Beyond the Diamond Resources

 High-Performance Coaching

High-Performance Coaching

Beyond the Diamond
By Dr. Anne Shadle

In this article, we will examine high-performance coaching. From here, we will look at specific coaching behaviors and how they affect performance. Today, we see the word “coaching” being used in many different fields. Whether you are a coach in sport, business or even in a leadership role, the word “coach” describes a way of interacting with people. Coaching is a specific type of behavior. Many leaders use coaching-type behaviors. We see these behaviors in leadership models such as transformational leadership theory (Wagstaff, Arthur, Hardy, 2017). The purpose of this article is to look deeper into specific high-performance coaching behaviors and how these coaching behaviors affect performance.

First, let’s look at the definition of COACHING and then HIGH-PERFORMANCE COACHING:

COACHING -> Leaders attempts to improve performance by facilitating the acquisition of new knowledge, skills, and competencies.

I have highlighted the words that I think are most important for us to examine for the purpose of this article. Please read through the entire definition and then take a second to reflect on the words highlighted. If we take the first definition of coaching, the keywords highlighted are knowledge, skills, and competencies. If you remember from the ABC’s of Self-Determination Theory, this theory says that the key elements needed in a person’s life to nurture intrinsic motivation are autonomy, belonging and competence. These elements lay the foundation for intrinsic motivation leading to a self-determined individual. The C within the ABC’s of Self-Determination Theory is competence when developing knowledge and skill.

• HIGH-PERFORMANCE COACHING -> A systematic application of collaborative, individualized, solution-focused psychological practices by leaders to enhance individual, group, or organizational performance. It is intended to support individuals in better regulating and directing their intrapersonal and interpersonal resources to attain goals and help individuals to maximize strengths through self-directed learning. (Wagstaff, Arthur, Hardy, 2017)

The words of importance highlighted here are: systematic application, enhance performance, support individuals, attain goals, help individuals, maximize strengths, self-directed learning. Out of these words, support, goals, help and self-directed learning are keywords/skills for our attention. These words speak to the A and B of the ABC’s within Self-Determination Theory which is the need for (A) - autonomy (goals, self-directed learning) and a sense of (B) - belonging (support individuals, help individuals).

In the field of psychology, we are interested in creating theories and frameworks from knowledge acquired that help us better understand and predict behavior. Keeping the Self-Determination Theory’s framework in mind, let’s next look into specific coaching behaviors.

Regardless of the employment area, the literature on all high-performance coaches has similar behaviors. Those behaviors are: observing and performance analysis, ask effective questions, facilitate goal setting, provide developmental feedback and motivational feedback (Wagstaff, Arthur, Hardy, 2017). These specific behaviors have been proven in research to offer psychometrically sound, brief, and easy ways to measure high-performance coaching behavior. This framework was developed through the workplace, leadership, and sport coaching literature (Wagstaff, Arthur, Hardy, 2017). What are these specific behaviors?

1. Observing and Performance Analysis
1. Plays close attention to what the athlete does
2. Carefully observes athlete’s skills
3. Carefully watches athlete doing the skills and drills
4. Analyzes athlete’s performance

Observation as a coaching behavior key. Try stepping back and taking a researcher’s eye to practice. Training as a researcher, one of my assignments in graduate school was to go into an environment that we were familiar with and sit back and observe. This allowed us to see the familiar environment through a different lens and from a different perspective. I challenge you to do the same. Step back, slow down and intentionally watch interactions and skills being practiced. What do you observe? Be specific on what you observe. Write down what you observe and think. Later allow yourself time to process what you have observed as it relates to performance analysis.

2. Effective Questioning
1. Encourages athlete to think about how they can improve performance
2. Encourages athlete to question the way they do things
3. Encourages athlete to make suggestions on how they think they can improve performance
4. Asks the athlete’s opinion on how they can improve performance

My graduate school professor would often remind us that, “It is twice as hard to LISTEN as it is to talk. This is why we have two ears and only one mouth.” Take the time to ask the right questions and then being PATIENT enough for the reply. PATIENCE can be very challenging yet extremely important and effective in helping our athletes perform. Coaches need to create space for their athletes to answer questions. Great teams I have been part of, have done this at team events, dinners and on bus rides when practice times did not allow for the time and attention needed. Effective questioning allows the athlete to understand and digest what they are learning. Effective questioning allows the development of a key piece of autonomy (ownership). Two challenges: 1. Think about a specific athlete and create a list of questions that get at helping them perform better. 2. Create a question list that addresses the four items listed above.

3. Goal Setting
1. Monitors athlete’s progress toward goals
2. Helps athlete set short-term goals
3. Helps athlete identify targets for attaining goals
4. Helps athlete set long-term goals
5. Provides support to an athlete to help attain goals

Coaches, hopefully, are usually pretty good at goal setting. They have meetings with their athletes at the beginning of the season, meetings (individual/team) throughout the season and reflection/summary/team input at the end of the season as well as setting goals for the off-season. I would encourage you to continue to improve on the five areas listed above. Continue to talk to your athletes about the process of success. Continue to build the vision for them on where we are going and how each individual in practice and training is responsible for helping us get closer to the end goal.

