11 things I’ve learned coaching elite and professional athletes. Lessons from our work with NFL, NBA, UFC, & Olympic champions.

Precision Nutrition’s work coaching elite and professional athletes contributes to every innovation we bring to nutrition and fitness. Here are our 11 favorite learnings; ones you can use with any client, with any goal.

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At Precision Nutrition, it’s our mission to improve the lives of, and get results for, every single type of client, including our most elite ones (like NFL, NHL, NBA teams, individual pros and Olympians, top-ranked junior prospects, and more).

Interestingly, coaching elite and pro athletes has taught us a lot.

I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty cool to work with some of the most respected athletes in the world. But here’s what’s surprising: In a lot of ways, elite athletes are just like us “regular” folks.

For example: I’ve learned that certain coaching principles apply across the board, no matter who you are and what you do.

(Yep, middle-aged clients just trying to lose belly fat do have something in common with UFC legend Georges St. Pierre).

So, in this article, I’d like to share 11 of our favorite coaching lessons and stories, taken directly from our work with some of the top athletes in the world.

If you’re a health and fitness pro, these can be applied to your coaching clients, whether they’re athletes or they’re just getting started with fitness.

And, hey, if you’re just here as a sports fan — enjoy the inside scoop.

1. Shape the environment and you can get great results, even without intensive one-on-one coaching.

Coaching one-on-one is great. But sometimes it’s not possible. Like when you’re trying to improve the nutritional habits of an entire basketball team in a short period of time.

Precision Nutrition coach Brian St. Pierre has been a nutrition consultant for the San Antonio Spurs since 2014. And he’s seen the team thrive (in fact, they won the NBA championship the year he started working with them).

But when Brian started working with the Spurs, he was a bit concerned about whether he’d be able to help.

With the team’s crazy schedule, he’d have next to zero one-on-one time with each player. Would he still be able to get results?

After careful consideration, Brian realized that he could have the biggest impact by focusing his efforts, not on each individual, but on the environment they all shared.

Brian’s tactics included:

  • Start with a template. After meeting with the players and coaching staff, he developed a meal plan template — focussing on meat, seafood, cooked starch, cooked vegetables, salad, fruit, and nuts — for the chefs/caterers at the training facility, where players eat breakfast and lunch.
  • Make it tasty. He ensured that players’ favorite foods were included in the provided meals. (Brian advised the team’s coaches not to take away Tim Duncan’s beloved Cajun chicken and mashed sweet potatoes.) After all, if the players don’t like the food they’re being offered, regardless of how good it is for them, they’ll just sneak out to Chick fil A.
  • Keep it convenient. He gave the strength and conditioning interns some Super Shake recipes so they could whip up personalized shakes (specific to each player’s needs and personal preferences) and hand them out after training and practice. 
  • Make arrangements for travel. He provided healthy meal ideas for plane rides. (Sometimes coaches insisted on soda and cookies for the ride — for themselves — so Brian gave suggestions on where to hide their personal stash so the players wouldn’t be tempted.)
  • Have a plan for non-practice hours. He recommended meal delivery services as options for dinner. For married players with a spouse who cooks for them, he provided recipes and meal ideas to take home.

These kinds of tactics are pretty simple, and none of them require in-depth, involved one-on-one coaching. Nor do they require any player to engage in some heroic, individual project of personal change.

Whether it’s at a training camp, at home, or in the office, our environment has a huge influence on what we eat.

Shape the environment, and you shape the path toward change.

2. Skill in the gym (or on the field) does not equal skill in the kitchen.

Elite athletes put everything they’ve got into their physical performance. You might assume they bring the same passion for detail, refinement, and mastery to the food they eat.

Some do. But most don’t.

I first learned this in the early 2000s when I went to work with the U.S. National Bobsled team as nutrition consultant. The team asked me to kick off their training camp with a seminar.

Back then I had the notion that, as top-level athletes, these guys must give the same attention to their nutrition as they do to their sport. As a result, I built a full day of seminars on advanced nutrition topics and high-level supplement strategies.

I was all ready to go.

Then the group filed in late, holding bags of McDonalds.

I knew immediately I would have to change my presentation on the fly.

As I asked questions and listened, I realized these athletes still needed to learn the basics. They may have been advanced in their sport, but they were still, for the most part, nutrition beginners.

