Freddie Flintoff: ‘Weight targets for athletes can be dangerous – especially for women’

The former England cricketer, who has spoken of his problems with bulimia, says that too much pressure on sportspeople to watch what they eat can be counterproductive

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Former England cricketer Freddie Flintoff believes that weight targets for sportspeople can be “dangerous”.

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The Ashes-winning all-rounder has spoken publicly in the past about his battle with bulimia while playing for England, but now says the “sacrifices” sportspeople make to keep in shape can backfire if their diets are not managed properly.

“You have to keep an eye on what you eat, but it’s not everything,” he says ahead of his latest Sky 1 series Flintoff: Lord of the Fries. “The one thing I found was that you get targets for weight, and when you reach it, you get given another one. So you’re always chasing it, and I think that’s a dangerous position to be in, especially in women’s sport as well.”

Flintoff first revealed his eating disorder while training to be a professional boxer for TV documentary From Lords to the Ring. “I used to be tall and skinny and I didn’t drink. Then I started putting weight on. My lifestyle wasn’t great, granted, when I started living on my own. I got to about 19 and a half to 20 stone,” he said in 2012.

“It was all a bit deeper than that because to lose the weight, I wasn’t really sure how to go about it,” he continued. “I started being sick, I was sick a lot. I would eat and I would be sick. I would be doing it myself. I would put my fingers down my throat and everyone within the team hierarchy thought it was great because I was losing weight.”

Now Flintoff, who returned to professional cricket for the first time since 2010 last year, warns players not to “sacrifice too much” for the sake of their career.

“As a player you make sacrifices to be the best that you can. That’s what I was taught,” he says. “I’m not quite sure that’s 100 per cent right. Sport is meant to be enjoyed, and if you sacrifice too much it becomes the only thing.

“That isn’t sport to me. Sport is entertainment; you get involved with it at the start because you love doing it. If it goes past that, for me, you shouldn’t be doing it. I think there’s a balance to be found somewhere, but I’m sure there are far cleverer people involved in that than me.” 

Flintoff’s latest TV series sees him driving round Britain in a fish and chips van. The seaside staple has been a favourite ever since he was young. 

“I love fish and chips. I was brought up on it as a kid, and we had it every week or other week,” he recalls. “I thought about opening a chippie when I retired, but I thought it’d be a bit boring being sat in a shop all day. With a van you get about a bit more. We pitched it to Sky and they liked it.”

Flintoff believes that sportspeople like Ricky Hatton, who have not always had the smoothest of careers, have plenty to teach future stars.

“Ricky Hatton has been very honest about his career and himself over the past few years. Someone in his position, to do that as a fighter, you have to give him credit. He’s a top man,” says Flintoff. “I think sport could use more people like him. It’s one thing using people who have had the perfect career; there’s a lot to be learned from other people who have not got things right from time to time, and draw on their knowledge as well.”

He also praises England’s Professional Cricketers’ Association for how they have helped current and former cricketers like himself deal with mental health issues.

“I think England, and especially the Players Cricket Association, should be commended so highly for their work with mental health issues. There’s a guy there called Jason Ratcliffe (PCA Assistant Chief Executive), who is leading the way, not just in cricket but in everyday life for people.

“There is always someone you could speak to, any form of stuff. They help players find employment after the game, get them degrees. They’ve got a helpline for mental health issues. You’re not just a sportsman, but a person. It’s a great organisation,” he says.

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Flintoff: Lord of the Fries starts on Sky 1 at 8pm on Friday 13th February