Dr. Jay Williams, Ph. D., is a professor of Exercise Science in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise at Virginia Tech.
There is little doubt that the number of overweight and obese children is increasing. Two of the underlying causes are the lack of exercise and poor nutritional choices. Whether is a recreational or competitive program, participating in youth soccer provides a way to increase physical activity. At all levels coaches stress the need to exercise, train and “get in shape”. In many cases, the lessons learned through youth sports leads to a more active adulthood. Youth sports can also serve as an opportunity to emphasize the importance of a healthy diet. However, a recent study raises concern about the food environment in youth sports. It identifies the nutritional challenges and frustrations that many parents face in encouraging healthy eating. Most importantly it highlights the role that youth coaches can play in helping young athletes develop a diet that will help them perform better on the field as well as lead a healthier lifestyle.
Researchers from the University of Minnesota conducted several focus group discussions about youth sports and nutrition. The groups consisted parents of youth basketball players. The players’ age ranged from 6 to 13 years. Some were recreational players and some played in the competitive, travel leagues.
Several themes emerged from the discussions with the parents. First, most of the parents agreed that youth players consume too many post-game snacks like cakes, cookies, chips and soda. For the most part, recreational players and male players tend to eat more snack food compared to competitive and female athletes. In many cases, snacks are simply “what’s available” through concession stands or provided by parents.
Second, busy schedules, traveling to and from games and practices as well as the timing of various events resulted in too much fast food and too much “eating in the car”. The time crunch also limited the ability to pack snacks. Weekend tournaments were mentioned as a difficult nutritional challenge. Eating between games often means fast food or dining at the concession stand. Not knowing where to eat or what to eat was a common theme.
Third, parents expressed frustration over knowing what to eat and what not to eat. There were several comments such as “are sports drinks healthy or unhealthy?” and “I have no idea which ones [granola of energy bars] really are healthy.” This is one of the most striking conclusions - parents feel they need more information about nutrition and sports but do not know where to look or who to ask. They suggest that perhaps diet information could be provided to them and the players through handouts or a website. Most importantly, they feel that that such information is more effective if delivered by a coach, not a parent. A stronger message could be delivered by a coach or other mentor rather than by a mom or dad.
This third concern raises a unique opportunity for soccer coaches to be “agents of change”. That is, they can play a pivotal role in shaping the nutritional habits of young players. By emphasizing the importance of a solid diet as a way to maximize performance on the field, they are also instilling the concepts of healthy food choices that will last throughout adulthood. For example, coaches communicating with their players about diet and training using a blog or social media would deliver a very important message. It could change their player’s game and improve their lifestyle.
When computer science professor Randy Pausch, who died from pancreatic cancer, delivered his famous “The Last Lecture”, he talked of using “head fakes” when teaching students. That is, encouraging students to engage in an activity because it is something they enjoy, while the ultimate goal is actually teaching them larger, more fundamental concepts. Coaches can encourage players to eat foods that are low in fat including lean meats, fresh fruits and vegetables using the rationale that will improve their performance at training and in matches. However, the ultimate, long-term goal is developing the nutritional habits that will remain a healthy lifestyle. And research shows that teenagers who develop solid exercise and diet habits will be more likely exercise more and eat better as adults. So, the soccer diet, designed to improve performance on the pitch is actually a head fake to teach young players the fundamental of healthy nutrition.
There is no doubt that diet and exercise play key roles in the battle against childhood obesity. Training and nutrition are also keys to successful soccer performance. Thus, using coaches to educate players can have a two-fold effect – improving performance on the field AND laying the foundation for a healthy lifestyle.
Thomas M, Nelson TF, Harwood C, Neumark-Sztainer D (2012) Exploring parent perceptions of the food environment in youth sport, Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 44: 365-371.