This is a good lesson for anyone doing nutrition coaching.

Imagine you’re coaching a middle-aged man who’s 50 lbs overweight and has never given nutrition a second thought. Then imagine a 25-year-old who’s 225 lb and 8% body fat training for the Olympics.

Yes, they might be very different physically. But they might also have the exact same nutritional skill level.

(In the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification we classify clients as Level 1, Level 2, or Level 3 eaters and have different recommendations for each level. In this case, both individuals would get recommendations for Level 1 eaters.)

So don’t make too many assumptions about your clients. Talk to them, test them, and find out where they’re actually at.

3. If you can’t make it better, make it less-worse.

Recently tasked with helping NBA team the Brooklyn Nets improve their nutrition, Precision Nutrition coaches Adam Feit and Brian St. Pierre worked together to create an optimal nutritional environment at the team’s practice facility.

Seriously, they’re making that dining room a work of art. Beautiful infographics demonstrating hand-size portions and Super Shake infographics; healthy, perfectly balanced menus. Great stuff.

But after training, it’s time to compete. And that’s when the team hits the road. They travel constantly.

Adam and Brian realized the biggest obstacle to maintaining the team’s nutrition was dealing with hotel food. Especially late-night room service menus offering pizza, wings, burgers, and so on.

Adam and Brian couldn’t exactly customize the menus of hundreds of hotels. But they could change the menus the players saw.

So they got ahold of the hotel menus in advance and created pared down versions of each menu — a customized version with some of the best available options.

This smaller, more selective version of the menu is what the guys would see in their rooms or get when the team sat down for dinner.

Sure, it might not be perfect, but it was still a huge improvement. And it made it easier for the players to choose a healthier option without even thinking about it.

One of our coaching mantras at Precision Nutrition is “a little bit better”. We encourage clients to abandon all-or-nothing thinking and look for ways to make even slight improvements to each meal or each workout.

Of course, you don’t have to be an NBA champion to realize that small improvements really do add up.

4. The best meal plan is worthless if your client doesn’t like the food.

Professional tennis standout Sloane Stephens contacted PN for some help with her energy levels, performance, and general nutrition. Of course, we were happy to help.

Brian St. Pierre met with her, discussed goals, taste preferences and other details, and then put together some guidelines including a meal plan template complete with recipe ideas.

The problem: Sloane didn’t like any of it.

Through no fault of her own (hey, we all have foods we can’t stand), Sloane is sensitive to certain textures, tastes and food combinations.

She is a self-professed picky eater.

That’s when we realized that all of Brian’s nutritional expertise wasn’t enough. It was time to bring in the big guns. So we sent our full-time super-chef, Jen Nickle, to help.

Jen and Brian put together a taste-test session with Sloane. They tried out all kinds of options for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. They explored what food combinations suited her, whether she preferred certain foods raw or cooked, what foods were okay separate but not together, and so on.

Turns out, the taste-test day was fun. Jen and Brian were able to build rapport with the client and demonstrate our commitment to helping her. Best of all, Chef Jen could make food her client would really enjoy — and actually eat.

(Jen now travels with Sloane to big-time events like the U.S. Open to make sure she’s well-fed while competing.)

While not everyone can afford a personal chef, customizing nutritional guidance (and meal plans, if you use them) to a client’s tastes is essential.

If your client is picky, don’t try to insist that they develop a taste for quinoa or sweet potatoes; find out what they do like and work with that.

5. You have to work the way your client works.

Health and fitness coaches: Think about online coaching for a moment. How do you get started?

Chances are you compose a nice email, and you attach an assessment form, maybe a food log for them to fill out, and maybe link to an article for them to read.

What if your client doesn’t have a computer?

In 2014, Brian St. Pierre started working with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns. Some of the guys on the team didn’t own computers. And if they did, they never used email.

And why should they? Their lives are spent on the field, in the gym, in film sessions, or enjoying some precious recovery time.

Since, nowadays, people can do almost anything on their phone that they can do on on a computer, they were usually only reachable via text.

At first, Brian admits he felt resistant. He’d been coaching using email for years. Now he had to relearn a new style of communicating and coaching.

But, using his client-centered coaching skills, Brian adapted his methods to his clients. He got over his personal bias, stopped emailing, and started texting.

