Every year, as my soccer or softball teams roll through tournament play, we stumble through one of those dazed, listless, and dead-legged performances that inspire “the talk.” As I gather the girls together for our discussion on the connection between nutrition and performance, one of the players who’s been with me through multiple seasons will anticipate what’s coming and chime in are you going to tell the hamburger story again?
And yes, I am—because it’s a useful story.
Years ago, the starting left back on my club soccer team was one of our fastest players—a previous coach had nicknamed her “the dream killer” for her ability to materialize out of nowhere and chase down opposing strikers, disrupting what otherwise appeared to be a sure breakaway goal. A tall, mature 13-year-old, she also played tennis and loved to do treadmill and bodyweight workouts on her own.
During a weekend road tournament, we wrapped up our opening game at 11 a.m. and had our next match scheduled just a couple hours later. Not much time to leave the venue and track down lunch in an unfamiliar neighborhood…and the field complex conveniently had rows of concession tents and food trucks set up. Like many athletes, shortly after competing, her appetite spiked: a food truck char-grilling meat, smells amazing. DONE! She was all over a burger and fries.
When our 1:00 p.m. game kicked off, as play on the turf picked up speed…my fast and fit left back looked like she was fording a waist-deep river of pudding. Laboring, just to move veeeeerrrry sloooooow. The first ball that came her way careened off her shin like it was entirely the wrong size and shape. The next skimmed straight past.
My center backs and holding mid began looking frantically at me on the sidelines, as they were having to pick up extra marks in transition who kept blowing right past her. After five minutes, I had to sub her off the field—she was sweating the wrong kind of sweat and her expression was equal parts physical discomfort and genuine confusion.
And that was it for her game.
Why the Hamburger Story Is Important
Coaches constantly hear discussions about the *big rocks*—sleep, nutrition, hydration, recovery, heard it heard it heard it heard it. We hear it over and over.
But the hamburger story isn’t a story about impulsiveness or self-indulgence or a deliberately risky decision—coming off the field, the confusion on my left back’s face was authentic. She was truly baffled about why her body was suddenly incapable of doing the very routine things her brain was telling it to do.
Because, until that day, she had lived her entire life without ever being told about how the timing and substance of what you eat will directly impact how you perform (and this was a smart girl from a great school district and a family of successful medical professionals). Across the youth sports landscape, despite the costly tournament entries and club dues, the private skills trainings and complex travel schedules, the $350 bats and $250 cleats, there is still a widespread lack of education on how that 75-cent donut they grabbed for breakfast can undermine all of that prior effort and expense.Across the youth sports landscape…the players often do not yet know how to eat in order to put themselves in the best position to succeed on game days, says @CoachsVision. Click To Tweet
At the adult level, poor nutrition choices are rightfully identified as action problems as opposed to knowledge problems: If a grown-up chooses to eat a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos instead of a bag of carrot sticks, it’s not that they don’t know that it would be healthier to eat the veggies—they just choose not to act on that knowledge. Relative to nutrition and performance in youth sports, however, there remains a genuine knowledge problem: The players often do not yet know how to eat in order to put themselves in the best position to succeed on game day.
Even among that percentage of parents who do prioritize nutrition in their family’s food choices, most often their definition of *healthy* will be based on concepts from weight loss, commercial meal plans, or food sensitivities…all of which are very different than fueling for competition.
That knowledge problem is then multiplied by the realities of competitive youth sports—local and regional travel, pre-dawn breakfasts in the car, hotel grab-and-go’s, eating out of coolers, eating at snack shacks, finding takeout places that can quickly turn around orders, finding restaurants that can accommodate sweaty and exuberant large groups, games stacked on top of games, games scheduled at 8 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m.… Logistically, the variables for proper meal-planning quickly spiral out of control.
Given the realities on the ground, I like to tell the hamburger story because it paves the way to discuss a few concepts that kids can immediately grasp:
- What happens when your “rest and digest” system fully kicks in, and why you can’t simply choose to override that natural process when the next whistle blows.
- That nutrition for sports is not about being told what you can and can’t eat so much as knowing when to eat what you like to eat. Rather than black and whites of good vs. bad, kids find it interesting to learn that, in fact, the same thing that can be a good choice 12 hours before you play could be a bad choice two hours before you play.
From a coaching standpoint, there’s very little I can do about what the players regularly eat (nor should there be). But if I can impact their approach to when they eat some of the things that they eat, that can lead to more consistent performances on the field.If I can impact the players’ approach to WHEN they eat some of the things that they eat, that can lead to more consistent performances on the field, says @CoachsVision. Click To Tweet
Timing. Hydration. Repetition.