4. Developmental Feedback
1. Makes sure athlete understands what they need to do to improve
2. Gives athlete advice on how to improve their skills
3. Offers advice on what the athlete needs to do to improve
4. Shows the athlete how to improve their skills

Feedback is critical information that helps individuals understand how they are performing and what changes, if any, need to be made. Coaches have a lot of different ways in which they give feedback. Coaches employ different tools to give that feedback. Key factors for feedback are the development of skills and strategies that align with your athlete’s and team’s goals. Developmental feedback provides athletes with direction, builds self-awareness, allows for self- reflection, and performance improvement. In the organizational psychology literature, it has been found that developmental feedback is aligned with intrinsic motivation which enhances learning and improvement. What this is saying is that developmental feedback helps build intrinsic motivation in your athletes which helps them be more engaged in the learning and focused on improvement.

5. Motivational Feedback

1. Tells athlete when they do a particularly good job
2. Sees that the athlete is rewarded for good performance
3. Expresses appreciation when an athlete performs well
4. Gives athlete credit where credit is due
(The five topics listed above were adapted from Wagstaff, Arthur, Hardy, 2017).

There is a lot of research that highlights the importance of positive feedback and/or behavior that is reinforced or rewarded by the coach. Motivational feedback recognizes when the athlete performs well or does something well in training or competition. Providing genuine positive feedback about an athlete’s development and progress help coaches recognize improvement, build autonomy, and competence within their athletes. Coaching research shows that these autonomy-supported environments have been related to self-determination, persistence, and motivation. Autonomy-supportive coaching behaviors are important in helping our athletes perform and succeed (Wagstaff, Arthur, Hardy, 2017).

In closing, the purpose of this article was to look deeper into specific high-performance coaching behaviors and how those coaching behaviors affect performance. These behaviors are: Observing and Performance Analysis, Ask Effective Questions, Facilitate Goal Setting, Provide Developmental Feedback and Motivational Feedback (Wagstaff, Arthur, Hardy, 2017).


Wagstaff, C., Arthur, C., Hardy, L. (2017). The development and initial validation of a measure of
coaching behaviors in a sample of army recruits. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 30: 341-357, 2018.

Deci, E.L. (1975). Intrinsic motivation. New York: Plenum.

Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology, 49 (3), 182-185. Doi:10.1037/a0012801

Dr. Anne Shadle, Ph.D., is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, a certified consultant in Sport Psychology CC-AASP, a member of the United States Olympic Committee’s Sport Psychology registry, and is currently the Senior Research Psychologist for the United States Air Force Research Laboratory.  She also serves on the Athlete Advisory Committee for USA Track and Field (USATF) and currently is the President-appointed committee chair for Psychological Services for USATF. She is heavily involved with coaching education and certification for the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) and USATF. Shadle received her Bachelor of Science in Education and Human Sciences from the University of Nebraska, where she also ran track and field. She was a two-time National Champion in the mile and 1500 meter distances before going on to run professionally for Reebok and compete in the 2008 Olympic Trials.

 The Individuality of Coaching

The Individuality of Coaching

Beyond the Diamond
By Dr. Anne Shadle

As someone who loves psychology and finds the intricacies of human interaction fascinating, it is easy to see why I would be drawn to the topic of the individuality of coaching. Most of us would agree that the psychology of each person is quite fascinating. We might also agree that understanding the unique psychology and communication needed in coaching someone would prove to be important in helping our athletes achieve their fullest potential.

Each of our personalities, along with life experiences and the environment in which we live and learn plays a huge part in how we socialize, communicate and interact with others. The ability to relate to others is a key topic in effective communication and coaching.

- How do effective coaches build relationships and trust with their athletes?

- What are some keys to effective communication?

- How does effective communication help us to teach sport skills and evaluate progress in performance?

3 Keys to Effective Communication
• Cues
• Feedback
• Personal Coaching style

In the world of athletics, one of the most important sport skills is the mental ability to focus one’s attention. Previous research in the field of sport psychology has shown that successful athletes have honed their ability to use visual, verbal and kinesthetic cues to intentionally focus their attention. When distracted or not focused on the task at hand, these athletes also use visual, verbal and kinesthetic cues to refocus their attention. Research conducted with Olympic Medals winners indicates that cue systems were most successful when the cues had been established and used by the coach and the athlete in the weeks and months leading up to the Olympic finals (McGuire, Shadle, Zuleger, & Low, 2014). Both coaches and athletes reported that this type of communication was one of the factors that significantly helped the coach-athlete duo to win an Olympic Medal.

As expected, the actual cues a coach uses with athletes depends on both the coach and athlete and their preferences. It is important to understand the individual’s learning style and tailor your cues to that style. Listed below are some of the benefits, of using cues systems, for athletes as well as for coaches.

Cues from the coach help the athletes to:
1. Focus their attention on specifically what the coach considers to be most important in that exact moment – i.e., cues connect the coach with the athlete and are able to provide immediate guidance and attention to the athlete. Cues tell the athlete what they need to do, how to do it, and when to do it.

2. Immediate feedback, learning, and direction - these cues are especially important during practice because they tell the athlete about their progress. Loaded with information, these cues enable the athlete to make decisions about where to focus their time and effort; e.g., on perfecting technique, or developing strength or how to improve footwork/stance.

3. Feel supported psychologically - cues can give the athlete energy, reassurances, inspiration and have a calming effect.

Cues help the coaches to:
1. Direct the athlete’s focus and attention. By using a cue system coaches can provide specific feedback to athletes during practice as well as during competition in a very efficient and precise manner (Keep cue language short and to the point. Can you say it in 3 words vs. 10?) When a coach needs to communicate with an athlete and time is limited, such as in the heat of competition, a cues system can be especially valuable.

2. Immediate feedback, learning, and direction- these cues are especially important during practice because they enable coaches to teach athletes exactly what to do “next” or when they find themselves in a specific situation. Thus, cues help coaches process the information through their eyes, digest it and then teach athletes what to do next.

