What I’ve learned as a nutrition coach working with the regular folks and the professional athletes
As a health and wellness coach, it’s my mission to improve the lives of and get results for, every single type of client, including my most athletic. Interestingly, coaching all my clients has taught me a lot of truism
What I discovered was that my athletes are no different than my regular folks.
Shape the environment surrounding your client and you can get great results, even without intensive one-on-one coaching. Coaching one-on-one is great. But sometimes it’s not possible. Like when you’re trying to improve the nutritional habits of an entire team in a short period of time.
NUTRITIONAL TEAM TALK
Typically, you will have zero one-on-one time with each player due to scheduling issues, yet you could focus your efforts on the environment they shared.
Create a nutritional template. After meeting with the players and coaching staff, you can develop a meal plan template — focusing on meat, seafood, cooked starch, cooked vegetables, salad, fruit, and nuts — for the chefs/caterers at the training facility, where players eat breakfast and lunch.
Make sure the food is satisfying, flavorful, super tasty and nutritious. Make sure you ensure that your athlete’s favorite foods are included in the meal plan daily. After all, if the athlete doesn’t like the food, they’re being served regardless of how good it is for them, they’ll just sneak out to their favorite “go to.”
Make it easy and convenient. Give your athlete some recipes so they can have their coach whip up a personalized shake that they can pick up after their training session.
Travel meals. Create healthy meal ideas for bus and plane rides.
Non-practice meal plans can be easily met by utilizing a meal delivery service. And if the client is married with spouses that cook for them, give the spouse a preferred menu plan to maximize the nutritional effort. These kinds of tactics are simple, and none of them require in-depth, involved one-on-one coaching. Whether it’s at a training camp, at home, or in the office, our environment has a huge influence on what we eat. Shape the environment, and you shape the path toward change.
An athlete’s skill during training is not an indicator of their skill in the kitchen. Elite athletes put everything they’ve got into their physical performance. You might assume they bring the same passion for detail, refinement, and mastery to the food they eat. The athlete may be advanced in their sport, but they were still, nutrition beginners. This is a good lesson for anyone doing nutrition coaching. So don’t make too many assumptions about your clients. Talk to them, test them, and find out where they’re at nutritionally.
If you can’t make it better, make it less bad. Create an optimal nutritional environment whether at traveling, at work, in the gym, or at home. The biggest obstacle is dealing with restaurant food, room service, portions sizes, ingredients, preparation and availability. Preview the restaurants you will be frequenting and make food choices before you go to the restaurant. Get hold of the menu and pare down what you can eat. This makes it easier for your client to choose a healthier option without even thinking about it. We encourage clients to abandon all-or-nothing thinking and look for ways to make even slight improvements to each meal or each workout. The best meal plan is worthless if your client doesn’t like the food. Clients are universally picky. Tried out all kinds of options for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, explore food combinations, preparation options, flavors, and so on. Build rapport with the client and demonstrate our commitment. While not everyone can afford a personal chef, customizing nutritional guidance (and meal plans, if you use them) to a client’s tastes is essential.
If your client is picky, don’t try to insist that they develop a taste for quinoa or sweet potatoes; find out what they do like and work with that.
You must work the way your client works. Health and fitness coaches: Think about online coaching for a moment. How do you get started? Chances are you compose a nice email, and you attach an assessment form, maybe a food log for them to fill out, and maybe link to an article for them to read. Perfection is an illusion. Think about it. How well could putting my foot down and bossing around a professional fighter possibly go? Make suggestions. Listen and learn before giving suggested meals. Let’s face it: With high energy expenditure, one meal a day off-script isn’t going to tank your results. Perfection isn’t required for elite athletes—or for “regular” people. For most people, aiming to get 80% of your meals on-point is an effective goal.