The hamburger story is, more than anything, a story about timing. That helps it resonate—why the exact same hamburger two nights before you play or two nights after is a totally different thing than that burger two hours before you play. With kids, it also doesn’t hurt to throw in a word or two about ice cream, which I happen to think is a great thing on a Sunday afternoon after wrapping up multiple games on a hot field.
If you tell your players there’s a very good time for burgers and ice cream, they will be more receptive when you tell them there’s also a very good time for pasta with grilled chicken or for scrambled eggs and fruit or for half a turkey wrap and a few cucumber wedges.
In fact, I do this over and over and over.
- We’ll be playing at 9 and 10:30 tomorrow morning. Tonight would be a good night to have pasta with meat sauce or chicken and a big serving of brown rice…
- Our first game is at 1:00 p.m. tomorrow. Try to have a substantial breakfast when you wake up and then something light like a wrap and some fruit close to an hour before warm-ups…
- Our game is at 7:30 tomorrow night. Even though it’s way easier for your parents to feed you an early dinner right beforehand, try to save that full meal for after the game instead…
Within this continual process of repetition and tying timing to nutrition, the easiest of the *big rocks* to nail is hydration—no one much likes being told what to eat or when to go to bed, but there’s very little pushback to drinking plenty of water.
So, I make that part of our team culture. In all of my practice designs, I write in a water break every 15 minutes. I work with very athletic girls; we play fast, and we practice at high speed—and we take a lot of breaks. In Southern California, we compete in full sun and afternoon heat, and while repeating drink lots of water, stay hydrated, I make sure they players have every opportunity to drink lots of water and stay hydrated.
From the connection between playing hard and staying hydrated, it’s then a shorter step to the connection between playing hard and proper fueling. With the hamburger story, the important thing is not just telling it one time—the key is the repetition. Like most coaches, I have phrases and concepts I repeat again and again, focusing on communication, controlling the ball, moving with purpose, creating space—these key points become the hallmarks of my teams because I emphasize those qualities over and over.The more you repeat simple messages, the more cognizant players will be of when and what they eat—to the point that it can become part of your team culture, says @CoachsVision. Click To Tweet
Nutrition for performance is no different. The more you repeat simple messages, the more cognizant the players will be of when and what they eat—to the point that it can become part of your team culture.
All Those Hamburger Stories That Don’t Fit the Narrative
Amid the worst of the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns, Victoria Hayward—a starting outfielder on Canada’s National Team and an all-around spark plug in Athletes Unlimited—generously took the time to come on a Zoom Q&A with my softball team. This was a rough stretch, as all the local fields were sealed off with caution tape and the girls weren’t supposed to see their friends. Victoria was a shining light who appeared on their computer screens to deliver an inspirational message. She answered all of their questions about the range of sports she played growing up, how she learned which positions she was the best at, whether she ever gets nervous in the on-deck circle, how she was training on her own for the Olympics, and, yes…her favorite pre-game meals.
Sure enough, Victoria had a hamburger story.
Hers, however, was a laugh-out-loud funny story from playing at the University of Washington and scarfing down a burger not too long before a game, despite knowing better. She then went on to play the game of her life. Of course, she warned the girls it was a fluke coincidence and not something they should go and do…but her hamburger story underscores one of the realities of sports: talented individuals can regularly succeed in spite of their habits.
When it comes to motivating your players to make better food choices, one massive challenge is that their parents will be able to see your hamburger story and raise you a whopping success story during which they threw every big rock straight out the window. Due to the cost and commitment of competitive youth sports, many of the players have parents who are quite driven in their own lives—and successful academic, financial, and career performance are frequently fueled by high-octane s**t.
Your second baseman’s mom will have her own story of how she passed the bar exam while living on Skittles and Red Bull. Your goalkeeper’s dad will have stories of how he survived his hospital residency on black coffee, peppered jerky, and the occasional IV. That one kid whose dad actually did play a few seasons of minor league ball will tell you how he bunked with seven roommates and all they ever ate were corn dogs and frozen hash browns.
And not only did they succeed, but succeeding while thoroughly ignoring all sound nutritional and lifestyle habits is a specific point of pride. Your second baseman’s mom loves to tell that story of how she crammed all night and was seeing tracers from the overload of taurine and citric acid, yet still managed to step up and ace the test. All those crucial final exams she passed where she started studying earlier in the week, while also eating and sleeping normally? Meh, boring! Those are stories she never bothers to tell.
We had another hamburger story on my U12 softball team this year. During a tournament stop 60 miles up the coast in Laguna Niguel, we had games at 3:20 and 5:10, and our power-hitting shortstop/catcher made a special lunch stop there at her all-time favorite burger place, Smashburger. This was important to her, as all the Smashburgers in San Diego had closed down and, like many, her family hadn’t traveled widely the previous 16 months.