3. Provide psychological support to athletes and to maintain own emotional balance and mental fortitude - cues help the coach manage their own energy and composure while also helping to support the energy and composure of their athlete(s).

Effective ways to establish and use cues:
Use results from the individual communication style and preferences inventory to create a mutually acceptable plan for improving the efficacy of communication between the coach and the athletes.

How to give cues:
Cue from the ground up: verb body part direction
(Example: Lift your elbow up).

We know for an athlete to learn a skill, the skill must first be performed and programmed into their body’s motor learning. Skill is defined as, “the capability to bring about some desired end result with maximum certainty and minimum time and energy,” (Schmidt and Lee, 2014). A few of the different components involved in the process of learning and performing a skill are the perceptual or sensory processes, along with decision making, and finally the movement. Taking the time to explain why you are doing something and connecting it to the end goal for the athlete helps to strengthen not only trust with the athlete but also understanding the learning that is occurring.

When giving feedback, it might feel like you are saying the same thing over and over. This is part of the learning process. When you teach, you often repeat the same thing, but it helps to vary how you say the same thing until the athlete gets it. This is when you know a cue works. A cue that works for one athlete might not make sense to another and vice versa. The great John Wooden has a book entitled, You Haven’t Taught Until They Have Learned: John Wooden’s Teaching Principles and Practices. This is a great book to further dive in and learn more about the individuality of coaching individuals as well as a team.

How much feedback is too much?
It has been found with a group of elite Olympic athletes that one correction was enough for the athlete when learning a new skill. Coaches must prioritize, from their own coaching style, what is most important. This will help guide which corrections are most important and need to be made first. Some athletes can handle two corrections but for most one correction was enough when learning a new skill. Once the athlete has mastered and made the first correction, you can move on to another.

The issue we often see is that coaches give too much information with their feedback which can often overwhelm the athlete (it is also too much information for the brain to process-thus why the athlete feels overwhelmed). It is best to take it slow when coaching/teaching new skills or correcting/breaking bad habits. Some athletes will adapt and learn quicker, others are less flexible and thus take more time to learn new skills. This is where the psychology of the individual comes into play and understanding how your athlete learns and the style in which they best absorb the information being communicated.

One final note: I would caution learning a new skill or changing the way an athlete does something too close to championship competitions. We want the athlete to feel confident going into major competitions. If this is a new skill you are working on and it is early in the season, I would say go ahead and work at that new skill. Be sure to communicate that information and the learning process to your athlete. For example, “I know we are working on this new batting stance. I want you to stick with this during the next game.”

Dr. Anne Shadle, Ph.D., is a certified consultant in Sport Psychology CC-AASP, a member of the United States Olympic Committee’s Sport Psychology registry and is currently the Senior Research Psychologist for the United States Air Force Research Laboratory.  She also serves on the Athlete Advisory Committee for USA Track and Field (USATF) and currently is the President-appointed committee chair for Psychological Services for USATF. She is heavily involved with coaching education and certification for the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) and USATF. Shadle received her Bachelor of Science in Education and Human Sciences from the University of Nebraska, where she also ran track and field. She was a two-time National Champion in the mile and 1500 meter distances before going on to run professionally for Reebok and compete in the 2008 Olympic Trials.

 Fueling Gains in Lean Mass During the Off-Season

Fueling Gains in Lean Mass During the Off-Season

By Dave Ellis, RD

Sprint, Lift, Fuel, Sleep! These are four keys for any baseball athlete who seeks to build lean mass during the off-season. The great news is that the way you would train to be a more explosive baseball athlete is also the way you need to train to add lean mass.

While the focus of this article is fueling gains in lean mass during the offseason, one of the most fundamental elements for gaining lean mass is to simply find a good training partner! A good training partner with similar goals can help you attempt extra reps that alone, you would potentially be too fatigued to attempt alone. A good training partner challenges you to up the weight on the bar when you are completing your reps on a set too easily. Most importantly, a good training partner creates some meaningful accountability to show up and work out when you really felt like taking the day off. However, even if you have the most dialed-in workout to stimulate gains in lean mass and a good training partner, your drive to work out will be greatly compromised if you are coming up short on your sleep as will your ability to resolve muscle soreness from one workout to the next (deep sleep, or slow-wave sleep & hGH) (1).

When it comes to the fueling side of the story for adding lean mass, realize that your first decision cannot be a trip to the local supplement retailer or some questionable website. If you walk into any dietary supplement retailer, a good portion of the store will be dedicated to products purported to improve your chances of doing more work in the weight room or improve recovery efficiency from bouts of resistance training (2, 3). Unfortunately, the cast of characters behind many of the energy and muscle focused dietary supplement brands seem to feel they can’t compete in the marketplace unless they intentionally adulterate dietary supplements with active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) that can cause positive doping outcomes for drug tested athlete and risk drug to drug interactions for anyone using medications! This is such a big problem that the US Department of Defense has dedicated extensive resources to the identification of API adulterated dietary supplement trends that put our military warfighters at risk (Operation Supplement Safety), as has US Anti-Doping with educational resources for drug tested athletes (Supplement 411) (4, 5). Many who desire a leaner, more muscular body are vulnerable to seek out and abuse “appearance and performance enhancing drugs” that could cause serious physical and mental health dilemmas. Organizations like the USA Baseball, the Taylor Hooton Foundation (THF) and the American Academy of Pediatrics are dedicated to raising awareness with young athletes who often seek to accelerate biochemical maturation by any means possible (6, 7).

