing to Chelsea’s desire to set unhealthy weight loss goals for herself.


Chelsea’s issue is not unique and it is complicated by the fact that physical appearance is in some way one of the performance characteristics of her sport, specifically a lean thin body. It is not possible to address any external causes of these beliefs as there are a result of the organizational culture of the sport. However it might be possible to make change in the micro environment of the athlete by discussing weight emphasis with Chelsea’s coach. The recommendations are primarily concerned with the athlete shifting her focus from performance oriented goals to mastery goals. She should engage in positive self-talk, and use an associative strategy in order to bring about a flow state in her performance.



Dwyer, J., Eisenberg, A., Prelack, K., Song, W., Sonneville, K., & Zeigler, P. (2012). Eating attitudes and food intakes of elite adolescent female figure skaters: a cross sectional study. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 9(53), 1-7.

Lipetz, J., & Kruse, R. (2000). Injures and Special Concerns of Female Figure Skaters. Clinics in Sports Medicine, 19(2), 369-381.

Scioffer, S., Gernigon, C., & d’Arripe-Longueville, F. (2011). Effects of achievement goals on self-regulation of eating attitudes among elite. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13, 201-207.

Scoffier, S., Corrion, K., & d’Arripe-Longueville, F. (2013). Effects of achievement goals on female aesthetic athletes’ disordered eating attitudes. Science and Sports, 1-7.

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