By: Ron Stinson, NLSA Trainer
In the world of competitive youth soccer, we are always looking for an advantage or an edge to take our team to the Next Level. With very little down time, increased demands on players, parents, and coaches, and the need to compete with other town programs, clubs, and academies, the pressure and the stress mounts to put a quality product on the field, in order to compete. How do we compete with other programs? How do we convince quality players to play for our program or stay with our program? How do we keep players and parents happy? How do I get the best out of my players for games and tournaments? There are no generic answers to these questions, but there is a systematic approach that can be implemented to make a program more appetizing to players and parents.
The question posed to me is “Why Nutrition During Tournament Weekends Needs a More Serious Convo?” In order to answer that question, we need to look at it from an organizational level, an individual team level, and at the level of the individual player and family before we can delve into the actual nutrition. As an organization, the more teams we enter in a tournament, the better our teams perform in a tournament, and yes, our physical appearance, as material as it may seem, all have an impact on how others view us. Tournaments allow us to showcase players and teams of all ages; our program is center stage and our players and coaches are the actors. This could be the weekend a player contemplating leaving their current program and coming to our program watches or competes against one of our teams. It could be an opportunity for that same player to guest play with one of our teams, basing their decision to leave their current program on how our team performs. Have you ever been at a tournament and you were impressed by the uniform of another program? After the visual phenomenon takes place, the next step is to find out the name of the program. After you determine the name of the program, you start to notice some of their teams playing as you walk to the field you’re playing on, then you start following the team they have entered in your age group. You may even watch a game and notice how some of their other teams are there to support the team playing. When the tournament is over, you check the results of all the teams that program entered in the tournament. If we, as coaches, think parents aren’t doing the same thing, we are being naïve. These are some factors that impact tournament nutrition at the organizational level.
When we look at this from a team level, there are several factors that we need to take into consideration. In order to balance our needs and meet our goals in a tournament, we need to consider what tournament(s) we enter, where we are flighted in those tournaments, the location of the tournaments (stay away or local), number of players available, guest players, availability of parents attending, and training leading up to the tournament. As coaches, we are responsible for this balance, and we need to do our homework. Have we researched the tournament to determine how many teams have applied in our team’s age group, can we compete with the teams listed, and what level should we request based on the current list of applied teams? If this is an away tournament, what food options are available to players in the immediate area, and are we trying to organize a team dinner so we can loosely monitor what our players put in their bodies as opposed to what they tell us they put in their bodies. Are the players hydrating properly before, during, and between games? On the days leading up to the tournament, are we allowing our players to rest by going light the closer we get to the tournament; possibly concentrating on more tactical issues on the practice day closest to the tournament weekend.
We need to remember that a large percentage of these players are multi-sport athletes, coming from a school sport to one of our practices, and most of them are not fueling their bodies properly to begin with. If we are putting strenuous physical demands on them on a Thursday for a tournament starting on a Saturday, we’ve already put them between a rock and a hard place from a physical standpoint. Do we know what our players ingest over the course of a school day, do they eat breakfast, what time is their lunch, how much time is there between meals, are teachers allowing them to hydrate in class or between classes? As coaches, we need to talk to our players, and get to know their habits and tendencies off the field as well as on the field. We are very good at recognizing strengths and areas of improvement on the field, but are we doing enough to recognize the off the field tendencies that can impact a team and have a synergistic effect, if we don’t take our coaching game to the next level?
When we talk about the individual player, the family, and how tournament play can be impacted by nutrition, we need to know our players. Do you have a player with food allergies (dairy, gluten, peanut butter, etc.)? Do you have any players with special needs or monitoring needs during games (diabetes, seasonal allergies, exercise induced asthma, etc.), and how is their diet instrumental to their performance? Do any medications make the player dehydrated, do any players drink caffeinated products, do you know your player’s parent(s)/guardian and their thoughts or knowledge on nutrition? Do you have any players that don’t have the money to eat enough in a day to fuel their body properly? Are any players taking OTC supplements and if so, what are they taking? Do you have a player that tends to play better when a certain parent drops them off and/or attends a game or tournament? Fortunately or unfortunately, this level is the building block of our house, the most important level, and the level that acts as the base of our pyramid; if we don’t spend time working on relationships with parents and players, our pyramid is weak, and susceptible to collapse. We spend three to four and a half hours per week with a player, and they spend the rest of that time with family, friends, and teachers.
