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Sport and Competition

How to Fuel an Athlete’s Competitive Machine

The psychology of chowing down before sport events.

Ford Video/Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports
Source: Ford Video/Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports

Many questions about what athletes should eat typically arise in the minds of youth sport coaches and parents. These adults know very well that the diet of “little superstars” has something to do with their athletic performance. And, of course, that includes what’s consumed in the pregame meal.

An important point about planning the pregame meal should be kept in mind: It should be planned. A well-planned eating experience tells athletes that their energy level is being adequately fortified to handle the upcoming event. This serves to enhance athletes’ confidence and ultimately contributes to their sense of gaining a competitive edge—at least in nutrition.

What are some guidelines for planning the pregame meal?

  • The meal should be eaten 2.5-to-3 hours before the game.
  • Locate a suitable place where the team or athletes can be together and can concentrate on the upcoming competition.
  • The meal is best if it is low in fat, modest in protein, and high in carbohydrates (bread, spaghetti, macaroni, potatoes, pancakes, cereals, fruits, vegetables).
  • The meal should be modest in amount.
  • The menu should avoid those foods that carry a greater-than-usual risk of food poisoning, such as cream gravies, turkey, and cream pastries.
  • Fatty foods are slower and more difficult to digest. Thus, they should be eaten 5 or more hours before a game.

Coaches, parents, and athletes should learn the old rule: Saturday's game is played on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday's food intake. The pregame meal is not the time to try to provide all of the energy for some high-energy-expending competition.

What’s a simple, inexpensive pregame menu?

  • Lean beef or chicken sandwiches.
  • Fruit punch or fruit juice.
  • A large Jell-O salad.
  • Nutrition bars or generous servings of sherbet.

A big steak dinner is a poor choice for a pregame meal. It’s a fine postgame meal for the affluent athlete or team—either to celebrate or to forget and get ready for the next game.

Special attention also should be given to the food needs of young athletes when they are away from home and spending an evening in a motel.

  • “On the road” athletes are at considerable risk for gastronomical disasters and compromised performance the following day.
  • It is as important to plan evening eating as it is to plan pregame food intake.
  • Nutrition bars and sherbet make good evening snacks.
  • By providing such refreshments, athletes can be kept away from vending machines and fast-food establishments and make a positive contribution to the energy taken into the next day’s game.

Learn more about coaching and parenting young athletes

  • The Mastery Approach to Coaching and Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports are research-based videos that emphasize skill development, achieving personal and team success, giving maximum effort, and having fun.
  • To access the videos, go to the Youth Enrichment in Sports website.
More from Frank L. Smoll Ph.D.
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