Making gains in lean mass each off-season and hanging onto the gains in-season allows young baseball athletes to gradually fill out their frames from one year to the next. This is a process that continues into the collegiate year for the majority of male power athletes. It’s a long process that requires patience and dedication. Here are some key dietary elements for adding lean mass:

• Athletes who are trying to gain weight are most likely going to be pushing their calorie intakes up above the 18-21 kcals per pound of goal body weight.
• Protein-calorie distribution over the course of the day is very important when training three to four days per week with hypertrophic loads in the weight room designed to add lean mass. Binge eating patterns are not going to get the job done when it comes to lean mass gains or visceral fat avoidance (8, 9).
• Essential amino acid (EAA) rich protein sources are key to ramping up the tissue remodeling process to recover from hard resistance training sessions. Exactly how the EAA-leucine acts is still under investigation, but it’s a well-established fact that has elevated the value of high leucine protein sources in the marketplace, targeted at muscle sparing and recovery (whey isolate, egg white, casein, soy isolate) (10, 11). This is why you will see the same proteins in the formulation of recovery shakes and bars that often utilize a blend of fast digesting whey, slow digesting casein and moderate pace digesting egg white or soy protein isolate.
• The priority right after a workout is hydration and getting some well-timed carbohydrate into your bloodstream. By the time a baseball athlete gets out of the shower, it will be time to either eat an EAA-leucine rich meal or gap up till meal time with an EAA-leucine rich recovery snack or shake of some type. For drug-tested athletes, we only use NSF Certified for Sport dietary supplements or highly fortified conventional food snacks (functional foods) because of the aforementioned adulteration trends from some unethical fraudsters in this space… supplements are riddled with stimulants, many of which can’t be accounted for on the label. Stimulant based pre-workout products are some of the most highly API adulterated dietary supplements that routinely cause positive drug tests for athletes. A safer and smarter pre-workout alternative is hot tea with beet powder to stimulate nitric oxide driven blood flow and work capacity, all while helping manage blood pressure (12, 13, 14).
• Creatine can also be put in the pre-workout mix for college athletes who are still struggling to gain a functional amount of lean mass, but it’s not ideal for high school athletes trying to gain lean mass. There are big gains coming for high school athletes initiating offseason workouts designed for adding lean mass. There is also a significant vulnerability for adulteration of creatine products with API’s. If you do go this route, PLEASE find an NSF Certified for Sport source of creatine and use it pre-workout on the days you lift. No loading, no use on days you don’t lift. You will find that you can do more reps at the same weight and ultimately increase the amount of weight used (15, 16, 17).
• While supplements like creatine do help athletes gain lean mass as a result of increased rep capacity during workouts, I can tell you, athletes quickly fatigue of dietary supplements. Athletes never get tired of eating and they have always sought out protein snacks before bed, so it was no surprise to see some research surface in 2015 that looked at the benefits of a protein snack before bed for athletes who seek to gain lean mass (18). Greek yogurt works great as a slow digesting protein source that supports recovery while we sleep and leaves athletes hungry for breakfast!

I could continue, but let’s stop here for now. If you would like to digest all that goes into High-Performance Fueling you can watch this American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) webinar from 2016 “Nutritional Myths & Practices of the Elite Athlete” that will answer many of your questions.

2. Muscle Energetics During Explosive Activities and Potential Effects of Nutrition and Training
3. New strategies in sport nutrition to increase exercise performance
4. DOD - Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS)
5. USADA - Supplement 411
6. Taylor Hooton Foundation
7. Promotion of Healthy Weight-Control Practices in Young Athletes
8. Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis
9. Quality protein intake is inversely related with abdominal fat
10. Sestrin2 is a leucine sensor for the mTORC1 pathway
11. Whey protein ingestion enhances muscle protein synthesis in aging males
12. Nitrate Intake Promotes Shift in Muscle Fiber Type Composition during Sprint Interval Training in Hypoxia
13. Effects of Chronic Dietary Nitrate Supplementation on the Hemodynamic Response to Dynamic Exercise
14. Dietary nitrate provides sustained blood pressure lowering in hypertensive patients: a randomized, phase 2, double-blind, placebo-controlled study
15. Creatine supplementation combined with resistance training in older men.
16. Creatine supplementation improves muscular performance in older men.
17. Effects of creatine supplementation and exercise training on fitness in men 55–75 yr old
18. Protein Ingestion before Sleep Increases Muscle Mass and Strength Gains during Prolonged Resistance-Type Exercise Training in Healthy Young Men

Dave Ellis, RD, CSCS is a veteran Sports RD with over three decades of experiencing working at the highest level of sports. Dave was the first president of the Collegiate and Professional Sports RDs Association (CPSDA) and is currently CPSDA’s Ambassador over all matter Food and Supplement Security related, as well as the President of Sports Alliance Inc. and creator of the Fueling Tactics System. Dave is also the Consulting Registered Dietitian for MLB/MLBPA and USA Baseball.

 Mental Preparation

Mental Preparation

Beyond the Diamond
By Dr. Anne Shadle

This article is about getting mentally prepared or getting your mind right. Mental preparation is important for many reasons. We will look at two mental skills, Focus for Practice and Focus for Improvement through the eyes of the Coach/Sports Leaders, the Athlete and the Parents. Mental preparation helps us dial in our focus, manage our energy, increase our mental strength, stay in the moment with the task at hand and deal with frustration and fatigue among many daily challenges. As we’ve discussed in the past, mental preparation is a product of athlete, age and experience. It’s the responsibility of Coaches/Sports Leaders and parents to help athletes develop mental skills.

Basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is credited with saying, “Your mind is what makes everything else work.” The mind and body are much stronger when used together than either is standing alone. So how do we get the mind and body ready to work together and improve our performance?

We would all agree on the importance of a physical warm-up. Warm-up allows the muscles and nervous system to begin to fire and prepare for work. Blood flows to our tendons and ligaments to prepare for the forces the muscles will create, and our endocrine systems secretes hormones, which aid in optimal performance. Coaches/Sports Leaders intentionally chose each item in the physical warm-up routine to accomplish the task of physically preparing the body for performance.

Get your mind right

Like our physical warm-up, our mental warm-up routine must be specific and purposeful.

Coaches - Begin by stating the Goals for today’s practice. Practice Goals should be intentional and purposeful.

Parents- Why is my child playing baseball? How can I connect to my child through baseball?

Athlete- How can I improve myself and help a teammate today? What are the Practice Goals that move me towards the ultimate dream goal? The best way to begin is with a smile and an optimistic attitude.


For Coaches/Sport Leaders, Parents, Athletes - Prepare for practice. Preparation may be as simple as taking five minutes to wind down after a hectic day and focus on why I coach baseball, or why my child plays baseball. Have I taught the skills necessary ‘to be ready’ for practice? It may be as simple as: Does my child have all of their equipment ready?

Coach- What are the practice goals today? How will I demonstrate my joy in teaching these young people about life through the game of baseball? (Remember the Intentional-Purposeful-Engineered Sport Environment).

Parents- How will I connect today to my child in a positive and optimistic way through baseball? How can I support the Coach/Sport Leaders and my child’s teammates today? (Remember the Intentional-Purposeful-Engineered Sport Environment).

Athlete- How can I put baseball first for the next two hours? How can I be a good teammate? What skills will Coach have us working on today? What do I need help with? How can I help my coach?


Coach/Sport Leaders/Parents/Athletes - Show up at practice with a positive attitude and have enthusiasm. Be mentally prepared to recognize improvement in yourself and your teammates. Make spotting improvement a habit and part of your baseball culture. Focus on teaching the relationship between hard work, patience and improvement.

Coach/Sport Leaders/Parents/Athletes - See improvement. As you see yourself improving at practice, you will absolutely see improvement in your hitting, running, fielding, catching, strength and power. You will perform better. Nothing succeeds like success. Improving success is where you focus.

Focus Practice and Focus Improvement are just two areas of mental preparation. Getting your mind ready to play is a skill for Coaches/Sport Leaders, Parents and Athletes. We all have our roles to play in supporting each other. Mental and physical routines are important, and we need to consistently use these routines. Focus helps us block out distractions and stay with the task at hand. As our mental skills improve, so does our ability to stay calm and composed under pressure.

The formula for Success = Ability x Preparation x Effort x Will (Mental and Physical)

Dr. Anne Shadle, Ph.D. is a certified consultant in Sport Psychology CC-AASP, a member of the United States Olympic Committee’s Sport Psychology registry, and is currently the Senior Research Psychologist for the United States Air Force Research Laboratory.  She also serves on the Athlete Advisory Committee for USA Track and Field (USATF) and currently is the President-appointed committee chair for Psychological Services for USATF. She is heavily involved with coaching education and certification for the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) and USATF. Shadle received her Bachelor of Science in Education and Human Sciences from the University of Nebraska, where she also ran track and field. She was a two-time National Champion in the mile and 1500 meter distances before going on to run professionally for Reebok and compete in the 2008 Olympic Trials.

 Fueling Tactics

Fueling Tactics

By Dave Ellis, RD

Young male athletes playing power sports like baseball often dial in on muscle or weight gain strategies promoted by the popular press (supplement retailers on the internet, muscle magazines), loaded with “Bro Science” level information all designed to promote a dietary supplement solution over food. In reality, however, these athletes should trade in the “Bro Science” for a “Pro Routine” if they want to train their way into the body of a power athlete that can stand out against the competition.

My name is Dave Ellis, and I am the consulting registered dietitian (Sports RD) for MLB / MLBPA, and what I am going to present to you here is 30+ years of key learnings from working around some of the most successful teams in sports. If you want to outwork the competition, it’s all built on adequate amounts of quality rest, quality meals spread out strategically over the day and a lifestyle that doesn’t negate all the hard work at the degenerative hands of drugs or alcohol! Let’s focus on the fueling side of the equation first.

When it comes to fueling hard working athletes, the most important lesson they can learn is how to divide food into three categories that deliver unique benefits, such as minimizing workouts missed due to illness; energy to take on all the reps on the field and in the weight room that come your way daily; and all the building blocks you need to fix damaged muscle and support growth that the vast majority of you are still experiencing. This three-step approach to feeding athletes is called Fueling Tactics® and it is easily the most widely emulated approach to fueling in U.S. sports. Fueling Tactics® is taught to MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL athletes, as well as some of the top college and Olympic development programs in North America. Fueling Tactics® is a food-first approach that athletes implement to outwork the competition. It is really a life skill that will work for you long after your days on the baseball diamond have ended.

