Coaching a kid through body dysmorphia
Updated: Jan 14
Over the last 2 and a half years I've had the pleasure of coaching and getting to know a young man by the name of Aaron England. My knowledge, coaching abilities, leadership skills, and resilience have all been tested, as I took on a challenge to change Aaron's mindset around food and exercise.
One of the main reasons I decided to write this post, was in hope that if any teenager is having similar struggles, or the parent of a child is witnessing similar traits in their son/daughter; they have a better understanding of their spouses issues and a hopefully know where to turn if professional help hasn't helped.
Kate (Aaron's mum) contacted me in August of 2015. Her heartfelt email described how her son was suffering from both an eating and exercise disorder. She mentioned that Aaron would be doing a crazy number sit-ups and press ups every day in fear of losing the physique he had been working on. His anxiety around missing these daily workouts was also at an all time high.
Recent blood test's showed that due to the high volume of exercise Aaron was doing, his body was now breaking down as apposed to building up. Partly due to Aaron's diet, which was very restrictive with occasional forced sickness post eating.
Aaron was already seeing councillors and mental health advisors through CAMHS, but Kate mentioned these interventions weren't having much effect and he was continuing to exercise excessively. Kate was unsure where to turn, but thought a personal trainer may be able to educate Aaron on how to exercise properly.
Before speaking in person with Kate, she gave me some more background info on Aaron. He used to have a great relationship with food - in fact he used to have the occasional takeaway with her. She mentioned that social media was one of the main triggers for Aaron. Particularly girls. The desire to obtain the perfect physique, left Aaron with a distorted view of himself, leading him into depression, isolation, often manifesting itself in anger and aggression.
I had experience working with kids, but this whole situation was another kettle of fish. My initial thought after reading Kate's email was to jump straight in and offer all the support I could to help a mum who was clearly very concerned about her son. However, after a few days of mulling the email over, I also had several reservations...
What could I offer that a professional psychologist couldn't?
Could I really make a difference?
Would Aaron even listen to what I had to say?
What if things didn't work?
What if they got worse?!
A multitude of doubts went through my mind, but one thing drew me closer to Kate and Aaron. A lot of the things Kate mentioned in her email about Aaron, I related to. I think to a certain degree I saw aspects of myself in Aaron. It was as if I was reading an email from my own mum about the 13 year old Ryan who had just found exercise and was compulsively obsessed with working out. Just a kid who wanted a really good physique, but wasn't sure how to get there. Doing things to excess, not because he knew it was right, but in fear of failure and regression.
But Kate's 14 year old sure as hell wasn't going to listen to the advice of his mum or some clinical doctors; who only wanted to sit him down in a room and pick his brain. Aaron didn't need, or want, a professional telling him what to do, he needed a mate, someone he trusted.
So against my better judgement; but out of shear admiration of a mum who simply wanted the best for her son, I agreed to work with Aaron.
My first task was to obtain as much info on Aaron as I could. I wanted to know everything about him. I found out he had also been diagnosed with autism, which explained why he was very fixated on the perfect physique and very religious in his methods of obtaining it.
Aaron and Kate came over for a consultation. Kate did most of the talking and Aaron was, expectedly, reserved and not overly enthused by me. I tried to avoid telling Aaron that everything he was doing was wrong, as I thought that may but me in his 'authority' category.
Instead I took a more casual approach. I told Aaron he could come for a few sessions with me. I would teach him some new stuff. If he liked it, great - we would continue. If not, we would knock it on the head and he could carry on doing his own thing.
Somewhat reluctantly, Aaron agreed and the following week he came over for his first session. He showed me what he was currently doing, how he performed his exercises and divulged the crazy number of reps he did. If I remember correctly, it looked a little like this...
1000 press ups
1000 sit ups
1000 bicep curls
I didn't know whether to be shocked or in awe that he had the will power to follow his routine through every day. Bit of both I think. But I knew this kid could apply himself more than your average 14 year old. I just needed to channel his drive in the right direction.
In first few weeks I could sense Aaron didn't really want to be there, however, I saw brief glimpses of enjoyment and I felt like after a couple of months our bond had started to gain traction. I taught Aaron a whole host of new exercises for various different muscle groups. The real task however, was getting Aaron to change his daily workout routine, which in his mind, was set in stone.
Aaron lived for the burn, the pump, he wanted to see his muscle bulging and feel the pain. So instead of decreasing volume, we started to add more variation to his routine. This was mainly due to quite a drastic spinal curvature that Aaron had developed from doing so many sit ups and a slight internal rotation of the shoulder from press ups. We added in different ab exercises that wouldn't damage his back further. Along with a few back exercises to offset the internal rotation issues.
