First, establish a well-thought-out philosophy. This philosophy should be developed by the athletic department sports nutritionist or staff dietician. For those strength and conditioning coaches at schools without the benefit of a sports nutritionist, a collaborative effort with a local registered dietician and qualified sports medicine personnel or athletic trainer should be pursued. The objective is to develop a well-rounded complete nutrition plan that is grounded in science.
Beneficial tactics may include one-on-one discussions and selecting reading materials and knowledgeable guest speakers that provide athletes with accurate information. Some athletes want to schedule a meeting to talk about their training progress and how their diet may be improved. Always make time and if you cannot, have a staff member meet with them. Training table meals and home and away game dinners are great impromptu settings where athletes can be engaged about why certain foods are offered at certain times on training table menus. During such coaching moments, a coach can examine the foods the athlete has chosen and discuss whether this meal is likely to help or hinder their performance.
Also, you may see an athlete on campus or in the locker room area with a bag of fast food or a snack. Ask them what they have and why. You can express your thoughts and give advice or praise for their choices. Athletes find nutrition information from a wide variety of sources including Internet training sites, magazines, television and radio, local supplement store, and teammates. We must take the time to understand why they think what they think, reinforce the good messages they hear, and educate them on why some information is incorrect.
Another tactic is using handouts and posted articles. A centrally located collection of sport nutrition articles makes topics available to all athletes. Athletes hesitant to ask for nutrition may seize the opportunity to read a specific handout at their leisure. Using articles from respected and reliable sources is a way to guarantee the reliability and validity of information. A reader board is also a similarly valuable tool to impart nutrition information. A centrally located reader board may expose many athletes to current and hot button nutrition and supplement topics and can be changed weekly or monthly. Relevant topics that affect athletes and teach them to be proactive such as hydration during warm months and nutritional recovery tactics during competitive seasons can help maximize their strength and conditioning sessions and benefit their entire team as well.
Guest speakers can show the student athlete that the topic is so important that coaches are willing to forgo training time. Student athletes may also recognize that the coaches are willing to bring in different viewpoints to share with the athletes. These additional resources may remove any pushback from athletes who see the coach as a “it's my way or the highway” leader. Guest speakers should be prepared to address issues relevant to your sports and athletes in a clear and understandable format. A couple of minutes of your preworkout times each week to address nutritional topics and needs and having head sport coaches address timely subjects at the end of their practices can be beneficial. The support of your head sport coaches goes a long way reinforcing the nutrition message.
DEMONSTRATING TO ATHLETES
Athletes eating at training tables staffed with nutritionists have a distinct advantage. Sport nutritionists can color code and rank menu items such as green, yellow, red or gold, and silver or bronze. The grilled salmon may rank a gold, whereas the sausage and pepperoni pizza slices may rank a bronze. Athletes are able to visualize what foods that they should feel free to consume or what foods to eat in moderation or to avoid completely based on their individual needs.
A dietary record requires athletes to record anywhere from 3 to 5 days of their food and fluid intake. This record can create a new awareness for your athletes of how they eat. Take-home notes on what to improve and what to maintain should be given to the athlete at the end of the 10- to 15-minute review. A follow-up record can be done once every 4-6 weeks or more frequently if an athlete has been determined to need more help.
A final tactic is the grocery shopping trip. Taking groups of athletes for an hour trip through the local grocery store can generate great questions and leave both coach and athlete with a better understanding of each others' personal philosophy regarding sports nutrition. Find the store where a majority of the athletes shop and schedule some trips at the beginning of each school semester. Teach them to generate a shopping list of healthy athlete-friendly items and where to find them. Take time to review ingredients and teach the athletes what they prioritize and minimize in their diets. This can be a powerful tool because the athlete can get sole ownership of such an important part of their life.
Tracking athletes' physical testing markers and game performances is one way to evaluate the effectiveness of the program. Steady progress in an athletes' strength and performance scores, testing scores, and body composition can act as a great reinforcement for choosing to eat better or continuing to eat well. If there are periods of negative body mass changes along with uneven physical progress and poor performance, the coach and athlete may need to discuss such shifts. Has the athlete gained unwanted weight? Have sprint times have gotten slower? Try to find the accurate correlation of poor performance and poor dietary habits and explore ways for improvement. For some, there may not be any. For others, a strong case may be built. The final point is to remind the athlete that they control their progress, and nutrition is a very important part of the process.