Step 1: Immune Health

The two biggest underpinnings of having a strong immune system are 1) adequate sleep and 2) putting some color on your plate at mealtime! If you are the athlete who is up late checking your social media and you have never managed to learn how to eat fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts or seeds, you may well be the most vulnerable athlete on your roster to get sick when the team starts traveling! You can have the most talented team roster, but if they are sick and not available on game day, that team is vulnerable to underperform! Sports RDs spend a significant amount of the fueling budget supplying fresh vegetables and fruit like you would typically see in a salad bar for our athletic training tables. We also supply immune strengthening soups loaded with vegetables, smoothies made with fresh fruit, and we keep healthy fats around like nuts, seeds, olives and avocados that help our hardest gainers meet their calorie requirements in a smart way. All of these foods are loaded with polyphenols* that help your immune system stay primed and ready for action when challenged. A well-primed immune system can minimize downtime due to an illness that leaves you missing classes, practices or games. Coaches notice athletes who show up to practice and train consistently. You play like you practice, so staying healthy gives you a fighting chance to impress your coach and move up the depth chart.

Polyphenols* - abundant in fresh produce, the antioxidant properties of polyphenols play a probable role in the prevention of various diseases associated with oxidative stress, such as cancer and cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases.

Fresh produce is typically better than frozen, and frozen is better than canned when it comes to the immune value of polyphenol-rich foods. That even goes for beverages like tea, with freshly brewed tea being better than bottled to get the maximum immune resilience to stress. The bad news for busy athletes is that fast food is typically a poor solution for fresh, polyphenol-rich foods. Sports RDs also have a much more difficult time helping athletes keep body fat off if they don’t eat fresh produce. Using a multivitamin to help augment polyphenols in your diet is fine, but the fresh produce itself just can’t be replaced. You have to learn how to get some color on your plate at every meal. Fruit and fruit smoothies are the easiest start for those who consistently miss the mark on polyphenol-rich foods. Soup and cooked vegetables are next, and eventually a salad with lots of freshly prepared dark greens, tomatoes, carrots, onions, olives, and seeds. If you want the edge on the competition, pull the plug on your video games and social media long before you plan to go to sleep, and get some color on your plates at meals!

Step 2: Energy to Work

Sprinting the bases, taking explosive reps in the batting cage, fielding balls and making throws over and over, all add up along with the work you are doing in the weight room. The preferred fuel for hard working muscle when doing repetitive high-intensity work is carbohydrate (carbs - starch and sugar). You also burn fat between burst activities, but when you take short rests between reps, the reliance on carbs is increased. When athletes do intense activities without enough carb onboard in muscle (muscle glycogen) Sports RDs often see vulnerability for muscle pulls. Do the same intense workout dehydrated, and you may also increase vulnerability for muscle cramps. You have to show up hydrated and fueled to do quality work, and to take the kind of high-intensity reps that translate to explosive game day performance potential. The good news is that carbs are not a hard sell compared to the foods in the first step, and carbs are inexpensive. However, not all carbs are the same when it comes to fueling workouts vs. our long-term health.

Slow digesting carbs that have more fiber and digestion-resistant starch are the smartest sources of time-released carbs for our long-term health. These slow digesting carbs are not flash-in-the-pan carbs that have you bouncing off the walls one minute and looking for a place to take a nap the next. This is why Sports RDs always have slow digesting carb sources around training tables for athletes to choose from, like slightly undercooked pasta (al dente - firm, not mush), potatoes with skin on (skin has more fiber), brown and white rice (brown has more fiber), whole wheat and white bread (wheat has more fiber) and cereals made with whole grains (go easy on the cartoon character brands). You have to build the base of your carb intake at meals from these slow digesting carbs, and you use more of them on days when you are training hard.

On the high end, up to half the food on your plate, or a couple of fistfuls, would be an active day feed rate for carbs. Is there room for some simple sugars that digest fast on days when you train hard? Absolutely! Sports RDs make sports drinks available during training for athletes, along with chunks of easy to digest, carb rich foods like bananas or cereal bars. The use of fast digesting carbs helps athletes top off the carb tank after a long day at the park, and you still have to muster up the energy to get in a lift. If it’s hot out, you burn carbs even faster when doing all this work, just like you do when training at a higher altitude. On top of all that, if you are the emotional leader of the team, you burn carb even faster (it’s an adrenaline thing).

So, think twice about showing up to a long day at the park empty handed. Plan ahead and pack some fueling solutions along with your daily meals, and yes – a PB&J could work to fill the gap up from lunch to practice lifting. Of course, you just can’t live off the low fiber, fast digesting carbs for all your energy requirements. They just digest too fast, like throwing hay in a bonfire. We will discuss fueling for inactive days shortly.

Step 3: Protein to Recover

Most athletes think about recovery along the lines of resolving muscle soreness that is typical of explosive work endured in the weight room, on the field when doing sprints, agility and power drills or those explosive reps in the batting cage. The more explosive and repetitive the activity, typically the more muscle soreness you will experience. It’s important that you understand the same protein intake that supports the tissue remodeling behind resolving post workout muscle soreness also supports growth. The vast majority of young male athletes are still experiencing vertical growth, which might not end for some until they are in college for a couple of years (late bloomers with late birth months). The biggest vulnerability that Sports RDs see with male athletes is not inadequate protein intake; rather, it is lack of diversity in their protein intake among animal, dairy and vegetable sources.

Why diverse protein sources? Some protein sources digest quickly, some slowly and some in between. Diversifying protein sources gives you a mix that ultimately offers a bigger recovery window between protein meals or snacks. Another reason is that you get different amino acid profiles from different protein sources, as well as some very important nutrients like the calcium from dairy proteins, iron from animal proteins and some unique protective properties we get from vegetable proteins that have cardiovascular and cancer prevention properties.