After four months of trust building, educating and persevering; Aaron came in one session and confessed he had been trying some of our new exercises at home. Even now, I honestly couldn't put into words how elated I felt at that very moment. Resisting the urge to hug him and ruin my street-cred (not that I ever had any), I opted for a simple fist pump and a pat on the back.
Making these small changes to Aaron's rock solid routine was an epic milestone, and it clarified a few thing in my own mind. I knew that he now trusted and respected me. So a window of opportunity opened for me to educate and implement even more positive changes.
Aaron began asking more questions, there was a eagerness to learn and understand. With his mind sponging up all the knowledge he could get out of me. We eventually managed to bring the number of reps he was doing down to a more reasonable level; introducing even more new exercises and a whole host of hypertrophy techniques to compliment them.
The issues Aaron had with food was something we had discussed, but never really pushed. We had made such great progress with his training routine, that it now became my main focus. I adopted the same 'slowly, slowly, catchy monkey' approach as I had done with the training. I drip fed Aaron nutritional facts over serval weeks. Alluding to how food could make his muscles much more developed and ultimately bigger.
Kate mentioned that Aaron had made some progress with his food. He wasn't being sick for a few months, which I took as a big win. However, she text me one evening letting me know it had stated again. It was a huge blow, something I thought we were past.
Changing the way Aaron ate, turned out to be far harder than I had thought. He was even more reluctant to try new foods or venture out of his daily eating routine. The idea of putting on fat ate away at him - it was the autism that made him very fearful of breaking routine and drove his fixation and anxiousness.
I had tried just about everything to sway Aaron into trying new foods, but to no avail. I had to adopt a firmer approach if I was going to make any serious changes to Aaron's eating habits. He knocked on the door one afternoon expecting the usual, when I said abruptly "we won't be training today mate, it's time for a chat!".
As he got comfy in the bend of my corner sofa, I did my best Robert De Niro 'squinting eye' impression and said "By the end of today's session, we either make some changes to your food... or everything we're doing here has to stop". It was an extremely ballsy move, but I based my decision on the fact Aaron respected me as a professional and as a mate. I was as serious as I had ever been, but equally nervous about his reaction.
For 20 minutes he gave his best attempt to steer the conversation in every direction apart from nutrition. But eventually, out came the pen and paper, and I began to write. We wrote a big list of foods he enjoyed. Separating them into categories of breakfast, lunch and dinner. We then developed some example meals and added up the calories, followed by the macronutrients. After explaining in more detail the importance and relevance of each macronutrient and how they could help this goals, I handed the paper to his mum (in fear in may not make it to Kate should I hand it to Aaron) and hoped for the best.
At the beginning of our next session I was bombarded by questions about nutrition. In true Aaron-style, he had spent the last week fact checking every piece of nutritional info that had come of of my mouth in the past few months. Not so luckily - it all happened to be true. And it kick started the path to Aaron's nutritionally sound diet.
Fast forward 18 months and the young boy I took on at 14 is now seems like a man (although still only 16). It's hard to belief how much this kid has grown up. Aaron found a style of training he really likes - power-building (somewhere in between powerlifting and bodybuilding) and in turns out he is ridiculously strong. At 14 I saw him bench 122kg - absolutely unbelievable and unheard of. He is a lot more flexible in with his nutrition. In fact I bough him a big box of chocolates this past christmas which I hear he polished off no problem. He never used to touch chocolate!
Aaron also isn't as fixated on his body and exercise. He now has other interests in life which have really been key. The biggest one being music. Something we've come to realise Aaron has a huge talent for. Most session's he'll show me the latest track he's working on.
We occasionally talk about girls, school, parties and all the things a 16 year old should and shouldn't get up to. There's also been several other things we've got Aaron through as he weaves his way through life. But Aaron still trains at R5 every week with the same drive that I saw in that young man who walked into the consultation 2 and a half years ago.
Aaron was able to overcome something that many young people are going through right now. The social media trap. Images forced onto our screens of what the perfect man or woman should be and look like. Men suffer from this just as bad as women in today's world.
A large part Aaron's success was educating him on not only the importance of correct exercise and nutrition, but also about the pro's and con's of social media. How many of the people in these image are enhanced, edited and more often that not in the fitness world, on performance enhancing drugs.
Non of this would have been possible however, without the help of CAMHS who were kind enough to let me sit down with them during meetings to understand further the inner workings of a kid who has autism.
But most importantly, to Aaron's mum. Who has been there every step of the way. Learning on the job and striving to get the best possible care for her son. Thank you for allowing me to work with Aaron and learn more about the relationship between exercise and mental health, and for introducing me to someone I can now call a good mate!