Nutrition plays a vital role in the success and failure of sport. Unfortunately, in the fast-food world and $1 menus, our athletes do not always have the ideal diet. Bad eating habits are too cheap and convenient. However, we do our best to educate and constantly remind athletes of the importance of healthy eating. It is hard to force an athlete to gain or lose weight. They have to want to do it themselves. Similarly, I do not think you can “force” a diet modification on an athlete. We can only hope to educate and get them willing to make the changes so they can see positive results in their respective sport.
We are fortunate to have access to a registered dietician. If an athlete is serious about diet modifications, we set up an appointment with our dietician. We do not have the luxury of some schools of training tables or never-ending supplementation. We do not provide either. This makes it more important to make sure that the athletes understand the importance of proper nutrition; it is truly up to them. We talk a lot about the importance of eating breakfast. After each workout, we encourage athletes to eat as soon as possible to aid the recovery efforts. Because we do not provide supplementation, we talk a lot about “backpack snacks” (items easily put in a backpack: bars, fruit, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, shakes, etc) and “eating on the run” (learning how to fit meals in when there is no time to sit down for the traditional breakfast, lunch, and dinner) and how to handle the daily grind of an athlete: class, lifting, practice, study hall, and so on. Over the years working with several different strength coaches and nutritionists, I have collected numerous handouts regarding proper nutrition. Handouts range from good choices from menus of restaurants and eating out; what to shop for at the grocery store; ideas for pre- and postworkouts; listing of good carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and so on. I keep them readily available so when an athlete comes to me or my staff with questions, after our conversation, I can give them a handout. The most common are the handouts of what to eat when eating out.
The fact is that nutrition has to be a personal priority for the athlete. Unless you are blessed with a training table, the athlete is solely responsible for the foods they consume. We get to manage workouts, practices, conditioning, and even going to class. Sadly, what they eat is up to them. Hopefully, we can educate, encourage, and motivate them to eat right!
Hydration and nutrition are 2 of our biggest concerns for athletes at Humboldt State University. Strength and conditioning programs, no matter how meticulously designed, are rendered ineffective if athletes do not properly nourish themselves. As a small Division II school, we do not possess the resources to have a registered dietician, structured meal plan, training table, or supplement budget. Hence, the strength and conditioning staff has taken on the responsibility of educating athletes about basic nutrition, hydration, and exercise physiology. We urge them to optimize the effectiveness of their training programs by emphasizing how important it is for them to maintain good hydration and nutrition. Most athletes do not understand how to take care of their bodies. Educating them instead of merely telling them what to do has proven to be a powerful motivational tool for them to incorporate these changes into their diet and lifestyle. Once they understand the “why's” and “why not's,” they are more apt to change.
The strength and conditioning staff has also developed a nutrition manual that is available to each individual athlete through our Web page, which can be downloaded in portable document format. The nutrition manual is straightforward and easy for the athletes to follow. Topics covered include proper hydration, basic nutrition requirements (carbohydrates, proteins, fats), sample grocery lists to meet these requirements, food preparation and how it affects nutritional value, sample pregame/practice and workout meals, and daily meal planning for weight gain/loss. We regularly refer athletes to this Web page, and the manual is also printed in hard copy and kept in the weight room for quick reference.
Regarding supplements, we do not advocate any performance-enhancing supplements. We encourage the athletes to meet their nutritional needs through real food. The exceptions to this rule would be the use of protein powder/bars as a nutritional supplement to the protein already found in their meals and a generic multivitamin.
As a strength and conditioning coach, it can be frustrating that the success of our training programs is largely dependent on how the athletes care for their bodies when not under our supervision. Therefore, we must take the time to educate our athletes about how proper hydration and nutrition benefits them and trust that they will attempt to follow these guidelines to the best of their ability. By being available to the athlete as an educational resource, we can build a relationship based on trust and hope that when individual questions or concerns arise, the athlete has faith in our ability to help them.