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Helping Student Athletes Perform At Their Best: A Game Plan for Sports Moms


Brooke de LenchWith the fall sports season beginning, the nation's 30 million middle and high school athletes face challenges like never before. Participation is at an all-time high, but so, too, is competition for roster spots, playing time and athletic scholarships.

The challenges facing the mothers of athletes are equally daunting. Today's sports moms do much more than juggle schedules and drive athletes to and from games (though six out of ten shuttle their kids to sports practices and games three or more times a week). (1) Moms are committed to going the extra mile to ensure that their kids are well-rested, well-nourished, well-hydrated and mentally prepared to perform at their best, both in the classroom and on the playing field.

To help your kids achieve peak performance, I recommend the following ten-point "game plan" to address time, nutrition and performance concerns common to sports moms:

1. Blow the Whistle at Bedtime. Practices before and after school, homework, texting and screen time don't leave teens enough time for sleep. Studies show teenagers need nine hours of sleep but only get about seven. (2)

  • TIP: Set a consistent "lights-out" time for turning off the computer, cell phone, MP3, and TV, so your athlete gets the rest needed for peak performance. Have phones and other handheld devices docked away from the bedroom to reduce the opportunity for late night texting and gaming.

2. Breakfast: Take 2! Everyone has heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But, studies consistently show that more than half of all teenagers skip breakfast. Not only do teens that eat breakfast get better grades (3),  but breakfast helps athletes to recoup the energy lost overnight, and raises blood sugar to healthy levels so they can access energy stores in their bodies needed for schoolwork and sports.

  • TIP: Moms of athletes who have early morning practices should to consider not one but two morning meals. Before early morning practices or workouts, provide a snack or mini-breakfast that can be eaten on the way out the door. Carbohydrates are especially important for athletes prior to activity. Pack a second snack for athletes to eat after a morning workout that includes protein to help restore muscles and carbs to provide the energy needed to support learning until lunch.

3. Fuel the Burn: Active young athletes are calorie-burning machines who in some cases need at least 3,000 calories per day for peak performance. This means they need to be eating very frequently. And, while these athletes should be less concerned with counting calories, they should try to consume calories that count.

  • TIP: To help young athletes keep their energy levels up through day, send them to school with a backpack filled with healthy, high-carb, low-fat snacks such as energy bars, trail mix, granola bars, or dried fruit that they can eat over the course of the school day. Athletes should ask teachers if they can eat a quick snack at their desks. Many of today's teachers understand and are supportive of the needs of student athletes.

4. Use Sports Sense to Power Schoolwork: Great athletes are disciplined, focused and push themselves to achieve in their sport. Moms can encourage students to use these same qualities to manage their school load as well:

  • TIP: If there's time during the school day, suggest that your teen use it to review notes or knock off small parts of a homework assignment. And, coach them to tackle the tough stuff first. Because young athletes will be tired after sports, they should try to get priority and difficult homework items out of the way earlier in the day.

5. Be Pro-active about Hydration: Dehydration can lead to heat-related illness and takes a toll on performance by making it more difficult for the body to function properly. Moms should be concerned about proper hydration all year round - regardless of whether athletes are exercising indoors or out - because, no matter the season, athletes are always sweating! Staying hydrated during the school day is particularly challenging because athletes often can't or don't remember to hydrate properly or regularly. Indeed, studies show4 that many athletes are dehydrated before they even start their sport, making it difficult to catch up. 

  • TIP: Provide young athletes with scientifically proven hydration "equipment." Water does not hydrate as effectively as a sport drinks that are scientifically formulated with fluid, electrolytes and carbohydrates to rapidly replace what athletes lose in sweat and provide energy to keep them at the top of their game.5 
  • TIP: Thirst is not a good indicator of hydration so encourage athletes to drink on a schedule and teach this simple urine color test to determine hydration status:
    • Light yellow or relatively clear urine ("lemonade") means the athlete is hydrated.
    • Bright yellow urine ("mellow yellow") means that the athlete is slightly to moderately dehydrated.
    • Brownish urine ("apple juice") means the child or teenage athlete is severely dehydrated. 
  • TIP: Technology can help. A new iPhone app called iHydrateTM helps athletes to: 
    • Schedule hydration reminders for before, during, and after sports; and
    • Calculate how much fluid to drink to rehydrate based on urine color and/or amount of weight lost through sweat.

6. Fuel Sports Nutrition Gaps: Athletes need to be properly fueled before, during and after sports to get the most out of their bodies. The school year presents extra challenges. There is typically little time in the school day for athletes to eat before practice or competition, so they start on an empty stomach or choose ineffective sources of fuel based on what's readily available. And there is often a time gap between the end of a practice or game and sitting down to dinner when, studies show, tired muscles need protein to recover.6

  • TIP: Make sure your athlete has the right fuel when it's needed by packing scientifically developed sports nutrition products like Gatorade's G Series to provide the fuel, fluids and nutrients athletes need before during and after activity. 
    • Gatorade Prime 01 is pre-game fuel containing real carbohydrate energy that should be used 15 minutes before exertion to help kick-start activity.
    • Gatorade Perform 02 is the trusted Gatorade Thirst Quencher and low-calorie G2 that should be used during exertion to help athletes refuel, push through and rehydrate.
    • Gatorade Recover 03 is the first protein and carbohydrate beverage with the consistency of a thirst quencher to provide hydration and muscle recovery immediately after exercise.

