I was asked by an athlete what questions she could ask a coach she was considering running for in college. After being directed to some great questions NOT to ask, with helpful re-frames provided here: https://www.ncsasports.org/blog/2018/05/23/19-questions-college-coaches-hate/, it sparked my own questions. How can athletes assess whether the college coach they want to compete for has a healthy attitude toward nutrition and weight? How could they ask about resources available on campus or inside athletics should an athlete struggle or need guidance down the road?
So I went right to collegiate nutrition expert Paula Quatromoni for advice about navigating this important and delicate topic. She stated that often, these important questions are not asked because athletes (and parents) are focused on training and performance expectations, scholarships, the recruitment process, etc. and don’t necessarily think about the culture around food, nutrition and weight up front. Athletes may get other advice on this topic (from any source, really; not just a coach) and they should thoughtfully consider which questions are best suited to their individual circumstances and personalized needs when having conversations to evaluate a good fit with a coach, program, team or university. She suggested asking the following questions specific to nutrition and weight:
What is the culture like on your team with regards to nutrition, athletes’ weight, and overall wellness?
- If Coach responds by talking about protocols for weight monitoring, team weigh-ins, frequent Bod Pod assessments, or any response that indicates a focus on weight as an indicator of performance, a belief system that “everyone needs to trim down for collegiate sport,” evidence of a culture that values appearance or “looking the part” as a collegiate athlete, or anything that suggests this Coach buys into the “thinner = winner” mentality, consider that a concerning response. It is a red flag. Similarly, if the response is steeped in dieting language or mentions restrictive nutrition rather than positive nutrition or individualized approaches to fueling, beware. Exercise caution too if a coach responds saying, “I haven’t thought much about that” or “That isn’t really my area.” Athlete well-being is part of the coach’s responsibility. And proper attention to nutrition and wellness doesn’t just happen. It requires and deserves purposeful work committed resources, and collaborative effort.
- If Coach responds by talking about wellness being a top priority and provides a description of staff and services they have in their Athletics department including a sports dietitian (Registered Dietitian [RD] and possibly with the CSSD sports specialty certification) on staff and available to athletes, sport psychologists/mental health counselors in Athletics, Athletic Trainers and Sports Medicine accessibility, a multidisciplinary Eating Concerns Team, athlete 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, healthy eating program in dining halls), those are all very positive signs that should give you confidence that deep support is in place. Seriously consider joining this team!
- If Coach responds by admitting that they are aware and concerned about eating disorders in sport and actively work to get education on this topic, address any team culture factors that contribute to eating concerns, and maintain a culture of communication and wellness on their team, that’s a boldly honest and progressive position. The reality is, eating disorders in sport happen. No school, no sport, and no athlete is immune to the risk. There is no disgrace when eating disorders occur. The disgrace is in ignoring them, pretending they don’t happen, and failing to intervene and treat cases when they do occur. Proactively addressing eating disorder risk through education, awareness, and culture-building is an appropriate prevention strategy.
It would also be appropriate, in case the coach doesn’t mention it, to consider asking some of these questions 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 dietitian (if not in Athletics) and how does he/she work collaboratively with Athletics?
Is there an Eating Concerns team and are there protocols in place to recognize and address disordered eating or eating disorders in athletes?