Phil Holmes BA (Hons), PGCE, Adv Dip.Nut MRSPH

The wonder of youth. How many parents would go back to their teenage years knowing what they know now? I work with teenage athletes and see an all too familiar pattern. They don’t eat enough food. Or they consume waaaaay too much.

Most are aware of the 2000 calorie suggestion from health authorities but they don’t know how this applies to them or even what 2000 calories looks like. Parents unanimously tell me that the message I pass to my clients should be put out to all schoolchildren; the opportunity would be wonderful.

I spoke to a fifteen year old rugby player last week. Just been cut from an Academy programme recently. I asked him what he ate for breakfast? Nothing. What about lunch? An apple and a sandwich. Drink? Sometimes a can of coke. With ambitions to progress in a game based on power, it’s clear why this nutrition pattern isn’t going to help too well.

And so to the examples of young athletes taking in too many calories for their long term development. I took my son to a group golf lesson for juniors. A dad bought his child a bag of haribo and a Dr Pepper. It was a one hour session hitting sand wedges! I’ve seen cricket matches played where a player bats for an over before getting out. After then sitting down for the rest of their team’s innings they field and may bowl a couple of overs. In between innings mum gives them a chocolate bar, some crisps and a sports drink! You don’t need a nutrition degree to see the issue.

For several years many young sports people will get away with this as the playing field will be fairly level; nearly all will be fuelling poorly. But as time passes and the chaff starts to drop off, it’s sometimes too late to stay ahead of the pack.

There are some teenage athletes who are really switched on. But these are in the minority from my experience. Even those who do receive attention from professional clubs / programmes are often given generic advice. The recency effect means they are more focused for around three weeks but then old habits and behaviours kick back in.

On the flip side there are athletes I’m fortunate to work with who are a joy to speak to. They are focused, learning about food choices and what macronutrients are, how they help, how fuelling should look before, during and after events and also how they can support their body’s development as they grow and meet their sporting demands. The families are so key to this and the buy in from parents / carers is vital but also sees adults tell me they feel energised, happier and are on good form far more often.

So for the potential super athletes, please encourage them to eat regularly, starting with breakfast. Help them understand how they can help maximise their development and become more consistent in their performance. Of course offspring often switch off when a parent passes on advice; why would they listen to the people who love them the most?!

If this is the case, please get in touch. Even in these times of restricted involvement, they can get ahead of the rest. many athletes are dismayed, de-motivated and treading water. Set a programme, include some strength and conditioning and lay the foundations of success with a smart, specific nutrition plan. Allow them to know what you know now; not when they are parents themselves.