How I Talk To Young Athletes About Nutrition

October 1, 2019 | Nutrition

By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.

President, Sideline Sports Doc

Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University

Key Points:

  • Having a conversation during a quiet receptive moment is an effective time to start a discussion about nutrition
  • Using examples of elite level athletes with strong nutritional habits is another excellent tactic to emphasize positive behavior

One of the benefits I found working as a high school team physician is the opportunity to have conversations with intelligent young people and every once in a while to positively influence their life choices. Nutrition is an area fraught with confusion, as the messaging the kids receive from the media and occasionally from coaches runs counter to what we believe would be the optimal choices for them.

I’ve found that there are two key components to having a successful conversation. The first component is when to actually have the conversation (the training room works best for me). The second component is to use examples from the best athletes in the world as models of high performance habits. By using these tactics I’ve been surprised over the years that young athletes are far more receptive to the messages than I once believed.

Let’s take a look at these points and see how they could apply to your situation.

When To Have The Conversation

When to have a conversation is a far larger influence on the message I believe than the message itself. I found the training room environment to be an ideal time to have a conversation. Preferably this is done when the athlete is in a good mood and not injured.

If a student comes into the training room for routine pre-practice taping with an athletic trainer, this makes for a great time for a conversation. The practice setting is much less emotionally charged than a pregame setting, and they’ll usually give me a minute or two of their attention.

As a parent I found that the drive on the way to a routine midweek practice was a good time for me to have a conversation with one of my own kids. Everyone’s situation will be a little bit different but try to find a time when the young athlete is focused on sport and performance but not in a nervous or emotional situation. And at all cost avoid getting preachy or judgmental!

Elite Athletes As Models Of Good Behavior

 The other element that has worked well for me is to use the examples from elite athletes as models of good behavior. There are a number of outstanding examples. Tom Brady, Roger Federer, Sidney Crosby, and Serena Williams come to mind.

Some of these athletes are much more strict than others with their diets, and not all of the habits would necessarily be appropriate for a much younger athlete. But generally speaking I like to emphasize some basic principles of eating for the best performance. This involves choosing whole nutrient dense foods rather than something that comes in a bag or a box. Hydrating with water, coconut water, or a protein shake, rather than a sugar filled soda.

The reality is that a fair number of these young athletes will roll their eyes and ignore pretty much everything I say. But every once in a while you’ll get through. Whether you’re a parent, coach, or team physician, I’d encourage you to give it a try.

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