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Evaluation of Sports Nutrition Knowledge and Recommendations Among High School Coaches

Abstract: The objectives of this study were to evaluate high school coaches’ knowledge in sports nutrition and the nutritional practices they recommend to their athletes.  Forty-seven high school coaches in “leanness” and “non-leanness” sports from the greater region of Quebec (women = 44.7 %) completed a questionnaire on nutritional knowledge and practices. “Leanness sports” were defined as sports where leanness or/and low bodyweight were considered important (e.g. cheerleading, swimming and gymnastics), and “non-leanness sports” were defined as sports where these factors are less important (e.g. football). Participants obtained a total mean score of 68.4 % for the nutrition knowledge part of the questionnaire.  More specifically, less than 30 % of the coaches could answer correctly some general nutrition questions regarding carbohydrates and lipids. No significant difference in nutrition knowledge was observed between coaches from “leanness” and “non-leanness” sports or between men and women. Respondents with a university education scored higher than the others (73.3 % vs. 63.3 %, p < 0.05).  Coaches who participated in coaching certification also obtained better results than those without a coaching certification. The most popular source of information about nutrition used by coaches was the Internet at 55 %. The two most popular nutrition practices that coaches recommended in order to improve athlete performance were hydration and consumption of protein-rich foods.  Recommendation for nutritional supplements use was extremely rare and was suggested only by football coaches, a non-leanness sport.  Findings from this study indicate that coaches need sports nutrition education and specific training.


Alex’s Notes: Forty-seven coaches (55% male) were recruited from five schools in the greater Quebec City region across three main sport categories:

  • Leanness group – sports with a focus on aestheticism such as cheerleading, gymnastics, & wrestling
  • Non-leanness – football, a sport focused on gaining mass and strength
  • Other non-leanness – sports not focusing specifically on gaining mass and strength such as basketball, soccer, and cross-country skiing

A four-part questionnaire was provided to the coaches asking 83 true/false, yes/no, or multiple choice questions on general and sports nutrition, knowledge about lipids, vitamin, and pre-competition meals, and nutritional recommendations that the coaches themselves made. A pilot test was performed beforehand to verify comprehension of the questions.

The coaches’ age ranged from 17 to 55 years, averaging 29.5 years, and experience ranged from one to 30 years, with an average of 9.5 years. Seventy-two percent were certified by the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP), 51% had a university education, and 57% coached at the national/international level. Almost 60% considered themselves to be knowledgeable in sports nutrition; with 55% indicating the internet was a primary source of information, followed by friends at 35%, and a three-way tie between colleagues, TV, and dietitians at 30%. Sadly (in my opinion), scientific papers were the least relied upon at 5%. I suppose it isn’t all bad if we assume the 55% internet usage was for sites like Super Human Radio, SuppVersity, and Examine.

All three groups did similar on the questionnaire with an average score of 68.4%. The leanness group did significantly worse with questions about hydration, minerals, and pre-competition meals, which is concerning and surprising considering that these sports are much more obsessive about weight manipulation. The leanness group also tended to score lower on questions related to carbohydrates. Nutrition scores were similar among men and women, but women scored significantly higher on questions about weight management than men did. While the number of years of coaching experience and coaching level had no association with nutrition knowledge, those with a university education and those certified by the NCCP had significantly better scores than their peers.

Coach’s orders

All the coaches recommended hydration to their athletes, with 97.5% also recommending eating protein-rich foods. Coaches with a university education more frequently recommended the use of carbohydrate-rich foods to enhance performance, whereas those with over ten years of coaching experience recommended sports drinks to aid recovery.

Random tidbits that I found odd or funny

The researchers provided a list of questions in which 30% of fewer of the coaches answered correctly. Purely for amusement, I listed them below with the correct answer in parentheses.

  1. There is more protein in a cup of whole milk than a cup of skim milk. (false)
  2. Which nutrient contains 9 calories per gram? (fat)
  3. How many calories are in one pound (454 grams) of fat? (3500)

The researchers also provided questions which 80% or more answered correctly.

  1. Rice is rich in carbohydrates. (true)
  2. Low bodyweight will always permit to obtain a better athletic performance. (false)
  3. The best recommendation concerning hydration is that you can tell an athlete during a training session is to drink when he/she is thirsty. (false)

Honestly, I think the most concerning take-away is how simple these questions are and yet only an average of 68.4% were answered correctly. That or perhaps the fact that 45% said vegetables were a good source of carbohydrates, while only 23.8% answered with grains. Or that the most recommended protein-rich food was nuts and seeds.

Bottom line

Yes it was a small sample size limited to Quebec. Yes the high number of true/false/yes/no questions could have incorporated an element of chance in the answers that may have limited the representativeness of the results. Yes there was no real context provided for the questions.

But the results are still somewhat discouraging, and it would be interesting to see how the US compares.

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