Spend enough time in the sport performance training world, and you are guaranteed to see it. Chances are you are already seeing it and not even registering what is going on. But it’s happening. Much like Frosted Flakes telling you “they’re grrrrrrreat,” or the rabbit being told “Trix are for kids” supplement manufacturers are strategically placing themselves in the view of customers. Praying off a dopamine high to create associative causalities within potential consumers. Only instead of TV, the medium is gym walls and instead of the euphoria created from fantastical flying shapes and colours, it is the rush created by the pursuit of physical excellence. “If I eat these colourful marshmallows, I will run on a rainbow through the clouds,” is now “if I drink this colourful powder, I will be a multi-million-dollar athlete.”
Disclaimer: This is drawn from my own philosophies on obtaining nutrition through a whole food, minimally processed, plant heavy diet. I do not claim to have never taken supplements, in fact in my first year of University we had strength and conditioning services from a facility that was recommending upwards of 40 pills a day in supplementation (they also sold supplements and would give you a good deal). This is not an indictment of all supplements, coaches who endorse supplements, or athletes who use supplements. This is merely a reflection on my take for where supplements fit within the role of the performance coach and more importantly the responsibility that comes with great influence afforded by the position.
Now, the idea of exploiting physical fitness, or the pursuit of excellence in nothing new. From everyone wanting to be like Mike and buying Nikes, to blankety blank, touting that such-and-such system will improve your blank performance. Historically, using peoples dreams of greatness to sell product seems almost as normal as getting wet in the rain. What is different however, is the audience and the messenger.
I write this while wearing three different hats. Specifically as an educator, strength and conditioning coach and business owner of a performance training facility. The evolution of the field of strength and conditioning has lead to a massive growth in its emphasis at the collegiate level, as well as greater mainstream visibility in the private sector. More facilities like mine are popping up everyday, which is a double-edged sword. On one hand, competition should elevate the quality of the product being offered, but on the other hand there is no barrier of entry into who can call their gym “high performance,” or “athlete training”. However, that is a discussion for another day. What is important to the topic of supplementation is the fact that the explosion of private training facilities, has created greater awareness of the role strength and conditioning can have in athletic success and as such lead parents to seek out training for their sons or daughters at an ever increasingly younger age. This is where I run into a moral dilemma with regards to supplementation and cross promotion.
Ask yourself, “why do supplement companies create strategic partnerships?” The answer is just like any other product, to increase visibility within and association to, favourable market sectors. If you want to get people to associate Apple computers with graphic design, you may want to give colleges that teach graphic design exclusive pricing on Apple computers. That way students that come through that program not only learn all their specific skills on Apple computers, but also they associate Apple as the gold standard in the industry because that is what the ‘experts’ are teaching them on. Do this in enough colleges and you now have a generation of graphic designers who demand to work on Apple computers. Now, replace computers with protein powder or pre-workout or nitro-crea-beta-crapula, colleges with “Joes” High Performance and professor with coach. We now have a model for accessing a whole segment of impressionable minds who are looking for guidance from a trusted source on how to achieve their goals.
Here’s the major problem with this. In my facility, the average age of athletes is 15, with the youngest being 12. I would guess this cross section is fairly standard +/- 1 or 2 years. These are, in the eyes of the law, vulnerable populations. Impressionable, mouldable, sponges who look up to their coaches, to the older athletes, to their peers; who are seeking guidance about how to best go about reaching their dreams; with parents who are investing heavily in trying to help their sons or daughters achieve success and learn life skills such as, hard work, commitment and dedication. Who have instilled trust in the coach’s knowledge and expertise, because they must be knowledgeable (I mean they do own their own gym!).
CLICK TO TWEET: “you have a responsibility to shield and protect the impressionable minds of the youth you work with from the bombardment of messaging, of sense of inadequacy and subsequent quick fix promises”
I hope you can see where I am going with this.
My point here is as a strength and conditioning coach, mentor (yes you are one) and educator, you have a responsibility to shield and protect the impressionable minds of the youth you work with from the bombardment of messaging, of sense of inadequacy and subsequent quick fix promises of a largely unregulated, 32 BILLION (US) dollar industry. As strength and conditioning professional, you hold the keys to influencing a very important subsection of the population, future consumers. And this industry is setting its sights on ever younger populations (gummy bear BCAA’s anyone?). You can legitimize and create value in these products, so in turn these companies will give you a cut, ask you to put up a banner in your gym, or a logo on your website, or place their product in your Instagram. And as a business owner, with a mortgage and bills, I get it. Multiple revenue streams. And maybe in turn you might feel it provides legitimacy to your brand, but I pose at what cost.