Now that we have covered “Why Nutrition During Tournament Weekends Needs a More Serious Convo” from an organizational level, a team level, and from the player/family level, we can look into the actual nutrition of a player. Below (highlighted) is what I’ve sent out to my teams over the past 15 years or so. I tried to keep it as simple as possible for players, parents, and guardians so they can get a basic understanding of the importance of nutrition and include some other suggestions to minimize a player’s stress level when they get to the tournament. Waking up early, travel time, parking, and getting to the field at the appropriate time for warm-ups is stressful on game day. If we can provide some guidance, some tips, and some structure, maybe we can alleviate some of the thinking and the stress associated with the process.
Please have the players start carb loading by Wednesday at the latest for a Saturday/Sunday tournament. You will hear of a lot of teams having pasta parties the night before games or tournaments, but this is one of those situations where it is too little too late. In order for this process to work properly, you need to incorporate complex carbohydrates for 3-4 days prior to your target event. Some of the best foods for this are brown rice, whole wheat or multi grain pastas or breads, green vegetables (Good luck with that one), and sweet potatoes. Some simple carbs in the form of fruit are good as well in the days leading up to the tournament, but you might want to cut them out of the diet the night before a tournament because they can cause some GI issues and frequent trips to the bathroom on game day. The players’ bellies will probably be full of butterflies on game day anyway, so no need to add fuel to the fire. Please limit red meat and dairy intake after Wednesday and citrus fruits on the day of play. Dairy and citrus fruits cause mucus and mucus slows us down (Too long of an explanation).
The game day diet should consist of a bland breakfast 2-3 hours before the start of the first game. Eating causes blood to flow to the stomach area to assist with digestion and the players need the blood in their limbs for game time, so that’s where the 2-3 hours comes in. Post-game diet should include some protein to prevent muscle breakdown and carbohydrates that you know do not upset your player’s stomach and are not too heavy. Endurance sports will cause the stomach to churn the acid within and can cause an upset stomach and heartburn. This process combined with the butterflies and the pre-game meal can have a synergistic effect on the stomach. If you’ve ever noticed that your player gets an upset stomach when playing sports, this combination could be causing the problem. This issue can be reduced or alleviated by having the player take a chewable Pepcid AC or other acid reducer a few hours prior to the game. I normally keep a bottle with me on game days or during a tournament weekend.
Please do not have the players use any pre-game gels unless they have done this on a regular basis without any GI issues and make sure they drink 16 oz. of water per half gel pack. Again, this has to do with GI issues. Gatorade is very popular, but should never be consumed before or during a game because it has a high sugar and sodium content, both which cause thirst and can lead to dehydration prior to and during exercise. Wait until after the game for Gatorade and add water (50/50 mix). Most athletes are dehydrated by some percentage when they compete. Just 2% dehydration reduces the body’s maximum performance level to 85% of its maximum potential. There are normally 3 games or more during most tournaments and we need to have all the players properly hydrated. The hydration process (at least 64 oz. of water per day without physical activity) is like the carb loading process and it really should be done every day, but it should definitely start by Wednesday at the latest for a Saturday/Sunday tournament.
PLAY HUNGRY – FINISH FULL!!!
Exercise and Rest
If possible, the players should cut down on the amount of physical activity they engage in starting on Wednesday. Practice should be light on Thursday, if there is a practice scheduled. Sun exposure and active pool time (swimming) should be limited on Friday (for a tournament starting on Saturday). These are all just suggestions for optimal performance, but let’s face it; we are dealing with young athletes. If they even do half to three quarters of this stuff, they will be much better off.
