A recent sports client of mine was a boy of 14, Derek, who was struggling in the competitive world of elite tennis. Recent tournament results were poor, and he and his father felt this was because his energy in training and matches was often failing him. Derek also said his peers were overtaking him in terms of size and strength.Both he and his father thought the main problem concerned his diet around training and match days, including snacks and drinks.
When I dug a little deeper, Derek complained of catching colds and being plagued with niggling injuries more than in previous years.
A good look at his daily diet revealed the problem. After a hurried bowl of cereal for breakfast, he would rush to school and eat a chocolate bar at around 11 am. Lunch was a chicken or cheese sandwich (no vegetables) with a can of coke or Red Bull. On three of four days a week he trained at the courts for an hour or two, during which he ate a banana or two and drank water and another can of cola.
He was ravenous by dinner time and always ate plenty, but his main meal of the day was generally a large bowl of pasta with Bolognese sauce topped with cheese, or a huge plate of chips with sausages, peas and a small salad (mother’s insistence!). He didn’t like other vegetables or fruits, never ate fish, and hardly ever tried nuts and seeds.
I first got him to admit that there must be more to an athlete’s diet than just piles of calories! Humans – all of us – need around 50 different ‘essential’ nutrients. These substances must be present in our bodies if we are to function properly – even to survive at all. Because we can’t make essential nutrients ourselves, they have to be present in the food or water we consume.
I explained that his narrow diet would pretty much guarantee a shortage of several essential nutrients. It was easy to see that he was missing a source of vital omega 3 fats, for example.
I told him that all the essential nutrients would have to feature reliably in his diet if he wanted to grow, develop his strength and keep up with his fellow players – especially during puberty. And that it was his overall nutritional intake – week-in, week-out – that really mattered, not just training days. This made sense to him.
As a (hopeless) tennis player myself, I know that balance, flexibility, concentration – and definitely emotional control – can also prove decisive in the narrow margins between winning and losing. Derek was surprised to learn that these parts of his game were also being influenced by his diet.
Finally, we agreed that sporting success in the long run also depends on a lot on rapid recovery from injuries and staying healthy generally. Recovery and a strong, stable immune system depend on a broadly based diet rich in a host of nutrients, including zinc, vitamin C and omega 3 fats. It was pretty clear to Derek that his narrow, monotonous diet was behind the repeated colds and slower recovery from training stresses he had started to notice.
By now, Derek was motivated enough to make some big changes. Together we worked out a practical eating plan that would more than double the range of nutrient dense foods in his diet while removing most of the refined carbs. I told him that if he stuck to it for most of the time, he’d soon be noticing benefits. My final request was drop the fizzy drinks. I said: ‘Derek – these companies thrive on sugar and caffeine, but you can’t. Red Bull doesn’t give you wings – it clips them!’
When we met again five weeks later, Derek was far more chirpy. He said his new way of eating was giving him much more energy than before, and he was also sleeping better. Training was going in the right direction, and he was looking forward to the next tournament. When I asked about his moods, his father smiled and confirmed that things were much improved there, too.
It is great to see so many people with a sports interest keen to eat better. A common problem, however, is an overly narrow focus on diet, drinks and supplements for training and competition performance only. Just as you can’t build on sand, you can’t sustain an athletic body and superior performance on a nutrient deficient diet. It’s the weeks, months, years that make the difference.
Winning is the icing on the cake!
By Richard Burton, Founder & Director IINH