The great Teddy Roosevelt gave us the quote: “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Nothing shows how much you care than to sit with an athlete and discuss the changes he or she hope to see. As clinicians, we are taught to build a plate based on calories, protein, carbohydrate, fat and fluids. We have questionnaires and data to give us numbers and protocols. But to truly make an impact, we have to ask the questions that will gain the buy-in to the process, such as:
- What do you believe it will take to become the better version of you on the field/court?
- What are the current fueling habits that you are proud of?
- What is a fueling habit you wish to change?
These three questions give insight regarding their nutrition knowledge, pride in their fueling, and their desire to change. If some athletes blow you off, thinking they don’t require intervention to get to the next level, or feeling their fueling habits don’t need improvement, then they are not at a stage of change that will allow you to be effective. However, continue to check in periodically and provide foundational nutrition support, but stand-down until they are ready to come to you. If their answers are misaligned with research or show red flags for a poor relationship with food or body image, you’ll know further education and referral to a mental health professional is in order.
The answers athletes give to the three questions will outline a direct pathway for success, and will help you to personalize their plates. Our job is to understand their unique nuances regarding eating and then pair them with the objective data and protocols science has shown us. If you asked twenty sports RDs how they go about personalizing plates for their athletes or clients, I’m sure that you would get twenty different answers. (Click here for Becci’s process)
Below are some insight into my process:
Our first encounters focus on foundational eating. I say “encounters” because these are generally informal discussions in the meal room. We casually discuss portion size and the function of each macronutrient. By asking the athlete what they did that day and then build the plate based on the answer given, the athlete will be able to understand that portion size is relative to their activities.
Using sports analogies for situational eating, opens the door to discuss when foods can be helpful or harmful. It’s an opportunity to talk about timing and quantity rather than hard-fast rules that make foods “good or bad.” Kicking a field goal is a great option on fourth and long, but not on first and goal. It’s just the same of saying cereal is a great option before training to load glycogen stores, but it’s not so helpful to say cereal is an ideal pre-bedtime snack. It’s important to note here, however, that these encounters are only casual to the athlete. The sports RD must do the homework prior to mealtimes in order to know and remember the goals that have been set, food dislikes, or allergies, so that when building plates, the RD knows the needs of the athlete.
Once you have these foundational discussions, you will likely learn more about the athlete and discover deeper barriers that need to be overcome in training. It’s possible that there might be sleeping difficulties, or a lot of soreness and pain, or perhaps every afternoon, at 3pm, a headache occurs or digestion issues start after breakfast.
Here is where the real sports nutrition begins. By listening and reacting, good selections can be adjusted to fulfill the athlete’s macronutrient goals. The sports dietitian can help alleviate the distractions to great training and recovery. Strength and resilience can be enhanced with high-quality foods that are consistently eaten with intention.
Simple changes to make a big impact:
- Need energy prior to practice? Instead of a sugary coffee drink, try a banana with peanut butter and turmeric/ginger shot.
- Snacking on chips, candy or baked goods? Choose trail mix with pistachios and chocolate chips to satisfy your sweet, salty and savory cravings.
- Love Uncrustables? Try a sprouted seed bread with peanut butter and real fruit spreads.
A healthy gut will efficiently bring in nutrients for optimal metabolism. Eliminating highly processed or low-quality foods, and replacing them with a fresh food supply, impacts the digestive system the fastest. As athletes discover they feel better when processed foods are decreased, you will have earned more of their trust.
Finally, it’s time to impact the game. When the fueling habits are consistent enough to support recovery from the week of practice, come game time, small tweaks to the fueling can create a big impact. Using caffeine as a weapon to improve focus and decision-making, using beta-alanine prior to heavy intensity portions of the schedule, or using nitrates to gain an edge in endurance or workload. All of these functional ingredients provide the best opportunity for athletes to do what they do best—compete.
When all is said and done, we chose this profession because we want to make an impact. This can’t be accomplished by protocols alone; it requires a blend of scientific knowledge and a celebration of individuality. Coaching athletes in the meal room allows for immediate feedback and inspiration to adhere to the fueling plan, even when they’re out of your sight.