The most important amino acids that make up these protein sources is leucine. Leucine is a trigger to stimulate the muscle to start fixing itself after hard practices and workouts in the weight room. Globally, the most leucine-rich protein sources are used in formulating post workout recovery beverages and meals. For example, whey protein, egg white protein and soy protein isolates are the big three leucine-rich proteins used in the formulation of recovery beverages and bars targeted at hardworking athletes.

Do you always have to buy a high-leucine recovery product from a health food store? The answer is no. Milk is a great source of leucine-rich recovery protein, as are boiled eggs, so it’s not like you can’t pack along some food to get the job done. Most athletes enjoy cold chocolate milk post lift to fill the gap until they cool down and are ready to eat a meal. I won’t even rule out snack items like beef jerky post workout. Nuts and seeds or peanut butter have some protein in them too; you just have to eat more of them to get the same recovery bang per bite.

Sports RDs like to get athletes to think about hydrating and cooling down before we typically target recovery protein feeding. So, for example, after muscle cools down and rehydrates, it starts to ramp up the recovery machinery more efficiently, so it’s fine to wait on the protein intake until after you get out of the shower. Next stop, hopefully, is a meal with their family that would have animal, dairy and vegetable protein sources for some time-released, diversified protein.

Of course, sleep also comes into play when it comes to fixing damaged muscle. Deep sleep and enough of it, along with a smart distribution of your daily protein intake at meals and recovery snacks, set the stage for efficient recovery. Even a little protein before bed might be smart, too. Something as simple as a casein-rich protein snack like Greek yogurt before bed can help support deep sleep-stimulated muscle recovery. The clock is ticking until the next game, practice or lift; your fueling tactics off the field impact your ability to win on the field the next day.

Periodized Fueling: Active vs. Inactive Days

Sports RDs have to teach athletes how to periodize or change their intake of food for days when they are training (active days) in comparison to off days (inactive days). Your daily protein intake is actually pretty consistent, regardless of your daily activity. We are still fixing our sore muscle for multiple days after invasive workouts, thus hard-working athletes typically get into a routine or daily pattern on protein intake. However, you do have to keep protein sources leaner or lower in fat on inactive days. For example, you could eat skinless chicken (lean), as opposed to skin-on chicken or skin-on chicken that is fried. Sticking with the lean source of that chicken is the key when inactive if you want to stay lean over the course of a long season.

Most of the foods in the first step are high-water foods that don’t tip the scales of total calorie intake enough to necessitate lowering on inactive days. The healthy fats in the first step like olives, avocados, nuts, and seeds are important for our immune health, so while lowering fat from protein sources, you will want to make room for these healthy vegetable fats, even when inactive.

The biggest swing in calories from active to inactive days that you must be aware of comes from the carbs in the second step. Throttling back your simple sugar and total starch intake on inactive days is a key life lesson for athletes. The liberal capacity afforded athletes to dispose of blood sugar that elevates after digestion of sugars and starches diminishes when inactive, and sadly, diminishes with age and as activity declines. This is an important concept for a sport like baseball, compared to a metabolically fatiguing sport like basketball or ice hockey. When you are taking the high-intensity reps, you can be more liberal with your total carb intake from the second step, but when you have a break in training and have historically exhibited a vulnerability to easily gain body fat, you will want to reduce your total carb intake on inactive days.

Reductions of carbs on inactive days could be as simple as dropping sports drinks and any sugar-sweetened beverages or juices (stick with water, tea and fresh fruit). Instead of eating half the food on your plate from slow digesting starch (or two fist-sized servings), go down to a quarter of the food on your plate from the slow digesting starch (or one fist-sized serving). If you did a good job on carb fueling on active days, glycogen stores will be relatively full on inactive days. When your glycogen tanks are topped off in a muscle, running high blood sugars on an inactive day from excess carb intake will set the stage for fat storage. Thus, the concept of periodizing your total intake of sugar, starch and fat (non-protein calories) down on inactive days will pay dividends for life! Keep your protein lean, sugars low and starches moderated when inactive, and you will minimize the body composition vulnerabilities that challenge many baseball athletes.

You should also keep in mind that we periodize efforts in the weight room to train to gain lean mass (offseason) vs. phases of the year where we just hope to hang onto offseason gains (in-season maintenance). So, it is very important that you understand that not every day of the year is a weight gain day. That is an important concept for young males’ athletes focused on gaining weight, muscle and strength. This is not a hard concept for college, Olympic and pro athletes to understand, because they have organized strength and conditioning plans that are periodized over 12 months to achieve individualized and team goals.

The take home point here is that for athletes attempting to gain lean mass (muscle) in the offseason, resistance training is prioritized before exhaustive workouts in the heat, typical of a long day at the ballpark. You are going to be sore for days from some of these workouts so it’s critical that your sleep, diet and lifestyle are buttoned up if you want a big return on these offseason efforts to gain lean mass. The net result of multiple offseason efforts like this is a gradual filling out of your frame from gains in lean mass vs. fat mass. This process is closely monitored for those that go on to compete after high school in order to make sure athletes understand that it’s not just about eating yourself into a number on the scale. It’s about training your way in the offseason into functional gains in form of lean mass.

Smart Supplementation

Offseason efforts to gain lean mass seem to immediately stir the curiosity of many young males to look in the locker of the most muscular athlete on the roster to see what dietary supplements they might be using. As a veteran sports dietitian, I have to warn you, however, that even at the highest levels of sport, we find all kinds of potentially dangerous dietary supplements in their lockers. Often, they come by these products honestly with a well-meaning family member making a recommendation. High profile athletes are frequently targeted by supplement brands that send the unrequested products to the athletes for free in the hopes of those products making it into the top of an athlete’s locker and eventually getting some TV time during an interview.

