What is the gymnastics coach’s role in nutrition?

Yesterday I watched a really powerful video series by Cassie Rice, the owner of GymCats which is a well-renown gymnastics training facility in Las Vegas, NV. In this video, she and her former athlete Olympian Tasha Schwikert share their experiences with problematic body image and eating disorders in the sport of gymnastics. Unfortunately, a lot of the negative body image and eating disorders are perpetrated by coaches.

Little girls are vulnerable. They have young developing minds that are taught “comply or die” by many in the gymnastics world. So, seemingly innocent (yet never innocent) body or food comments can easily spark an eating disorder or disordered behaviors. I was that young gymnast who fell into an eating disorder after my coaches made comments about my body and I hope to prevent this from happening to others. Seemingly innocent body comments led to years of struggle that didn’t resolve until years of therapy (and thousands of dollars as therapy is often not covered by insurance).

So, this brings me to discussing the coach’s role in nutrition. These are only my opinions formed from years of practice a pediatric/adolescent dietitian and former gymnast, now gymnastics judge.

I will first say, even if the gymnastics coach is the most qualified sports dietitian, I do not think it is within their scope to also serve as the gymnasts’ sports dietitian nutritionist. Just as the coach would not serve as the athlete’s sports psych or medical doctor, in my opinion, playing this dual role would be a conflict of interest and does not allow for full transparency between the athlete, parent, and medical provider.

Many coaches have athletes struggling with eating disorders they are unaware of, because the nature of the disorder revolves around secrecy and deception. Starving, having disordered food rules/behaviors, and binging/purging are embarrassing struggles that a gymnast is unlikely going to openly share with her coach (or parents). Hence, if the coach is trying to serve as her dietitian nutritionist, the relationship is compromised.

My best advice is to hire a nutrition consultant (a registered pediatric/adolescent sports dietitian nutritionist) to work with the gym and athletes. This can help create a positive nutrition culture that can include what the coaches want to see—the girls adequately fueling their bodies with foods that will help performance. By involving a dietitian with the entire team, it takes away the “stigma” of then referring an athlete to the dietitian since they are already familiar with that individual.

In Cassie’s lecture, she shared some video clips from a coaching course they wanted to implement that demonstrated the INCORRECT way for coaches to approach nutrition and body image conversations. Sound-bites such as “Sara’s party is tonight, let’s remember what happened last time when we ate cake, cookies, etc. and then the next day couldn’t swing bars” and “elite athletes must eat clean” and “X athlete ate two ice creams before the last competition; does that represent our brand?” and “long, thin lines represent our brand, if you don’t fit we can replace you”. Wow. This is the exact problematic nutrition dogma and verbiage that is rampant in gyms across the US and it needs to stop.

As a coach, if you have nutrition or body concerns about your athlete/s, refer them to a trained professional. I cannot repeat enough that this should be a registered (means board certified) pediatric/adolescent registered dietitian sports nutrition because they are the only trained nutrition professionals that are qualified to work with your young athletes. Gymnasts in the elite and JO program are 90% CHILDREN under the age of 18 in developing bodies that have very different nutrition needs than adults. I repeat…. children are not miniature adults nor should they be treated as such. As dietitians, we are trained to evaluate growth, the home feeding dynamic, eating behaviors, nutrients, etc. We do not just give your athlete a meal plan as say “comply or die” which a lot of “nutritionists” do to make a quick buck.

I get sick to my stomach when I think about some of the “nutritionists” I know of that are working with our gymnasts who are just spreading disordered food behaviors and practices. “Clean eating” is not evidence based and promote ridged eating and disordered behaviors (orthorexia). Hunger and fullness cues should be respected, not ignored because “it’s time” to eat per the meal plan. The parent should still be responsible and involved in the food purchasing and preparation with their athlete. No athlete should be eating alone at night, this allows for secrecy and disorders behaviors to begin. I totally understand that these days EVERYONE’s schedule is crazy busy. Sure, in the ideal world we’d all sit down to at least 4-5 family dinners per week, but it just isn’t feasible for many. This is fine, but the athlete still needs attention and help with food preparation.

If your athlete comes home from practice after the family has already eaten dinner, at least 1 person should sit with them and converse while they eat. This is not because they need to have their food intake monitored (unless actively struggling with an eating disorder), but so that they don’t feel socially isolated or easily slip into habits like avoiding certain food groups, etc. It’s a lot easier to “pull the wool over” parent’s eyes when the athlete is eating alone.

Coaches, you can also bring in a nutrition professional to speak with just the parents. This is something I love to do when I work with gyms because a lot of the topics like eating disorders, food parenting, etc. are going to be discussed very differently with parents versus parents and gymnasts together. Maybe you do a fundraiser to bring on a nutrition consultant or increase tuition by $5-10 a month for the team girls to pay a dietitian’s retainer to do monthly/quarterly team talks and individual 1:1 sessions as able. This could be a friendlier way to bring on a professional versus asking parents to pay individually. There may or may not be insurance coverage for whomever dietitian you bring on, but it’s unlikely if they are out of state or the athlete isn’t struggling with a clinical diagnosis.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Feel free to contact me here and follow along on Instagram for more content. Changing the gymnastics nutrition culture is not an easy feat, but in essential for this sport to stop destroying little girls’ bodies and spirits. These athletes will one day be wives, moms, and career women who deserve to have a healthy relationship with food and their bodies.