The home run she launched in the 3:20 game will be, I am certain, the longest ball I ever see a 12-year-old hit. It soared over the fence in left, cleared a 10-foot retaining wall another 30 feet behind that home run fence, and then disappeared down a canyon. We wanted to retrieve the ball for her as a souvenir, but no one from the tournament had ever seen a ball go over that retaining wall, and therefore had no idea how to even access the canyon in the first place. In her first AB of the 5:10 game, she hit a three-run laser that rocketed over the center field fence and set us coasting to a win.
I’ll see your hamburger story, coach, and raise you a couple bombs.
On Picky Kids and Pragmatism
Along with the big rocks, another oft-repeated training phrase is that kids are not mini-adults—what works for college and pro athletes often doesn’t scale at the youth levels.
When nutrition information does finally get passed along to youth athletes, however, it still tends to be based on more cultivated adult palates. Eat the rainbow. Salmon and avocado and Omega-3s. Start your day with this açaí bowl or those morning oats or that spinach and feta scramble. Snack on cut veggies and hummus.When nutrition information gets passed along to youth athletes, it still tends to be based on more cultivated adult palates…Instead of suggesting what they won’t eat, recommend what they will. Click To Tweet
If your kid will eat those things, God bless ’em. Many, however, will be super-picky, particularly the younger they are. Some of that is just stubbornness and wanting to control one of the few things in life they can control (what goes in their mouths)—but that pickiness also has roots in biology and natural selection, taste and texture sensitivities, digestive ease, dealing with braces and retainers, and countless other factors that dictate what they’ll put on their forks.
My older brother didn’t eat a bell pepper or an onion until his 40s—as an adolescent, all his stomach could process and tolerate were the bland whites: grilled cheese and quesadillas, plain pasta and white rice, lots of apples and bananas. He was also a varsity wrestler in an era where every dude in a singlet was on a Vision Quest to cut weight and wrestle Shute, so he was already spending his high school years in a state of alarming caloric debt. For my parents, feeding him the nutritional mediocrities he would actually eat wasn’t an act of pampering—we would sit at the table eating grilled steak, green beans, and potatoes and roast the kid for wanting just a bowl of mac and cheese. But, giving him what he would eat was a better fueling option than giving him what he would not.
While less extreme, much the same will hold true with a large number of youth athletes. Instead of suggesting what they won’t eat, recommend what they will. If you have a cut-vegetable-and-hummus-eating team, fantastic, that’s a great between-game snack. If three-quarters of your team would just as soon swallow a handful of infield dirt, however, bananas, grapes, and goldfish crackers may be a better choice and will at least keep them out of the Oreos. Salmon pasta checks a lot of boxes both the night before competing and following a long day of exertion…unless your players are going to poke at the fish like it’s still swimming and then barely touch the now-contaminated noodles. In which case, fine, a full serving of plain pasta with some grated cheese is the better choice.
Take your pragmatic victories. You don’t have to shoot for quinoa (yet)—if you can get them to start having white rice on their plate the night before a game instead of curly fries, that’s a win.
During our nutrition talk, I tell my players the original hamburger story because it’s by far the most extreme and vivid example of meal choice impacting athletic performance that I’ve personally witnessed. More often, though, we’re talking about subtle gradations of performance—and how eating Pixie Stix or Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or Krispy Kremes or KFC can lead to those so-so and sluggish showings that would have been sharper if they had simply eaten differently.
One Last Hamburger Story (At Least Until the Next One)
During this same 12U softball season, in part by taking hydration, nutrition, and sleep seriously, my team battled through five games in 110-degree heat on a Sunday in Lancaster, CA, to come in second place in USA Softball’s Southern California B-State championships, advancing on to Western B-Nationals (and the crazy need to play five games in a single day will be the basis of a future article).
At the Nationals tournament in Roseville, CA, we were finally knocked out with a 2-1, seven-inning loss to a well-disciplined and fundamentally sound team from the San Fernando Valley. Afterward, our starting pitcher stopped at In-N-Out for a post-game burger, breezed on through the front doors and…what appeared to be the entire opposing team was already there, eating at the tables inside.
Cue the Grampa Simpson burlesque house gif. She 180’d directly back out, having zero desire to sit and eat amongst the team that had just squashed our extended tournament run. On her way back to their car, she looked at her mom and said, “I can’t believe they’re all eating hamburgers. They have a game in two hours. They’re going to lose.”
And, they did.
Following our crisp, error-free 2-1 game, that San Fernando Valley team then lost 9-6 to a team we had already beaten numerous times. So, the next time they begin rolling through tournament play, it’s likely that their coach will now have a hamburger story of her own to tell.
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