Interestingly, the texting experience made Brian think more critically about what he was asking clients in the first place. He became more focused, narrowing down his assessments to the bare essentials.

Most importantly, his clients got what they needed.

How to be client-centered is one of the best lessons any coach can ever learn. As coaches, we always have to remind ourselves that it doesn’t matter what works for us.

What matters is what works for our clients.

6. Perfection is not required.

Since 2009, I’ve been helping MMA star / UFC legend Georges St-Pierre with his nutrition. Before I began putting together Georges’ eating strategy, I knew two things.

One, that he had a soft spot for McDonald’s and Subway.

Two, if you tell a client they can’t have their favorite foods, they might end up ignoring you completely.

Think about it. How well could putting my foot down and bossing around a professional fighter (and Welterweight champion of the world) possibly go?

So I gave Georges some suggested meals. These included a few main meals and a few Super Shakes each day. These would cover his nutritional bases.

Beyond that, I told him he could eat whatever he wanted if he was still hungry. I even suggested eating McDonald’s or Subway every few days. Daily, if he liked.

Georges was shocked. And delighted. He couldn’t believe his nutrition coach was basically inviting him to eat at McDonald’s.

Let’s face it: With Georges’ energy expenditure, one meal a day off-script isn’t going to tank his results. It also fit his goals: gaining muscle mass to fight competitors who were getting bigger all the time.

Of course, Georges is not your typical client, and this was not your typical eating strategy. But there is an important lesson here.

Perfection isn’t required for elite athletes — or for “regular” people.

For most people, aiming to get 80% of your meals on-point is an effective goal.

7. What works for one person won’t necessarily work for another.

Dietary trends tend to go in cycles. Ketogenic diets are among them, resurfacing now and then to grab media headlines. These can get the attention of top athletes who are looking for an edge — with varying results.

Here’s an example. For a while, there was a trainer who made a big splash putting NFL linemen on a strict ketogenic diet paired with high doses of certain supplements. Players/clients would come to his “camp” for about four weeks to learn how to eat this way.

One of these players was an offensive lineman for the Atlanta Falcons.

He heard about other NFL guys getting great results on the program, so he decided to give it a try himself. Within those four weeks, he saw immediate improvement: He got bigger, faster, stronger, leaner — all the things a lineman would want to see.

By the end of the four weeks, though, he started to feel a lot less awesome.

He was experiencing some major symptoms: everything from glucose control issues to hypoglycemia to brain fog to vertigo to anxiety and depressive moods. He even confessed to having suicidal thoughts.

But he had been so impressed by the initial results of the diet, he wanted to keep trying. He tried tinkering with it, cycling his keto days, but nothing worked.

So he called us.

We reintroduced carbs into his diet, recommending he eat 2-3 cupped handfuls of carbs at each meal (five times a day). At the same time, we decreased his fat intake a bit, which helped counter-balance the increase in carbs, calorie-wise.

Within 2-3 weeks, his blood glucose evened out, his anxiety went away, and his performance improved. Plus, the body composition changes he liked about the keto diet stayed the same: He maintained his leanness and his mass.

We found that he needs to be really consistent with his carbs in order to perform and feel his best.

That’s the thing about diets, protocols, and specific methods. Just because it works for one client doesn’t mean it’s going to work for another — even if they share the same goals, athletic ability and body type.

Plus, just because a particular approach can “work” (according to very specific metrics like body weight, for some period of time) doesn’t mean it’s going to work for every goal, indefinitely.

Individual needs should come before trends every time.

And outcome-based decision making should trump “this worked for some other guy” or “this should theoretically work for me”.

8. Bring important influencers (like family members) into the process.

For several years I provided nutrition consultation to Junior A hockey players.

(Here in Canada, Junior A is essentially one level below the NHL. These are the guys already drafted, or looking to get drafted, and become the next great NHL stars.)

While these players are already amazing athletes, they’re also young, usually teenagers. They still live with families, either their own or those they are staying with while playing for a team outside their home town.

When working with these future NHLers, I did some basic education, giving seminars and offering kitchen demos showing how to prepare basic healthy foods.

But I knew that wasn’t enough.

It didn’t matter much what I told the athletes. Because they weren’t the ones making the meals, or doing the shopping, or buying the food.

