11 Strategies Coaches Can Use To Encourage Healthy Nutrition in Student-Athletes

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.

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. Therefore, if you are a physical education teacher, coach, or even a parent, take a look at the suggestions below, which are based on an article we wrote that was recently published in the November/December 2018 issue of Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators.

  1. 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.
  2. 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
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Keep Drinking Water — Fluid loss of as little as 1% to 2% body weight can hinder athletic performance. This is a significant issue when traveling (e.g., athletes not drinking as much to avoid using the bathroom frequently) and in hot environments. Try weighing your athletes before and after practice to show them how much weight can be lost through sweat. For every pound lost during training or competition, athletes should replace it with 2-3 cups (16-24 oz.) of fluids. And remember, the darker the color and the lower the volume of urine, the more dehydrated the athlete. The goal for every athlete is to maintain urine of a “light lemonade” color or lighter.
  9. Experts Can Help — Coaches sometimes make the mistake of trying to do everything themselves. Sometimes, especially in nutrition, you should not be providing nutritional advice. hen in doubt, get help. The last thing you need to do is make recommendations that could potentially put your athlete in harm’s way or yourself in a legal situation.
  10. Get “Buy In” — Teaching something new can be difficult, and you must be patient as new ideas tend to be met with resistance. Here are a couple of ways to educate athletes and parents on nutrition and get them to “buy in.” First, consider having an athlete and/or parent meeting at the beginning of the season (all players should be present) to explain the fundamentals of nutrition. Second, be realistic. Few can live with a “perfect” diet. Special situations such as birthdays, prom and homecoming will eventually occur, and it is okay to enjoy something that should not be a regular choice. Just be smart about it.
  11. Model It Yourself — It may sound simple enough, but athletes (and parents) will absolutely judge what you say on whether you do or do not practice what you preach. I wrote an article recently about this very issue in coaching. You set the standard, and if you do not live it, do not expect them to take what you say seriously.

Helpful Resources:

Timothy Baghurst

Timothy M. Baghurst is an associate professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, OK, where he serves as the director of Sports & Coaching Science.

Shelley Holden

Shelley L. Holden is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Health, Kinesiology, and Sport at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, AL.