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Behaviour change for optimising nutrition in recreational and grassroots athletes

Getting started as a sports nutritionist can be somewhat daunting. You may feel confident in sharing your nutrition knowledge, but this might have little bearing on how effective you are at supporting change in others. 

It is worth considering that many recreational and grassroot athletes may have additional barriers in achieving meaningful change, compared with elite or professional athletes. These could present from conflicting demands such as busy academic schedules, work lives and family obligations meaning there is less time to dedicate to sporting goals. They are also less likely to have access to reliable advice and a supportive performance network to facilitate and reinforce sound practices. However, whilst there might be practical differences when working with recreational and grassroot athletes, the following core principles of behaviour change remain the same. 

Your initial approach is fundamental to forming a collaborative and motivational relationship with your athlete. 

Are you approachable and understanding? Maybe ask your athlete where they would like to meet and if they want to bring someone with them. Choose a place where you’re both comfortable and at ease but bear in mind that your conversations shouldn’t be overheard, and you need to be able to listen without distractions.  

Use an open-ended questioning style to learn more about the athlete’s reason for meeting. ‘Would you be able to let me know your reasons for meeting with me today?’ Actively listen using encouraging body language, taking time be curious so you clearly show that you’re interested, on their side and out to support them in making changes that are realistic, evidence based and personalised.

Question skilfully, listen and respond

You may need to probe using open-ended questions to allow the athlete to open up about their sport, achievements, goals and motivations. Alternatively, you may find that they’re able to chat at length unprompted, so asking more specific questions will focus your conversation and prevent it going off piste! 

Once you feel you have a clearer picture of the issues being presented to you, summarise what you have heard and reflect back to your athlete. For example, ‘It sounds like you’ve been struggling to recover from injury and you are seeking dietary strategies to help, have I understood you correctly?’ 

Ask them what they already know and have in mind, ‘Have you any ideas how nutrition might be helpful or are there any dietary changes you’re considering?’ Tease out what works well for them and any similar successes they’ve had in the past so you can build on self-efficacy.

You may need to offer some direction, ‘Would it help if I explain a couple of dietary approaches which might be helpful?’  

But be careful to avoid telling your athlete what you think they need to do, as most will resist – no surprises there, it’s simply human nature! It’s far more preferable for any athlete to identify and suggest their own ideas or solutions, with you shaping and supporting them in planning to move forward.

Agreeing a way forward and setting goals

Once you have an idea or two on the table, you’re well placed to work on setting goals together. Goal setting is the most successful behaviour change tool when goals are ‘SMART’ with a focus on changing or modifying specific behaviours.

‘I need to lose 7kg in 2 months to compete’ may be the ultimate goal (known as an outcome goal) but the behavioural changes required to achieve this goal may be complex and could include eating breakfast, taking lunch to work, changing cooking techniques, adapting training, cutting down on alcohol, changing social habits and so on. It is best to set one goal on one single process or behaviour.

A goal is most effective when:

  1. It is realistic and achievable – start by setting small, manageable, process goals. It may help to think of a ladder as it’s much easier to climb speedily up a ladder with small gaps between the rungs than when spread far apart.
  2. It will truly make a difference – is this change in behaviour going to have the desired impact? Are you moving in the right direction on the ladder? 
  3. The athlete is intrinsically motivated to make the change or in other words they want to do it for themselves and know what they have to gain from working towards this goal.
  4. Plans are in place to overcome barriers and obstacles.
  5. The goal can be measured and monitored so you and the athlete can see progress within desired timescales or know when to modify the goal.

Tools and techniques to support with goal setting and behaviour change

1.Establishing intrinsic motivation

It can be as simple as asking the athlete to rate how important it is for them to achieve this goal on a scale of 0-10. Revisiting this motivation scale can be helpful in determining whether the goal is still relevant or whether it needs to be reframed.

2. Visualisation techniques

It can be really helpful for your athlete to sit quietly and visualise themselves performing the desired activity or behaviour in a step-by-step fashion.

  • Can it actually work in practice?
  • How will it feel when I’m doing this and getting it right?

3. What will be my challenges and how can I overcome them?

Allow the athlete to identify what might get in the way of them achieving the goal. How might they be able to overcome these barriers or obstacles? 

4. Using buddy systems and support

Is the athlete attempting to make changes on their own or can they involve others (team mates, friends, family) who can offer help, support and encouragement? The goal could be much easier to achieve if they have support with shopping or cooking, for example. 

5. Making use of PODS – ‘prompts of decision making’

We all have triggers that influence our behaviours and prompt us to do things. Positive examples of these could be weekly menu plans, shopping lists and notifications to remind us to eat or drink at certain times. Positioning objects such as water bottles or fruit bowls in prime spots, or simply making sure that there are suitable choices in our fridge and cupboards are other examples. It may also be helpful to avoid or remove any triggers that will throw us off course or promote less helpful behaviours.

How do we know if what we’re doing is on track?

Any goals that have been set should be monitored, measured and reviewed at intervals. Many tools can be used to do this and include logs on apps or diaries for food and fluid intake or activity which could also include photo diaries. Scales for mapping motivation and estimating physical exertion e.g. Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) are simple and easy to record. To empower the athlete, it is best to choose the monitoring tools that suit them as even the simplest procedures will require some inputting of information, monitoring and time to reflect on their progress. 

Some very simple reflective questions to use are below. 

  • How did I get on?
  • What helped me? 
  • What didn’t help me?
  • How might I overcome the things that did not help me?
  • What else could I do differently?

By recognising your recreational and grassroot athlete as the expert in themselves and by empowering them to make positive changes to behaviours, you’re equipping them with skills and confidence that will help them to continue to progress with behaviour change long after your support is removed. 

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Please read the following notice

This information is intended for Health and/or Nutrition Professionals working within the field of sport and performance nutrition, including sports nutritionists, dietitians, sports scientists, coaches, athletic trainers and others who have professional training in nutrition and human physiology.

Disclaimer: This information is intended for Health and/or Nutrition Professionals working within the field of sport and performance nutrition, including sports nutritionists, dietitians, sports scientists, coaches, athletic trainers and others who have professional training in nutrition and human physiology.