DISORDERED eating is the focus of a new AFL working group that will aim to create stronger preventative measures for the serious health issue at both the elite level and within football's junior pathways.
Former Carlton and Melbourne midfielder Brock McLean, ex-West Coast AFLW ruck Parris Laurie and Collingwood AFLW star Ruby Schleicher have all publicly shared their struggles with body image and eating disorders.
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Those testimonies are reflective of a health issue that, according to recent research, affects more than 20 per cent of children and adolescents, with the AFL aware that its athletes face unique challenges in this area.
The League's head of mental health and wellbeing Dr Kate Hall said youth athletes in the game's talent pathways would be a focus of the new working group, while supporting AFL clubs to create the healthiest environments they can.
"We stay very close to what is happening in other sports and what is happening in the community, and in the youth mental health space there has been a very strong call to action around disordered eating for young people," Dr Hall told AFL.com.au.
"When those sorts of things come to our attention, we like to investigate them a little bit more.
"We have really strong recommendations from our colleagues who are leading the way at the Australian Institute of Sport, and their work in this space is guiding us.
"They are members of our working group too, (but) this particular area needs a group of quite nuanced interdisciplinary experts to guide us, so we're really reaching out to colleagues from all different disciplines."
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Disordered eating is defined by support service Butterfly as a disturbed and unhealthy eating pattern that can include restrictive dieting, compulsive eating, or skipping meals.
It can include behaviours which reflect the symptoms of eating disorders and is seen as a pathway to that diagnosis.
Dr Hall said the League had anecdotal evidence that it needed to "boost the capabilities of absolutely everybody who is working with our players" when it came to disordered eating.
The group tasked with leading that work for the AFL includes psychologists, dieticians, academics, First Nations social workers and sports physicians, as well as AIS and AFLPA representatives and members with lived experience.
The AFL has adopted the AIS's position statement, which contains guidelines for athletes, coaches, support staff, clinicians and sporting organisation, but will now work to develop its own framework.
"That's because our sport is quite different to some of the aesthetic sports or Olympic sports, or the sports where you have to make weight to participate or compete at the elite level," Dr Hall said.
"For us, we need to adopt some of those core principles that the AIS have led with and make them very nuanced for our industry. What that looks like is drawing on the expertise of our working party."
McLean revealed in 2021 that he suffered from bulimia for more than three years during his 157-game career, forcing himself to throw up if he ate chocolate or lollies.
Laurie experienced a mental battle with her eating and how she wanted to look in her early 20s due to social media and the pressure it puts on young people.
Late last year, dual All-Australian Schleicher spoke about her mental battle with body image, which started after she became a professional athlete.
Dr Hall said the brave advocacy of those players, and others, had caught the attention of AFL clubs that strive to create the healthiest elite environments they can.
"That gives people cause for pause to consider how things could have progressed to such a point of severity," Dr Hall said.
"But while those individual stories are leading the charge here, there is still not a broad understanding across our industry about the systemic contributors that can make our environments more healthy.
"We're a high-performance industry, so I can see it being more about how can we excel in this space, rather than 'I don't want to say the wrong thing and harm'.
"I'm hoping that's where we drive this initiative."
According to the AIS, there is a higher prevalence of eating disorders and disordered eating in athletes compared to non-athletes.
The AFL Doctors Association and club psychologists have recognised the issue as being crucial and offered their support to the AFL's working group.
While the focus will be on the League's talent pathways and elite clubs, Dr Hall acknowledged the great influence AFL and AFLW players can have as role models and hoped the conversation around disordered eating and eating disorders would reach others.
"We’re going to be talking about how we as an industry need to prevent anything that may contribute to negative body image, but part of it is also encouraging athletes who aren't in our system and young people that aren't elite football players," Dr Hall said.
"Ultimately our responsibility is for them to also see that these types of challenges do have a resolution if you reach out for professional help."