Over the years, I’ve found that poor nutrition habits, often characterized by a failure to eat regularly, are one of the biggest barriers for kids in achieving their athletic potential.
When these young athletes do eat, it’s usually not in sufficient quantity or quality to support proper recovery and maximize growth.
As coaches, it’s imperative that we help our athletes realize that the work they do in the weight room must be supported by what they consume outside of it. Athletes must turn then turn that knowledge into action and consistent execution.
Let’s take a closer look at the responsibilities both coaches and young athletes have in this crucial component of athlete performance.
Three Nutrition Tips for Coaches
I once had a coach tell me that his athletes “know what they should do and should just do it”. While great in theory, the reality is that most adults don’t know what to do when it comes to nutrition. Even for those few who do, they often fail to utilize that knowledge properly.
In practice, most kids need guidance and reinforcement rather than platitudes and wishful thinking to elicit results.
Help Athletes Understand Why Good Nutrition Is Important
The value of knowing what to do must also be underscored by an understanding of why it’s being done. If an athlete understands that their workout progress or game day performance is tied to his or her diet, they’ll be much more likely to pay attention to the quality and quantity of the food consumed. That doesn’t mean we need to go into a PhD level dissertation about protein synthesis or blood glucose levels. In fact, it can be as simple as a friendly conversation.
Whenever I spot someone’s performance slipping, my first question is almost always, “What did you eat?” The answers are often revealing. For example, I once had a player tell me they attended a morning basketball skills session, our preseason football workout, and then another basketball session in the evening the previous day. When he showed up for the football workout the next morning, I sent him home because he’d consumed exactly ONE meal plus a snack in the past 24 hours. To this day, I have no idea how he got out of bed. This player, though highly skilled, had a very slight frame. A major goal of his was to add size, which was nothing short of impossible with the eating and activity habits he had at that time.
Once he realized the futility of his approach, he was able to make modifications, both to his activity level and his food intake.
Reinforce Why Athletes Need to Eat Properly
In 1989, when I was a pudgy 6th grader playing youth soccer, my coach brought candy bars to every game and practice. He allowed us to consume them at will. We obliged. In 2018, this should make every coach cringe, because we all know a hell of a lot better now. But, there is a kernel of value in my former coach’s misguided approach. He understood that we needed fuel to support our activity and opted to provide it. Right idea, but horrifically poor choice.
While many coaches may not have a big budget (I certainly didn’t), hopefully you can find a way to provide something of nutritional value for your athletes post-workout or game. Initially, we were able to provide chocolate milk and fruit for our athletes after our workout.
Was it perfect? No.
Did it reinforce my point that the post-workout meal was extremely important and I wanted them consuming calories ASAP? Yes. Later on, we were able to include our post-workout snack costs in the team fee, which gave us the latitude to provide a higher quality recovery drink along with the fruit. In either case, the “why” was supported with a call to action, rather than just a lecture about its importance.
Take a few minutes here and there to check-in with your athletes, especially those who you believe might be neglecting their meals. With the athlete mentioned above, it was pretty easy to tell that something was off, both physically and cognitively. I followed up with him every morning to ask him what he ate the day before. I even asked him to complete a 3-day food log. Not only did it help strengthen my relationship with him, but it helped him be accountable.
Also, be aware that our social media culture, filled with photoshopped selfies, has done us no favors. Both males and female athletes alike can suffer from body image issues, and social media is often gas on an already out of control fire. Know your audience and tune your message if the conversation requires a delicate touch.
Three Tips for Student-Athletes
Student-athletes, you’re not off the hook. The coach cannot be the only one responsible for your eating habits. After all, it’s your body and your athletic career. Furthermore, with 168 hours in a week, you might only spend a maximum of 10-12 of them with your coach. With so much time on your own, it’s up to you to look out for yourself and eat in a way that supports your goals.
Always Have Good Food Around
In my mind, proximity to food has always been a good barometer for gauging an athlete’s commitment to their goals. A former player, who’s now playing in college, was never without at least two PBJ sandwiches, fruit, jerky, etc. He, quite literally, always had food in his mouth. He was also one of the hardest working, strongest, fastest and most athletic players on the team. When you leave home for the day, make sure you’ve packed yourself an extra sandwich and some healthy snacks. A small amount of preparation will yield great results for you down the line.
Make Choices That Support Your Goals
A major advantage to packing some food for the day is that you retain greater control over what goes into your body. There’s often an inverse relationship between hunger and food quality: As hunger increases, the quality of the calories you consume usually decreases. I’ve seen this play out countless times, as starving athletes race to the nearest fast food restaurant to scarf down thousands of low-quality calories. I’m not saying the occasional cheeseburger or pizza is off the menu, but they shouldn’t comprise the bulk of your diet either. We want quality and quantity!
Also, if you’re fortunate enough to have parents who cook dinner, be present when your mom or dad puts food on the table. You’ll be off to college before you know it, and those home-cooked meals will be few and far between. Take advantage of them while you can!
Keep a Record of What You Eat
“I eat soooo much!” said every high school athlete, ever.
In reality, almost none of them eat nearly as much as they think. One of the best ways to keep track of your intake is to write everything down. It doesn’t have to be every day, but doing it for a few typical days of your routine can help you learn a lot. Not into writing by hand because it’s 2018? Fine! Download any one of a countless number of food tracking apps. Some even allow you to take pictures of your meals and snacks and upload directly. Regardless of the methodology, tracking what you eat and drink over a 3-5 day period is a worthwhile exercise. Just remember to try do it in the moment, so right before or after you consume a meal/drink. Our memories tend to be unreliable, which is how we wind up with athletes saying “I eat so much!” when the truth is really closer to “I eat so little.”