There are almost half a million student-athletes in America, and if you also include youth sports, the Aspen Institute suggests the number could run into the tens of millions. Think about that for a minute. Millions upon millions of children and young adults engage in some form of organized sports every day in America. Below are Strategies Coaches Can Use To Encourage Healthy Nutrition In Student Athletes.
This vast number of players requires a vast number of coaches. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states there are more than 275,000 coaches in the United States, with that number expected to rise significantly over the next several years. Unfortunately, many of these coaches lack the training necessary to be effective in what they do, especially when it comes to areas beyond the basics.
This is especially true in areas of nutrition. In fact, we conducted a study with several colleagues that found coaches were no more knowledgeable about nutrition than high school students. This is a problem!
Knowledge, or lack of knowledge, is part of the problem. But another challenge is actually finding ways to teach nutrition to students and athletes.
- Educate Yourself About Nutrition — This seems simple enough, right? But it is not. Nutritional knowledge is always changing and what you may discover is that you lack the credentials to teach more than the fundamental concepts of nutrition. But that is okay. Often the basics are all that are necessary in many situations. Some resources are provided at the end of this post, which may help.
- Focus on Principles of Healthy Eating — Much talk is given to calorie counting, cool diets, meal plans, and so on. The reality is almost every athlete will benefit from following basic principles of nutrition: variety, moderation and balance. It is also important to focus on nutrition throughout the year rather than just in-season or during competitions.
- Focus on Nutrition for Your Sport/Activity — Learning about nutrition can be overwhelming at times. As a coach, focus on teaching healthy principles and then look at your sport and the roles within your sport. For example, the nutritional needs of a quarterback on a football team may be vastly different from a linebacker or defensive end.
- Focus on Food Availability and Preparation — Portion size, serving size, food selection, and food preparation are all important in teaching nutrition, but so are geographic and cultural factors which are sometimes forgotten. Remember that serving size and portion size are not the same thing; a serving of meat is considered three ounces, but a portion served in a restaurant is often six ounces or more. Exact serving sizes for fruits, vegetables, cheese, and meats can be found on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate website.
- Teach the Parents — In a recent study, my colleague and I found that nutrition education had little value if the parents were not educated also. In other words, if the athlete knows nutrition, but it is not supported at home, it makes little difference.
- Consider Food Choices and Plan Ahead — You are on the road and finish late. Where do you take your team? Somewhere quick, right? The problem is that quick is often unhealthy. Therefore, take a little time before you leave to scout some locations where you’ll find the best of the “worst” options. Some restaurants may even allow you to pre-order or limit the menu for your athletes. Remember, if given the choice, athletes will tend to choose unhealthier options.
- Carb is Not a Bad Word — In many of today’s diets, something is significantly restricted. You must understand that usually a complete restriction of something is bad in the long-term, especially when it is protein or carbohydrates. Carbohydrates, and specifically complex carbs such as from grains, are the energy source every athlete needs. Simple carbs from sugars have their role too.