Saturday, January 28, 2006

Dropping Dangerously

When I first saw this article in the Columbia Spectator, I thought, "Uh oh, here we go again." When I read it, though, I found it to be a fairly reasonable look at weight issues in lightweight rowing. Columbia only has men's lightweight crew, but for the most part the issues are similar. The author took the time to interview Columbia's trainer and lightweight coach, which added to the depth of the information.

Because Columbia has wrestling, it was included in the article along with lightweight crew. This, I think, unfairly suggests that the weight issues in the two sports are similar. In wrestling, because it has multiple weight classes, every athlete is dropping weight. In rowing, with one weight limit, many athletes (most?) don't have to lose any weight at all or are simply monitoring their weight.

Columbia's head trainer draws an important but rarely made distinction between eating disorders and disordered eating. Eating disorders among female lightweight rowers are no more common than they are among the general college age population (I owe you backup for that statement). Meanwhile, disordered eating, which I've never seen actually defined in the many studies that discuss it among athletes, is sometimes found to be prevalent among female athletes (more backup required). In the absence of a definition of that term, I am left to believe that anyone on a diet is guilty of disordered eating. Do you know any college age woman not on a diet? That doesn't make the practice healthy, it just makes it not the result of lightweight rowing. In fact, because lightweight rowers actually have to perform athletically, their diets are generally better than the binge diets to which most college women succumb. "Disordered eating" is the term seen when a researcher has just finished another inconclusive study on female athletes and eating disorders, but intuitively believes there must be a positive correlation - Didn't see any eating disorders, but did see a lot of disordered eating (women on diets).

An interesting claim made in the article is that lightweight rowing is particularly at risk because it is not regulated by the NCAA. Given the NCAA's effect on rowing so far... Actually, the NCAA could be a force for good here if it required programs or leagues to develop their own weight monitoring plans. Unfortunately the NCAA's modus operandi is to require an NCAA developed plan which would undoubtedly be less than satisfactory. Incidentally, as mentioned in the article, most (probably all) varsity lightweight programs have such a plan. In my experience, those schools with serious lightweight women's crews monitor the heck out of them. Health "problems" are uncovered and corrected in lightweights that no doubt exist in 95% of the student population (e.g. slight anemia, slight dehydration). In the case of lightweight women's rowing, though, we see how the NCAA has chosen to address any perceived problems - pretend it doesn't exist and maybe it will go away.

I think that the overall impression the article gives, however, is fairly accurate. Lightweight rowing, like every other sport, can cause health problems if not properly implemented and left in the hands of uneducated coaches and administrators, but it rarely is. Rather, nearly all serious lightweight programs are in the hands of capable coaches, trainers, and administrators who understand that the sport is for lightweights, not wannabe lightweights, and that the way to win is to maintain strength and health while rowing better than your opponents. The answer to any problems isn't found in fewer programs, but rather in more focused programs.

(I've promised a review of health studies of lightweight women rowers and it is coming.)

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