I’ve worked as a Certified Athletic Trainer at the high school level for the past 17 years. Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in or around sports is aware of the trickle-down effect: things that we used to only see at the professional level 15 years ago are now commonplace at the college level. In continuation, normalcies at the college level have trickled down to the high school level. A few of these normalcies—specific offensive/defensive schemes, technology, film/game prep, and sports-specific training—are now far more prevalent in high school sports.
For the most part, these are all good additions, as they have improved the game in most sports, enhancing skill development as well as the complexity and pace. The current-day high school athlete also has to train like never before to keep up with the evolution of high school/club/travel sports (i.e., train like a collegiate athlete). The only problem with this progression is that high school athletes do not have the same support structure in place as collegiate and professional athletes do, so they may have limited or non-existent access to things such as:
- Training table nutrition.
- Education on the importance of sleep.
- Athletic training service.
- Therapeutic/recovery modalities.
A second problem for these athletes is that, as a society, we used to rely on experts in any given field for information or services, whereas now you can seemingly use Google for any question you have. Despite this access to information, most high school athletes do not possess the base knowledge to discern good information from poor advice. The various avenues to access this information range from forums to social media influencers to the advice of friends.
With this in mind, it is my goal to bring a sports nutrition expert to my school’s campus and provide access to quality information for student-athletes. Just this spring, when soccer was ramping up, one of my female soccer players—who typically has a solid grasp on training and nutrition—stated that she was about to start a cutting phase. Though it was the beginning of the second week of soccer, which undoubtedly requires the highest intensity of physical exertion, for some strange reason, she thought it would be a good idea to start this nutrition plan.
I informed her that if she did this, she’d be trying to perform at a high capacity while in a calorie deficit, and thus, I strongly discouraged her from making this decision. I took the time to explain why it was necessary, not only from a health aspect but also from a performance focus. We talked about why an athlete must incorporate a substantial amount of protein into every meal, some healthy snack options throughout the day, and why carbs prior to practice/competition are so beneficial, with a big emphasis on how refueling the body after training/competition needs to be prioritized daily. Interactions such as these are less common than I would like them to be, and this particular conversation just added fuel to my fire.
The Importance of Connecting Nutrition as Fuel for Performance
Most athletic trainers should have a solid base understanding of sports nutrition, and I’d say mine is above average. This is great for fielding questions here and there and for having one-on-one conversations, but by no means do I have the experience or vast knowledge of a sport nutritionist/dietician. I knew going into my position that I would need to rely on someone else to gain the desired amount of traction on this topic for our community. I had done something similar at a previous school, but it was in a very rural area compared to my current school, so options in that community were limited (for example, 2–3 qualified people available to athletes).I could’ve potentially just started cold calling/emailing sports nutritionists in my area to see if I could get anyone to bite, but instead, I decided to try some networking. Click To Tweet
As I now live in the suburbs, the options for these athletes seem limitless. The first hurdle was figuring out the best way to make these points of contact. I could have potentially just started cold calling/emailing sports nutritionists in my area to see if I could get anyone to bite, but instead, I decided to try some networking. Every fall, we have an all-coaches meeting where I get the opportunity to address my entire coaching staff in the middle school and high school—this year, I added two points of emphasis in addition to the expected support information offered by the sports medicine program:
- A warm-up geared specifically to reducing injury and increasing performance.
- Nutritional education addressing the dietary needs of the present-day HS/MS athlete.
When I mentioned these two things, I certainly had their attention. As I provided an overview of my perspective on middle school and high school sports, I mentioned the need to engage the nutritional aspect of our programs to support athletes and that I really needed their help. I asked them if they knew of or already had a good relationship with a nutritionist/dietician, could they please share that contact with me?
It turned out to be the correct path to take.
I got connected with several different people and organizations close to campus: one was a local university grad program, and another was one of our lower school parents who is a dietician. I appreciated meeting with a Georgia State grad student and discussing options, but as the program progresses, this person might not be exactly what I was looking for to kick off the program.
I also had a couple of great conversations with that lower school parent who is a dietician and would be a wonderful resource and huge proponent of what I am trying to accomplish here. Despite this, she was the first to say sports-specific nutrition is not in her wheelhouse. The beauty of networking, though, was that she just happened to be great friends with a nationally renowned sports nutritionist with a highly impressive resume and amount of experience.
When I mentioned her name to my strength coach and that she might be coming to campus, he nearly jumped out of his chair; he was so excited. This strength coach at our school has tons of experience in strength and speed/agility and a solid breadth of knowledge in nutrition, so I respect his opinion immensely. Though the resume of that nutritionist speaks for itself, I felt further confidence in pursuing her expertise when I saw the excitement of our strength coach (who is not the most excitable).
Finding Room in the Budget
The next hurdle was cost…if you are lucky enough to find a professional of this caliber willing to work with you, it doesn’t come cheap. Her fee for coming to campus was commensurate with her knowledge and experience. If you are venturing out and attempting this yourself, do not let cost be a roadblock. If your school/organization doesn’t have it in the budget, go find a sponsor or ask the person you are working with if they know of any sponsors/scholarship opportunities.If your school/organization doesn’t have a nutritionist in the budget, go find a sponsor or ask the person you’re working with if they know of any sponsors/scholarship opportunities. Click To Tweet
Prior to this endeavor, I hadn’t thought about that, and even though it is a simple solution, I may not have thought of it on my own. The fact of the matter is that the sports nutritionist found one for us—when she contacted me to let me know she found a company to sponsor her talk, I wondered why I didn’t think of looking for a sponsor!
Sponsors are great, but they typically come with strings attached—this particular sponsor required the talk(s) to range from K–12, but I was only trying to reach my high school athletes for this first attempt. Implementing a K–12 talk is simple, but properly cultivating it into actionable changes for our student body isn’t. I didn’t want to have this great speaker on the front end of things without being able to follow through on the back end. We’re keeping the K–12 as an option but are currently looking for budget approval. If that fails, I’ll be searching for other sponsors.
In the meantime, I am currently in the information-gathering stage. My next steps will be getting an online survey’s simple 2–3 questions for athletes and separate questions for parents. This will clarify what the presentation ought to cover. After gathering information from this outreach, I’ll set a plan to find the best time, date, and location to address the most pressing topics for my community.
Takeaways for Your School
Maybe you’re not ready to put in the leg work on an endeavor like this, and it certainly has required a lot more work than I had anticipated. There is so much great information accessible, so breaking this task up into manageable pieces is paramount. A great first step would be getting this info out to your coaches, athletes, and parent groups from the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association.
Take the time to highlight a few documents for coaches and athletes, leaving the rest of the info accessible for those few who want to dive deeper. As a next step, look for other good resources in your area by asking questions and broadening your network. Find one or multiple options in your community.There’s so much information out there for us to consume, but not all of it’s good—so, having a reliable professional sifting through this content makes a huge difference. Click To Tweet
There is so much information out there for us to consume, but not all of it is good—so having a reliable professional sifting through this content makes a huge difference. The most challenging step is getting started. Courageously start moving the ball; that’s the hardest part.
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