7. Teach Calm, Mom: Tweens and teens are under more pressure today than ever to perform to adults' expectations. As they try to deal with the pressure of standardized tests and to live up to their parents' expectations, it's no surprise, then, to see such anxiety during sports competitions. But simply telling an athlete to relax while they are playing, without teaching them to how, can actually increase pressure and anxiety they feel.

  • TIP: Teach your athlete how to practice intentional exhaling to relax under pressure to improve their performance in both sports and in the classroom.
  • TIP: Help your teen to recognize when to do a performance exhale in the game. In soccer, for example, a performance exhale before taking a corner kick or penalty shot can help to reduce performance anxiety.
  • TIP: Have your young athlete write down a list of things that make up a great performance, then close their eyes and visualize each action on the list. Next time he or she starts to get nervous, pull out the list as a reminder to focus on the specific things he or she needs to do to be successful.

8. Practice Active Listening. Pick the right time and place to talk about her performance after a game.

  • TIP: Try to "read" your teen's emotions and avoid talking about a "bad" game if they upset. Instead, say something like, "I can tell you don't want to talk about the game right now, but if you want to talk about it later today, or tomorrow, or later this week, I will be happy to listen." Following this approach lets your teen know you are "there" for them, but doesn't force the issue.

9. Set Boundaries while Promoting Independence. A recent study7 found that a parenting style that promotes autonomy helps kids perform at their best on the playing field.

  • TIP: Promote a child's independence by providing choices and supporting decision-making within clear boundaries: 
    • Exert minimal pressure on your children to act in a certain way;
    • Strike an appropriate balance between structure and independence; and
    • Help young athletes accept personal responsibility for their decisions and learn from their own mistakes.

10. Don't Forget the Fun. Youth sports may have become more and more about competition and winning, but the number one reason kids - even at the high school level - play sports is because they enjoy the game.8 Athletes need to love the sport they are playing to reach an elite level. If the pressure to succeed becomes too great and they no longer have fun, they'll quit, no matter how skilled.

  • TIP: Be on the lookout for the following warning signs that your athlete is struggling to enjoy the sports experience: 
    • Repeated complaints of being sick at practice or game time
    • Slow return to practice after injury.
    • Nervousness, anxiety, anger, or sadness before, during, or after game
    • Practices well but plays poorly
    • Atypical behavior (e.g. even-tempered teen hits teammate or opponent, extroverted athlete suddenly becomes sullen and withdrawn).

1. Sabo, D. and Veliz, P. (2008). Go Out and Play: Youth Sports in America. East Meadow, NY: Women's Sports Foundation

2. Owens, Judy A., and Jodi A. Mindell. Take Charge of Your Child's Sleep: The All-in-One Resource for Solving Sleep Problems in Kids and Teens, New York: Marlowe & Company, 2005.

3. Journal of the American Dietetic Association (2005) May;105(5):743-60; International Journal of Obesity (2003) 27, 1258-1266;  Timlin, M. Pererira, M. Story, M. Neurmark-Sztainer, Breakfast Eating and Weight Change in a 5-Year Prospective Analysis of Adolescents: Project EAT (Eating Among Teens): Pediatrics (2008); 121(3): e368-e645.

4. Walker M. Casa, D, Levreault M, Psathas E, Sparrow S, Decher R. Children Participating in Summer Soccer Camps are Chronically DehydratedMed & Sci in Sports & Ex. (2004); 36(5): S180-181; Desher N, Casa D, Yeargin S, Levreault M, Cross C, McCaffrey M, Psathas E. Attitudes Toward Hydration and Incidence of Dehydration in Youths at Summer Soccer Camp" Med. & Sci in Sports & Ex. (2004); 37(5): S463.

5. Gisolfi CV, Lambert GP, Summers RW. Intestinal fluid absorption during exercise: role of sport drink osmolality and [Na+]; Med Sci Sports Exerc 2001; 33:907-915.

6. Ivy J, Goforth HW Jr, Damon BM, McCauley TR, Parsons EC, Price TB. Early postexercise muscle glycogen recovery is enhanced with a carbohydrate-protein supplement.: J Appl Physiol. 2002; 93(4):1337-44.

7. Holt NL,  Tamminen KA,  Black DE,  Mandigo JL, Fox KR.Youth Sport Parenting Styles and Practices" Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology. 2009; 31(1): 37-59.

8. Hyman, M. A Survey of Youth Sports Finds Winning Isn't the Only Thing." New York Times (January 31, 2010), http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/31/sports/31youth.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=Dari... (accessed August 6. 2010); Josephson Institute of Ethics. What Are Your Children Learning? The Impact of High School Sports on the Values and Ethics of High School Athletes (February 16, 2007) http://josephsoninstitute.org/pdf/sports_survey_report_022107.pdf (accessed August 6, 2010); Gould D, Carson S. Fun and Games? Myths Surrounding the Role of Youth Sports in Developing Olympic Champions. Youth Studies Australia 23, no.1 (2004): 27-34.

Revised March 14, 2010