Youth Sports, Health, and Nutrition

Since I read the article by Ken Berger about Dwight Howard’s sugar addiction in the weeks before Christmas, I have been thinking about nutrition. Nutrition is far from my expertise, and I  try to avoid it for a number of reasons, but I am starting to believe that I am shirking a responsibility. 

I have talked about nutrition with my team in limited, unspecific ways. For the most part, I have encouraged them to eat more vegetables, eliminate soft drinks and energy drinks, and stop drinking alcohol the night before a game. These are pretty common sense things to me, even considering the relative youth of my team (average age around 20). I also hoped that my introductory handout on the 24-hour athlete would change some behaviors. There have been some changes (nobody buys a double bacon cheeseburger two hours before a game anymore as two players did on our first away game), but some bad habits persist, like drinking energy drinks before a game or believing hot dogs are nutritious.

As we have struggled on the road (we drive 4-5 hours for all of our road games and generally get only 30 minutes on the court to warm up), I have contemplated making changes – rules to prohibit certain foods (energy drinks, fast food) before games. I generally try to provide information and encourage good decision-making, but that does not seem to be working quite as well as I had hoped, so it may be time for more drastic measures. An all-out fundamental change of their diets, as in Berger’s article, is not possible, but I do think something needs to be done.

Our club hosted a youth tournament this weekend. After the last game in one of the gyms yesterday, I helped to clean up. I was disheartened by the number of soda bottles, slushy cups, and candy wrappers littered around the court.

Children play sports for many reasons, and this was far from an elite tournament. However, we as a society support organized sports because of health and fitness. At these youth tournaments, the standard fare is junk food. With tournaments making up a larger percentage of a child’s time in organized sports, how can we tolerate the junk food consumption at these tournaments, while believing that youth sports participation is healthy? Much as schools are being forced to provide healthier food for lunch, shouldn’t we demand tournaments and leagues provide healthier options in their snack bars? In a youth sports environment where parents are often present at the tournaments, how far can a coach go to prohibit his or her players from eating certain foods before, between, or after games, especially when a parent is paying for the soda or candy bar?

We often decide on our food choices based on convenience (and expense), especially when away at a tournament or at a road game. I know a college coach who set down a number of diet and nutrition-related rules to her team in the preseason, but she often bought pizza for the team for their post-game meal or the team bus stopped at McDonald’s on the way home from road trips. What message are you sending when you preach about the importance of nutrition, but stop for fast food due to convenience and price? Where is the consistency of the message?

This is one of my issues with instituting rules. The guys love to stop at McDonald’s on the way home from games because there is no fast food in our town (really, no restaurants beyond pizza). Can I crack down on their diets, but allow post-game McDonald’s? Is it worth it to fight them on their post-game meals when it is a club tradition, and they have to eat something on the 4-5 hour drive home? Personally, when we are in a big city, I would prefer to sample some of the local restaurants and eat something that I cannot find here, but my players haven’t acquired the same taste for sushi, Vietnamese food, etc. that I have, and none could afford a nice steak. I don’t want to send conflicting messages (eat better, but after we stop at McDonald’s), but I also know some baby steps (energy drinks) are necessary.

After reading Berger’s article, I read Food Rules by Dr. Cate Shanahan, the doctor featured in the article. The main take away, for me, is that food is medicine. By eating well, we take care of our bodies, reduce stress, and improve health; by eating poorly, we increase stress and decrease health. I emailed the article to one of my players who has struggled with an injury this season and who is known for his fondness for cake. I don’t expect the articles, my lectures, or my rules to make sweeping changes because my players are not in the same competitive environment as the Lakers, and they are young enough to believe that they can eat anything, as I did when I was in high school and often ate Taco Bell before practice or stopped for a Whopper on the way to a game. However, I do hope we can make some subtle changes.

I sent the player Berger’s article because of one specific part that stood out to me and was my other big take away:

Shanahan and DiFrancesco have advised the players’ food preparers on how to make tasty dishes out of….soups and stews with broth simmered in bone marrow, which Shanahan says promotes healing and joint health. That’s the part of the diet that Bryant has thoroughly embraced, though he’s been more cautious about other aspects. 

“He felt a difference immediately in his joints,” DiFrancesco said. “He’s excellent when it comes to making sure that every meal, he’s getting some of this liquid-gold bone broth. … It’s comfort food.” 

I read only Food Rules, which is the less science-based, more practical book authored by Dr. Shanahan. I don’t know the research on bone marrow, other than her statements. However, as I told my player, even a slight improvement in joint health is worth it, especially when the cost is relatively minimal.

Nutrition has different roles in sports. At the elite level, like with the Los Angeles Lakers, the focus is performance. As I edited this, Jose Fernandez linked to this article on twitter about nutrigenomics and individually-based nutrition plans based on one’s genes for specific athlete improvements. At the youth and recreation levels, nutrition is primarily about health. Of course, based on the article, the nutrition intervention for Howard was about health first, and youth athletes may be persuaded to eat healthier foods when they are positioned as ways to improve performance.

As long as tournament options are hot dogs, nachos, and candy bars, smart players will learn to plan ahead and pack their own food for between games. Several of my players have started to rely more on food prepared at home and packed for the ride for their pre-game meal rather than buying a burger or sandwich at the rest stop on the way to the game. It is a start. Hopefully teams, coaches, and parents will use the persuasion of their pocketbooks to support tournaments that sell more nutritious food and limit the spending on junk food at these tournaments to force a change and to re-emphasize health and nutrition in youth sports.

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