Now, you may say “but how is it hurting them, I am selling them something that will make them better?” If this is the case, then you have either drank the proverbial Kool Aid, or are utilizing cognitive dissonance. I say this for two reasons: first is explore, and I mean REALLY research the efficacy (and moreover, necessity) of many supplements on the market. The truth is, the vast majority are not providing the effects that they claim, are not possessing the ingredients they claim and/or are redundant when introduced to a well planned out nutrition strategy. Secondly, examine your scope of practice. Most Strength and Conditioning coaches are not nutrition experts. If you are a strength and conditioning coach, and you possess certificates of completion for this cert. or that cert., then chances are you have an above average understanding of nutrition. You can probably guide clients on what types of food are good, or bad. Ideas around how to prepare meals for the week, etc. Heck, you may (like myself) spend portions of your week following up on the latest research regarding performance nutrition. However, go back and read those certification manuals again, and acknowledge that, much like if someone has a concussion you send them to a doctor, the best place for people with specific nutrition and supplementation questions is with a professional.
CLICK TO TWEET: “why are strength and conditioning coaches, with a conflict of interest, telling clients that they need to take a certain supplement, when there is lack of evidence of efficacy and need. The only answer is plain to see.”
My life revolves around strength and conditioning, and I enjoy learning about nutrition, even possessing a certification to call myself a nutrition consultant. However, I do not advertise that as a separate service. Why? Because I feel that the ability to discuss what constitutes good nutrition should simply be expected from someone in my position. I will educate clients on what are the pillars of good nutrition. I will advocate for the increased consumption of a variety of vegetables and fruits (think you’ve had enough? Eat more!). I will even have a chat on an individual basis about supplements. However, when it comes to making specific suggestions about fine tuned nutrition for performance or special circumstances, including the addition of supplements, why not refer out to someone who’s life and profession is built around nutrition? Send your clients to, or bring in a registered dietician (not a nutritionist, there’s a difference), or an MD with specialization. This is my round about way of saying, you wouldn’t spend extra money on a motor oil because the guy who painted your car said to. Sure, he works on cars, but he’s unlikely to be and expert on internal combustion… or whatever makes my car move. So why are strength and conditioning coaches, with a conflict of interest, telling clients that they need to take a certain supplement (which they sell), when there is lack of evidence of efficacy and need. The only answer is plain to see.
CLICK TO TWEET: “As strength and conditioning professionals, let’s not make the badge of honour what pre workout you take, but rather the amount of hours sleep you get, or the quality of food you prepared for yourself.”
I know to some of my colleagues, this piece may hit a little close to home. I think that is ok. I want those in this industry to evaluate and respect their position of authority over impressionable young minds. Understand that what you say and do and advocate for, matters; and is shaping the perception of the world for your young athletes. Yes, we must operate businesses and pay our bills, but we must be aware of where the line is between charging for a service and exploiting your influence. To me marketing a supplement is not the same as endorsing a certain brand of clothing, or type of shoe. Athletes who come to the gym are going to have to have shoes and wear shirts. The decision as to whether they NEED to spend money on supplements is something that you can directly effect, and in most cases the answer is no. If you need to make more money, raise your rates. If you are good enough, people will pay. If not…
As strength and conditioning professionals, let’s not make the badge of honour what pre workout you take, but rather the amount of hours sleep you get, or the quality of food you prepared for yourself. Let’s guide a generation to acquire the skills needed to be free of the influences of “big food” and “big sup” and to learn how to thrive on a whole food, minimally processed diet!
As always, thank you for reading and please share, provide feedback and let’s get the conversation started!
2 thoughts on “Supplements: A Moral Dilemma”
I litterally was about to message you on your thoughts over BCAAs. Then I saw this article you wrote which is magnificent by the way. However if your supporting the route of a whole foods plant heavy minimal processed eating regime (because theres no such thing as diets) where is the next best place to obtain the levels of amino acids i desire in my routine a side from beef chicken and eggs ( for those vegetarian and vegan athletes out there)?
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Glad you appreciate the article man! Without getting too far outside of my scope, I will point out that the necessary amounts of BCAA and for that matter “Protein” is obtainable through a nutrient dense diet consisting of vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes; contrary to what the marketing companies tell us. (Check funding of articles and research papers for conflicts) However the decision to remove meat, dairy and/or fish is a personal one, but everyone can afford to eat more vegetables! The key is to get your nutrients from a variety of sources and ensure your caloric intake is sufficient (not too low). It you make the majority of your intake plant based, its very difficult to over consume. For the majority of the population (athlete and schmos like us) focusing on good sources of nutrients, limiting stress and maximizing sleep, will out perform any supplement on the market. Special cases require special answers and for those I would refer to a dietician.