Encouraging Health and Happiness

Healthy diet can mean success on field of play

Athletes, coaches, athletic departments and entire schools are focusing more on high schoolers’ eating habits.

By Patrick Dorsey

MIAMI — At home, John Battle sees it. His son — also named John — eats healthy. And now, just 15 years old, the younger Battle already towers over his dad, who serves as track and field coach at Hallandale High School in Florida.

“Everyone says, ‘My God, what are you feeding him?”‘ the father said of the state-qualifying hurdler.

Battle saw it three years ago, too, when standout high jumper and University of Florida football recruit Frankie Hammond Jr. was “a tall, slender individual,” in Battle’s words, and was put on a meal plan by the Gators. Hammond quickly built “some lean and mean wide receiver muscle,” Battle said, and now he is a UF redshirt junior.

But perhaps the biggest indicator came five years back. After a “pretty good” 2005, Battle decided to stress proper nutrition to his team.

The Chargers won the 2006 Class 3A state boys’ title. Runner Tabarie Henry went on to be an Olympian. And although Battle knows it’s not the only reason behind the success, he isn’t denying the importance of eating right in high school sports.

“We (tell our athletes): ‘Hey, if you want to get to this level — and we always go back to 2006 — this is what you need to do,”‘ Battle said. “And part of that is eating correctly.”

Hallandale is far from alone. Although the movement is hardly universal — many say it’s still not remotely widespread enough — athletes, coaches, athletic departments and entire schools throughout the area are focusing more on high schoolers’ eating habits.

Some teams seek out nutritionists, even hiring them to run strength-and-conditioning programs. Sometimes individuals go themselves. Other programs simply tell athletes to pay attention, be it via strict guidelines or general rules.

The big reason? According to Vicki Ellis Hatch, a former tennis pro and University of Texas player and coach who is part of the North Miami Beach-based Julien & Hatch Nutrition Institute, it’s pretty simple: Eat right and an athlete can get that extra edge.

“It can definitely set one athlete apart from another,” said Hatch, who has consulted athletes from Miami Beach Senior High, Dr. Krop, University School, Hillel, Miami Country Day and other schools.

But what to eat to make it happen? This is where it gets tricky, as most agree no one diet is right for everyone.

Alex Armenteros, track and field coach at Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, treats his distance runners and sprinters differently. Joel Giacobbe, Archbishop McCarthy’s strength-and-conditioning coach and a nutritionist himself, sees big differences between girls and boys.

Hatch sees all kinds of athletes across all types of sports and knows she can’t just offer the same suggestions.

“I have some ballerinas that I work with,” she said. “Their meal plan is going to look completely different from the male basketball player. … (Even) a big linebacker versus a running back — they’re going to have slightly different nutrition and weight needs as well.”

Still, there are some general rules that are widely accepted.

Soda? Out — something many schools have adopted by removing machines. Lean protein? In, according to pretty much everyone. And nutrient-rich carbohydrates from whole grains, fruits and vegetables? Also in.

And overall, according to Mike Lawrence — lead teacher in the sports and health science magnet program at South Dade, and a football assistant — athletes must make sure they’re eating enough.

That’s right. Enough. And that gets to another point of Hatch’s: If an athlete is serious about health and performance, he or she can’t pay attention to what’s hot on the magazine rack. It’s not the only stumbling block, though.

Lawrence pointed to the lack of information and family guidance.

Armenteros struggles with the opposite, as the unpatrolled Internet often can provide conflicting reports on the same foods, saying, “It’s hard to say what’s right and what’s wrong sometimes.”

Another issue is expenses, as often the most healthful of foods — especially organics — can cost more than a quick trip to a fast-food place.

The speed of fast and processed food also is an allure.

Naturally, teams can’t force players to eat right. Which means, for many athletes, temptation trumps all. But coaches and nutritionists still provide outlines, to varying degrees of success.

Instead of calorie counts, Lawrence preaches replacement. As in: wheat flour instead of white, low-fat milk instead of whole and so on. At St. Thomas, Armenteros believes his athletes should be allowed a few indulgences — as long as they are few.

Nearly everyone offers advice that is less than intrusive: hydration, proper sleep, eating shortly after working out and taking multivitamins and other widely accepted supplements. And leading by example helps. Battle said his family’s diet keeps him in shape, just like his athletes.

Giacobbe, meanwhile, was a 1980s bodybuilding champion who returned to competition after arriving at McCarthy.

Since then?

“I’ve had a good response (to my advice),” he said. “Once the kids know that you’re legitimate … they’ll believe in you.”

That’s Giacobbe’s goal. Because to him, nutrition isn’t near where it can be.

Sure, his and other programs are paying attention. Ones such as Hallandale even see some pretty solid success.

But without the right guidance, information and attitude toward nutrition, he said, this movement remains important, increasing in size — but also incomplete.

“We raise people on (bad foods) and still have gotten great results,” he said. “If we ever get the nutrition aspect … we’ll see (more) records broken.”

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EATING HEALTHY

With all the conflicting information in existence, there is no consensus right way to eat right, especially for high school athletes. But there are some general tips that are widely accepted among nutritionists and coaches. Here are five:

1. Eating enough. Unless fast weight loss is the goal, athletes first must make sure they’ve got enough fuel.

2. Timing. Food is instrumental in muscle recovery, so most recommend eating within an hour after a workout or competition.

3. Balance. This is something nutritionist Vicki Ellis Hatch stresses for athletes, wanting a range of protein and carbohydrates across multiple food groups.

4. Replacements. South Dade’s Mike Lawrence knows not to preach calorie counts, instead telling athletes to find healthful alternatives (e.g. low-fat milk instead of whole).

5. Moderation. Cutting out junk food is almost impossible. So when it comes to indulgences, control is key.

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