What works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. Dietary trends tend to go in cycles. A moderately-balanced diet is key. Reintroduce carbs into your diet, at the same time, decrease your fat intake a bit, which helps counterbalance the increase in carbs, calorie-wise. That’s the thing about diets, protocols, and specific methods. Just because it works for one client doesn’t mean it’s going to work for another—even if they share the same goals, athletic ability and body type. Individual needs should come before trends every time. And outcome-based decision making should trump “this worked for some other guy” or “this should theoretically work for me”.
Bring important influencers (like family members) into the process. Some clients still live with families, either their own or those they are staying with while playing for a team outside their hometown. When working with these clients, do some basic education, giving seminars and offering kitchen demos showing how to prepare basic healthy foods. I had to get the family involved so I would find out who prepared the meals at the homes where they were staying, then concentrate my efforts on them.
I gave them everything they needed, including:
- Education about the needs of a young teenage hockey player
- Cooking demos
- Recipes and meal ideas
- Grocery shopping guides
The more I could equip the family to cook well, the better the nutritional results would be for the athlete. Acknowledge the other influences in your clients’ lives. Help them work with loved ones and address any barriers to good nutrition.
Intense training and strict eating will mess with your body. High intensity training has predictable consequences. It’s hard to get adequate calories, sleep, and stress management when you’re in an intense training block. For most clients, this kind of physical disruption isn’t dangerous if it’s for a short time. But many “regular” exercisers don’t respect the seasonality of sport. Which means, ironically, many of them are as much at risk of damaging their bodies through poor eating strategies combined with little recovery. If a client is over-training, bring the risks to their attention. If they’re making a sacrifice for an important goal, be clear about the tradeoffs. And always be asking: What’s the goal? How do we get you there as safely as possible? When is it time to back off and rest?
Just because a food is “healthy” doesn’t mean it’s good for everyone. Just because a food is considered “healthy”—or even a “superfood”—doesn’t mean it’s optimal for your client. Especially if it’s over-consumed.
Don’t make assumptions. Appearances can be deceiving. Just because someone is a star in their sport or looks the part doesn’t mean they have advanced nutrition skills. Instead of making assumptions or guesses about where your client is at, ask questions. Listen. Observe. Seek to understand rather than to prove yourself right.
We’re all the same. Our lives may be very different but, in the end, we’re all human. We all want to enjoy our food and have some fun. We all have our favorite indulgences and the foods that make us curl up our lips in disgust. Whether you’re working with celebrities, top athletes, busy executives or just neighborhood folks in your local gym, they are all human. What works for one client might not work for another. No matter how “super” the food or how “killer” the diet, there is no one-size-fits-all.
And we are all different. And what works for you might not work for your clients, either. You may have spent years perfecting your intake forms, for example, but what happens when a client doesn’t have a computer? Or is constantly on the go and never has time to look at it? Your job as a coach is to focus on understanding and supporting the needs of each client. This takes work and practice and, believe me, it is humbling sometimes.
It’s not all or nothing but rather baby steps. An all-or-nothing mentality won’t help your clients get anywhere, even if they’re top athletes who are used to aiming for perfection. Looking for small ways to improve is the best way to keep moving consistently toward change. That might mean letting a client keep her weekly super sweet dessert. Or helping her choose the best option on a hotel menu. Or packing her own snacks for the plane. You don’t need to get rid of everything a client is doing and every indulgence they have. Nor should you. Find ways of helping them move forward, one tiny little bit at a time.
Celebrate every forward movement and especially those aha moments. Whether they’re a gold medalist or they’ve never set foot in a gym, every single client possesses their own special superpowers. One of your jobs as a coach is to help them figure out what they’re already good at and put those abilities to use. Maybe they’re a data junkie and they can use their spreadsheet nerdiness to track their food like a pro. Or maybe they appreciate nature and will enjoy discovering local farms and farmers markets. Maybe they lack information now but have a great ability to learn. Maybe they routinely fall off the wagon—but they always, always get back on. Help your clients recognize their own superpowers, and then put them to use.
Celebrate the good stuff. Call out progress every chance you get.
They might never be a professional athlete, but you can be their cheerleader. You can help them become their own superstar.