GAME DAY ISSUES
Blisters – Three or four games and sweaty feet = sweaty blistered feet in warm weather. A light coating of Vaseline on the feet will reduce or eliminate any blisters. This also works for other areas that may have chafing issues.
Uniforms – To avoid any additional stress, have your players pack their soccer bags on Friday night. Two shirts, two shorts, two pairs of socks, allergy/asthma medications, pre-wrap, cold weather gear, etc.
Headaches – If a player has frequent headaches after playing endurance sports, you might want to consult an allergy/asthma specialist to determine if there is a possibility of exercise induced asthma. It is common for a player with exercise-induced asthma to come off the field and start coughing on a regular basis or have frequent headaches. This can sometimes be confused with dehydration symptoms.
If we think of our bodies as a car and what it takes to fuel a car, we can get some perspective on what the human body needs to perform. We cannot expect our car to perform efficiently on junk food gas or the wrong gas (diesel); we need to fuel our vehicle with the fuel that will allow it to perform at the highest level. In sport, our body is the vehicle, and the better the fuel, the better the performance. Our bodies also need maintenance work in the form of fitness training, stretching, technical training, and mental training, whether it’s tactical work, classroom sessions, or mental toughness. All these aspects contribute to the synergistic effect on our players, our families, our teams, and our organization.
In addition to talking about “Why Nutrition During Tournament Weekends Needs a More Serious Convo,” we need to focus on nutrition leading up to a tournament, and we need to make it simple. If we guide folks as to what to eat and what to avoid by creating a list of “Yes” foods and “No” foods, we can treat it as a training app that allows players to exchange one food item from the no list with one food item from the yes list on a weekly basis. Improving food/fuel sources can be made simple and eventually improve individual/team performance. Not only will this allow players to track what they eat, it could also create conversations and relationships within a team if players are discussing even just one food choice that they have in common.
Due to the relationship between diet, fitness, and stretching, we need to make sure our players are well rounded in all three areas. What is one of the first things players want to do as soon as they arrive at practice? One thing they love to do is shoot on goal without stretching, increasing the possibility of an injury to the hip, hip flexor, knee, hamstring, quad or other muscles involved in the shooting motion. Do you have a stretching routine for your team outside of the dynamic warm-up? Are your players implementing static stretching prior to warming up the muscle for 8-12 minutes? Are your players using the proper form when stretching and for the appropriate amount of time? Basically, are your players doing more harm than good when they stretch because they are doing it wrong or haven’t been taught the proper method. This is crucial regarding tournaments, as we are sometimes limited to warm-up areas that are too small to incorporate ball work. If you notice that your team is always slow to start, it could be a result of an inefficient warm-up. I am guilty of this on occasion and the result is typically a strong second half after physical and mental mistakes in the first ten minutes of the game that lead to early goals for the opposition. In the colder months, are you telling your players to keep their warm-up suits on during the warm-up, in order to allow the muscles to warm up properly, causing perspiration? If a player isn’t perspiring, is it due to a lackluster warm-up or a lack of hydration? During training, I evaluate myself and notice at times that I am creating what I call training scars. For example, if I am explaining the difference between a shooting drill and a finishing drill, and I allow the players to perform the finishing drill, but as the drill progresses, players aren’t following their shot, and I’m not encouraging them to follow their shot, I am creating a training scar. Don’t create training scars in your warm-ups because they may lead to training scars during the game.
We’ve discussed nutrition as it relates to tournament performance and the impact it has at the organizational level, the team level, and the player level. Do you have a plan in place with your players, parents, team, and organization that allows your players to perform at their highest level in games and tournaments? If not, can you implement one at the team level during this time away from your team? The same question can be asked for stretching and warm-ups. We want our players to be well rounded and we need to be well rounded as coaches. We need to provide players/families with the tools to succeed as individuals so the base of our pyramid is stable; without a stable base we cannot complete our pyramid.
“Play Hungry, Finish Full”