I had to get the family involved. So I would find out who prepared the meals at the homes where they were staying, then concentrate my efforts on them.

I gave them everything they needed, including:

  • Education about the needs of a young teenage hockey player
  • Cooking demos
  • Recipes and meal ideas
  • Grocery shopping guides
  • And more.

The more I could equip the family to cook well, the better the nutritional results would be for the athlete.

This relates to all kinds of clients, of all ages. Clients often tell us their biggest obstacle to eating better is other people: colleagues, friends, and most of all, family members such as spouses and kids.

Change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Acknowledge the other influences in your clients’ lives. Help them work with loved ones and address any roadblocks together.

9. Intense training and strict eating will mess with your body. (But that’s OK for a little while.)

Precision Nutrition offers an elite athlete testing and coaching program which includes a battery of research-based physiological tests and assessments. These are designed to help athletes optimize their nutrition.

The tests include genetic, blood chemistry, food sensitivity, and microbiome analyses. To gather these data, we send a nurse to the athlete’s house or training facility, collect samples, and analyze them.

Then an interdisciplinary team (including our sports nutrition experts, our molecular genetics experts, and our physician) review and interpret the results.

We give the athletes a really comprehensive report of the findings. And then we use the findings to personally coach the athletes for the next six months.

A few months back, we tested a dozen track and field stars — some of whom just competed at the Rio Olympic Games — from the world-renowned Altis facility in Phoenix, Arizona.

In their lead-up to the games, we found something interesting.

Every one of the athletes had suboptimal sex hormone (testosterone, estrogen) levels and white blood cell counts. We discovered a host of other, more individual, things too. But this one was most interesting for two reasons.

First, it applied to both men and women.

Second, a few years back, when doing a pre-season training camp with NFL athletes at Nike HQ, we discovered some of the same things.

Of course, the results aren’t completely surprising. High intensity training has predictable consequences. It’s hard to get adequate calories, sleep, and stress management when you’re in an intense training block.

People who are training for the Olympics or for an NFL season are OK to make that trade-off. They know it’s temporary. And for most people, this kind of physical disruption isn’t dangerous if it’s for a short time.

However, it can become dangerous if you keep going at that level.

Most elite athletes take breaks after a training season, which provides a chance to rest, recover, and normalize. Its no surprise that many NHL athletes spend most of their off-season doing little more than lifting a fishing rod.

But many “regular” exercisers don’t respect the seasonality of sport. Which means, ironically, many of them are as much at risk of damaging their bodies through undereating and under recovery as Olympians.

So keep the long game in mind.

If a client is overtraining, bring the risks to their attention. If they’re making a sacrifice for an important goal, be clear about the tradeoffs.

And always be asking: What’s the goal? How do we get you there as safely as possible? When’s it time to back off and rest?

10. Just because a food is “healthy” doesn’t mean it’s good for everyone.

One client from our elite athlete program is Mikel Thomas, a hurdler from Trinidad and Tobago. Mikel was preparing for the Rio Olympics but was having some issues with recovery.

We conducted our usual battery of tests. In reviewing the data, we noticed he had a high iron saturation, and his UIBC (Unsaturated Iron Binding Capacity) was low. Both factors pointed to an excessive iron intake.

Pretty unusual for a vegetarian.

We also did a food sensitivities test, and noticed an intolerance to chickpeas.

(Note: While food sensitivities tests aren’t 100% reliable on their own, when used in the context of a full spectrum of tests and assessments, they can help give us extra clues about what’s going on.)

When we looked at Mikel’s food log we noticed that most of his meals were based around chickpeas. Giving thought to the data as a whole, we hypothesized that this dietary staple (typical for someone from Trinidad and Tobago, especially for a vegetarian) was actually causing a negative reaction in his body.

Fortunately, when we had Mikel replace chickpeas with alternative protein and carbohydrate sources such as quinoa, his recovery got better.

The moral of this story is not that chickpeas are bad. They offer carbohydrates, some protein, and various vitamins and minerals. They are a nutritious food.

But just because a food is considered “healthy” — or even a “superfood” — doesn’t mean it’s optimal for your client. Especially if it’s over-consumed.

