I was asked by an athlete what questions she could ask a college coach she was considering running for. After being directed to some great questions to ask (and not ask), it sparked my own questions: How could athletes see if the college coach they want to compete for has a healthy attitude toward nutrition and weight? How could they ask about available resources should an athlete struggle or need questions answered down the road?
So of course, I went right to expert Dr. Paula Quatromoni, registered dietitian (RD) at Boston University, for advice about navigating this important and delicate topic. She pointed out that many coaches are interested in these very same questions and are actively working to identify resources and build a positive team culture around these very issues. But, like resources, attitudes and culture can vary widely from one college or university to another. So, it is best not to assume that the coach shares your philosophy or is as equally engaged on this as you might hope. One way to find out is to exercise your strong communication skills. Be prepared to ask some very direct questions.
Paula suggested asking the following:
What is the culture like on your team with regards to athletes’ nutrition, weight, and overall wellness?
- If Coach responds by talking about protocols for weight monitoring, team weigh-ins, frequent Bod Pod, or a response that indicates a focus on weight as an indicator of performance, or endorses a culture of dieting or restrictive, fad diets, that is a potentially concerning response.
- If Coach responds by talking about wellness being the #1 priority, includes a description of staff and services they have in their Athletics department (Sports RD on staff and available to athletes, Sports Psych/Mental Health counselors in Athletics, Athletic Training (AT) and Sports Medicine accessibility, an Eating Concerns Team, fueling stations, commitment to healthy eating on the road, pre-game meals and post-game tailgates, ongoing nutrition education for teams, etc) or general resources on campus (campus counseling center, campus RD, a healthy eating program in dining halls), those are all positive signs.
- If Coach responds by acknowledging that they are aware and concerned about the risks of under-fueling, overtraining, and eating disorders in sport, and they actively work to prevent those situations and maintain a culture of communication, proper nutrition, and wellness on their team with resources devoted to these priorities, that’s a dream come true! Join this team!
It would also be appropriate, in case the coach doesn’t mention it, to ask directly:
What support staff are in your Athletics Department to support student-athlete wellness?
Is there a Sports Dietitian on staff (full-time; part-time; on a consulting basis); or is there a campus RD (if not in Athletics) and how does he/she work collaboratively with Athletics?
Is there an Eating Concerns team in your Athletics Department? Are there protocols in place to recognize and address disordered eating or low energy availability?
Is there a mental health professional or Sport Psychologist available to athletes?
Athletes who visit campus and do overnights with members of the team should be astute observers and active listeners. Watching how teammates interact over meals, talk in the locker-room, and interact with coaches and support staff provide meaningful clues to team culture. Asking questions of the current athletes about the accessibility of support services and their experiences of sports medicine interactions can also be quite valuable.
Remember that the recruitment process is a two-way street. While a coach is observing, listening, and asking questions of a recruit to evaluate whether they are a good fit for their team, the high school athlete should similarly play an active role in the process by observing, listening, and asking questions of their own.
It’s important for our young, high school athletes to be prepared for the college experience and understand exactly what they are signing up for—especially when it comes to their physical and mental health in demanding collegiate sports programs. I believe these questions Paula has provided will help to break the silence that too often surrounds even prevalent, widespread issues in sport, like weight stigma and eating disorders, and help athletes to make an informed decision that will support their well-being and allow them to thrive where they commit.