Promoting a Healthy Lifestyle for Interscholastic Athletes

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Writing on a clipboard surrounded by healthy food

While attention to healthy living has long been standard practice in professional sports, an emphasis on nutrition is trickling down to the high school level. Addressing sports nutrition for high school athletes has become a top priority for interscholastic programs that seek to rise above the competition, writes Donna De La Cruz in the New York Times.

Student-athletes used to be considered well-rounded if they did well academically and were involved in their community, but many schools are now recognizing the importance of a healthy lifestyle as part of that equation.

Athletic administrators, including graduates of Ohio University’s Master of Athletic Administration (MAA) online program, should understand the importance of nutrition and lifestyle, both for individual student-athletes and for the success of the school’s sports program as a whole.

“Schools are starting to bring in dietitians to discuss the importance of nutrition with young athletes to complete the circle,” says Molly Wong Vega, a dietitian quoted in de la Cruz’s article. Wong Vega provides services to three public school districts in Houston, connecting with the school through a relationship with the Houston Methodist System, a network of hospitals. Wong Vega and her peers meet with individual athletes to make nutritional suggestions, providing snack examples that help with muscle and tissue repair, for example.

In Arizona, the Chandler Unified School District has three dietitians on staff, according to the article. Wesley Delbridge, a spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is one of those dietitians. Coaches often ask Delbridge to meet individually with athletes to discuss their individual needs.
“We would discuss their current weight, exercise activity, and intensity, and I would show them the final amount of calories they need in a day to maintain that activity level,” says Delbridge. “This can sometimes shock the student, because it seems like a lot of calories. Then we discuss how to meet these needs with healthy choices.”
Delbridge and his team have created boxes of food called “peak performance packs” that sell for $5 in the district’s high school cafeteria. Available in three options — endurance, muscle building, and rapid recovery — they are designed to provide nutritional support for a variety of athletic activities.

The endurance pack, geared toward sports such as soccer, cross country, track, and wrestling, is intended to help prevent cramping and muscle fatigue. It contains whole-grain pasta salad, fresh fruit, string cheese, vegetables, hummus, and a beverage high in electrolytes. The muscle-building pack, by contrast, contains both animal- and plant-based lean protein that helps repair muscles.

Not all schools can afford to run healthy living programs that involve nutritionists. A more affordable route for coaches and athletic administrators would be to learn about healthy living habits for student-athletes and implement their own school programs.

Five Healthy Habits for High School Athletes

Coaches and athletic administrators want their athletes to perform at peak levels. A student-athlete following a healthy habit program would see endurance and performance increase, with a lessening of potential injuries.

On its blog, PeakMed, a Colorado medical practice, details five healthy habits that high school athletic professionals can recommend to student-athletes for better success on the athletic field:

  1. Stay Hydrated: Water is vital to keeping an athlete’s body operating at optimal competitive levels. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine also include daily intake guidelines broken down by gender and age group.
  2. Eat Nourishing Food: Proper nutrition fuels successful athletic performance. Healthy eating habits should include a variety of fruit and vegetables, low-fat dairy, and protein.
  3. Prevent Injuries: Because teenage athletes are still growing, they are more susceptible to injuries. Coaches should ensure that athletes are fitted with proper equipment and practice stretching before any strenuous activity and also have an appropriate cool-down routine.
  4. Be a Student-Athlete, Not an Athlete First, Student Second: Coaches and administrators should help athletes stay on task with academics, for instance, by facilitating study halls or review sessions. A student who feels successful in school will be less distracted when the time comes to focus on the competition.
  5. Manage Stress: Encourage athletes to find balance in all their activities so they do not feel overwhelmed. Emphasize proper nutrition, sleep habits, and stress relief techniques to help develop proper coping skills.

Athletic department programs can implement these steps for each of their student-athletes to ensure they are reaching their full potential both on and off the field.

Strategies for Introducing Athletes to Healthy Lifestyle Choices

Coaches and athletic administrators who educate their athletes about healthy lifestyle choices are taking a proactive step toward leading a program of excellence. The New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association (NHIAA)’s website, Life of an Athlete (, provides interscholastic coaches, athletic administrators, and players with resources to help reach this goal. Sports management articles on the site include healthy recipes, weekly meal plans, and a checklist for coaches to improve lifestyle choices.

Some of the steps NHIAA suggests to facilitate communicating healthy lifestyle choices include:

  • Send a Message: At a team’s first practice, educate athletes about the effects of poor nutrition, improper sleep, and social drug use. Provide a code of expectations and reinforce consequences so team members will know your opinions and can expect to be held accountable for meeting them.
  • Open Discussions: Encourage open discussions about nutrition, sleep, and alcohol and drugs. Let athletes know you are accessible for any questions.
  • Team Ownership: Let the athletes establish meetings to discuss lifestyle choices with no adults present and designate student-athletes to lead the discussions. They should encourage the discussions to support the choice of leading a healthy lifestyle.
  • Send Out Reminders: Communicate and reinforce expectations routinely, especially leading into the weekend when social situations can negate healthy lifestyle choices.

Administrators and coaches who emphasize the connection between healthier living and athletic expectations can help their student-athletes understand the importance of making healthier choices.

Learn More About Ohio University’s Online Master’s in Athletic Administration

Ohio University’s master’s in athletic administration online prepares interscholastic athletic administrators to successfully lead an athletic department or team. Students are offered the skills needed to excel in the field of interscholastic athletic administration. The curriculum prepares graduates for taking the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) certification.

Ohio University’s MAA program is delivered online, making it a convenient option for any busy lifestyle. For more information, visit Ohio University’s MAA page.

Recommended Reading

Risk Management and Risk Minimization in Interscholastic Sports

Stress And School Sports

Managing an Athletic Department with Diverse, Non-Core Sports


The New Performance Enhancer in High School Sports? Nutrition: New York Times

Five Healthy Habits for High School Athletes:

Coaches Checklist to Improve Lifestyle Choices: Life of an Athlete