11. Physiological markers don’t tell the whole story.

In 2011 and 2012, as mentioned above, I participated in Nike’s NFL Football Training Camp Pro. This camp brings together 10-15 high-level NFL athletes for a week-long camp of testing, training, eating, and learning experience on Nike’s campus.

The camp included athletes like Ndamukong Suh, Kam Chancellor, Patrick Chung, Jonathan Stewart, Steven Jackson, Greg Jennings, and more. And, at the camp, I delivered nutritional seminars and education to the athletes. I also ran some physiological testing for them.

Interestingly, I tested better than all the guys there on a host of standard markers of health such as sex hormone levels (testosterone, DHEA, etc), vitamin D levels, Omega 3 levels, and more.

Yep, when it came to these health markers, I dominated the NFL stars.

But you know what I wasn’t better at?

Playing football.

This was a great reminder that while physiological markers can be useful, they don’t give us the whole picture. And that putting too much focus on any particular non-sport performance indicator can lead you down a dangerous path.

At Precision Nutrition, we’re proud to be data-driven. We like numbers and tests and metrics of all kinds. But we also know it’s not the complete picture.

You have to look at the whole person to a real sense of what’s going on.

What to do next:
Some tips from Precision Nutrition

1. Don’t make assumptions.

Appearances can be deceiving. Just because someone is a star in their sport or looks the part doesn’t mean they have advanced nutrition skills.

Instead of making assumptions or guesses about where your client is at, ask questions. Listen. Observe.

Seek to understand rather than to prove yourself right.

2. Remember that in many ways, we’re all the same.

Elite athletes — they’re just like us!

Our lives may be very different but, in the end, we’re all human. We all want to enjoy our food and have some fun. We all have our favorite indulgences and the foods that make us curl up our lips in disgust.

Whether you’re working with celebrities, top athletes, busy executives or just neighborhood folks in your local gym, remember that at the end of the day, you’re coaching people.

3. Remember that in other ways, we’re all completely different.

What works for one client might not work for another. No matter how “super” the food or how “killer” the diet, there is no one-size-fits-all.

And what works for you might not work for your clients, either.

You may have spent years perfecting your intake forms, for example, but what happens when a client doesn’t have a computer? Or is constantly on the go and never has time to look at it?

Your job as a coach is to focus on understanding and supporting the needs of each client. This takes work and practice and, believe me, it is humbling sometimes.

But that’s what it takes to be a client-centered coach.

4. Screw perfection. Help your clients get a tiny bit better.

An all-or-nothing mentality won’t help your clients get anywhere, even if they’re top athletes who are used to aiming for perfection.

Looking for small ways to improve is the best way to keep moving consistently toward change.

That might mean letting a client keep her weekly supersweet Frappucino monstrosity. Or helping her choose the best option on a hotel menu. Or packing her own snacks for the plane.

You don’t need to get rid of everything a client is doing and every indulgence they have. Nor should you.

Find ways of helping them move forward, one tiny little bit at a time.

5. Seek out and celebrate your clients’ superpowers.

Whether they’re a gold medalist or they’ve never set foot in a gym, every single client possesses their own special superpowers.

One of your jobs as a coach is to help them figure out what they’re already good at and put those abilities to use.

Maybe they’re a data junkie and they can use their spreadsheet nerdiness to track their food like a pro. Or maybe they appreciate nature and will enjoy discovering local farms and farmers markets.

Maybe they lack information at the moment but have a great ability to learn. Maybe they routinely fall off the wagon — but they always, always get back on.

Help your clients recognize their own superpowers, and then put them to use.

Celebrate the good stuff. Call out progress every chance you get.

They might never be an NFL star, but you can be their cheerleader.

You can help them become their own superstar.

 

Coming Wednesday, October 5th, 2016.

If you’re a health and fitness pro and would like to learn more about becoming an elite, world-class nutrition coach, check out our Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification program; it kicks off soon.

Important: Since we only take a limited number of students each time we offer the program, and it sells out every time, the best strategy is to add your name to our free presale list.

Getting on the list gives you the chance to sign up for the certification 24 hours before everyone else. Even better, you save big on the cost of the program.

[Of course, if you’re already a student or graduate of the Level 1 Certification, check out our Level 2 Certification, an exclusive Master Class for elite trainers looking to perfect their nutrition knowledge and coaching techniques].

 

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