The take home message is that just because the person in the locker next you look like Tarzan, that hardly qualifies the dietary supplements in their locker as being well-researched or safe. Sports RDs spend a great deal of time tracking the research behind product formulations and the safety records of the dietary supplement brands. If fact, Sports RDs are trained to NOT bring in any dietary supplements to a team that have not been certified to be free of banned substances by organizations like NSF. The number of bad actors in the dietary supplement manufacturing space has made it too big a risk to trust that dietary supplements are free of banned substances that could cause a positive doping test for drug tested athletes. It’s that bad.

Sports RDs are certainly going to have a sports drink around for athletes to get through hard workouts in the offseason when training to gain lean mass. And we are certainly going to have a post workout recovery beverage that delivers some high-quality leucine-rich protein to trigger the recovery of that hardworking muscle. If an athlete chooses to use a recovery beverage that is a dietary supplement, the only source we bring in would have to be NSF Certified for Sport to ensure that it is free of any adulterants that could cause a positive doping outcome or adverse health event. The number of dietary supplements that are determined to contain drugs, on a weekly basis by the FDA only accounts for a fraction of what is actually adulterated in the dietary supplement marketplace. So, my advice is simple:

• Do not have a cavalier attitude about using any dietary supplements, even with something as simple as a multivitamin.

• Only move forward on selecting a dietary supplement after consulting with a health professional like a Sports RD to determine if you are a qualified candidate based on an assessment of your current diet quality and daily intake pattern.

• With the help of your Sports RD, identify only NSF Certified for Sport dietary supplements by going to or downloading the NSF App free of charge for your mobile devices.

Sports Drink vs. Energy Drink

Sports drinks with a dilute amount of carbs in the formulation and electrolytes like salt and potassium to replace what is lost in sweat, by design, typically do not contain any kind of stimulant. The reason sports drinks are formulated with a dilute carb delivery is to make sure they empty from the stomach in a rapid fashion during activity, compared to something as concentrated as a soft drink. It’s very important you understand how quickly you can get behind on your fluid intake when competing or training in a hot, humid environment. Our wiring that stimulates our drive to drink lags behind the rate that we sweat, so you have to push yourself to drink when exercising. Dry mouth, dry eyes, dark urine, slow reaction time and poor endurance are all signs that you are behind schedule on your fluid intake.

Positions like catchers and starting pitchers are possibly the most vulnerable athletes on the baseball field to fall behind on their fluid intake. Hyper-hydrating (building up fluids) before a game for our biggest sweaters is probably a good idea to be safe. Sports RDs often feed athletes more liberal, high-electrolyte foods before events where they have to compete under hot, humid conditions (salty snacks, soups, high water foods like fruit and vegetables with liberal salt). Water and sports drinks should always be available before, during and after activity. Low sugar sports drinks that contain the electrolytes with low to no carb content might be a good fit for athletes who are not playing (pitchers in a rotation) but still exposed to the heat. Just make sure you don’t get sports drinks confused with energy drinks when attempting to combat fluid loss in the heat.

Energy drinks approach “energy” not from a carb profile, but primarily from a stimulant profile like caffeine or caffeine plus multiple stimulant sources in some cases. You absolutely cannot get sports drinks and energy drinks confused when it comes to striving to stay hydrated during the hot months of competition. The combination of dehydration, stimulant use, high blood pressure and exercising in the heat has a history of causing some severe heat related injuries. In some cases, the combination may have caused death in athletes with enlarged hearts.

The latest evidence shows that stimulants do allow athletes to do more work, partially by lowering the athlete’s perception of exertion, but that comes with a price. Doing a lot of stressful work in the heat can set you up for some exertional vulnerability where muscle can break down (rhabdomyolysis) and cause life-threatening organ damage. The bottom line is that stimulant-fueled muscle can’t dissipate heat as rapidly as the work being done requires and may well help explain the record number of emergency room visits being documented related to a cavalier energy drink or pre-workout supplement consumption (heart and heat-related emergencies).

Because professional athletes have such a challenging in-season travel schedule that often leaves them playing catch-up on sleep, NSF has allowed some energy drinks go through NSF Certified for Sport verification. The ceiling on caffeine per serving via NSF is a 200 mg of caffeine per serving limit, and they DO NOT certify any energy shots. Most Sports RDs prefer a simple cup of coffee or tea for some caffeine to ramp up after a short night rest. Sadly, the FDA is starting to identify some stimulant doping in coffees and teas, labeled as foods and marketed for “energy, focus and slimming” benefits. Typically, these kinds of products are sold in places like convenience stores and gas stations as beverages, shots or powders, so be careful; supplements or foods that make these kinds of claims that are NOT NSF Certified for Sport should be avoided at all cost.

These are the same precautions our MLB athletes have to take that are all part of a “Pro” Routine. If you want to keep up with the latest fueling news as it breaks on these topics, search #fuelingtactics on your favorite social media platform.

Dave Ellis, RD, CSCS is a veteran Sports RD with over three decades of experiencing working at the highest level of sports. Dave was the first president of the Collegiate and Professional Sports RDs Association (CPSDA) and is currently CPSDA’s Ambassador over all matter Food and Supplement Security related, as well as the President of Sports Alliance Inc. and creator of the Fueling Tactics System. Dave is also the Consulting Registered Dietitian for MLB/MLBPA and USA Baseball.