Apr 20, 2018
Keep Them Posted
David Hoch

Looking for a new way to educate athletes about sports nutrition, many are turning to social media. In this roundtable, five experts provide their tips on what to share.

Tweets, retweets, likes, and shares — this lingo now peppers the daily conversations of many dietitians just as much as macronutrients, hydration, and recovery fueling. The reason? They have discovered just how powerful social media can be in promoting nutrition education.

Until recently, the opportunity to inform athletes about proper fueling was limited due to their busy schedules. A dietitian might host preseason meetings with teams, distribute handouts, or hang flyers, but there wasn’t a great way to reach athletes on a consistent, daily basis. However, with platforms like Twitter and Instagram exploding in popularity, that’s no longer the case. Now, every time athletes log on to social media, they can be greeted with a message about fueling from their school’s sports nutrition department.

Maximizing these tools goes beyond merely hitting “post,” though. There’s often a strategy behind every tweet and Instagram photo. In this roundtable, dietitians from five NCAA Division I athletic departments share theirs (See “Our Panel” below). With more than 19,000 Twitter and Instagram followers among them, they cover what, when, and why they post and provide tips for getting athletes engaged.

OUR PANEL

Colleen Carrion, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS, is Director of Sports Nutrition at the University of Maryland. Follow Maryland Sports Nutrition on Twitter and Instagram @FuelingtheTerps.

Isaac Hicks, RD, CSSD, LDN, is Director of Sports Nutrition at Liberty University. He was assisted in providing answers for this roundtable by Susana Meléndez, Sports Nutrition Intern at Liberty athletics. Follow Liberty Sports Nutrition on Twitter @wefuelFLAMES and on Instagram @lusportsnutrition.

Kayli Hrdlicka, RD, CSSD, LDN, is Director of Sports Nutrition at Florida State University. Follow Florida State Sports Nutrition on Twitter and Instagram @FSU_Fuel.

Lauren Silvio, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, is Director of Sports Nutrition at Auburn University. Follow Auburn Sports Nutrition on Twitter and Instagram @TigerNutrition.

Ann Toy, MS, RD, is Director of Performance Nutrition at Lipscomb University. Follow Lipscomb Sports Nutrition on Twitter and Instagram @fueltheherd.

What’s your overall philosophy for using social media to promote sports nutrition?

Colleen Carrion: It’s natural for athletes to be on social media, so if we’re there, too, we can reach them directly without having to be physically present. Every time athletes see a post from us, it’s a good reminder that nutrition is an important part of their performance routine. We also use social media to drive athletes to our fueling stations, where we can further engage them.

For Instagram, we don’t have a set schedule, but we try to post a few times a week depending on what events we are doing… On Tuesday, we could post a flyer for our Try It Tuesday food sampling, and we might share a special smoothie recipe on Thursday.

Lauren Silvio: Nutrition education is our main goal. We want to help athletes reach their peak potential in their sport and in the classroom, as well as provide nutrition knowledge that will enable them to maintain their health and well-being after they leave Auburn University. Social media allows us to accomplish this mission in a way that athletes are receptive to and always have at their fingertips.

Kayli Hrdlicka: My overall philosophy is to promote sports nutrition in a concise, eye-catching way. I believe social media acts as a supplement to the face-to-face interactions my staff and I have. It’s a way to reach athletes who we may not see as much or those who have not sought individual help.

Ann Toy: We have a very close-knit community of athletes, coaches, and athletic department staff, so our social media accounts further connect us all. Plus, they offer support, encouragement, and fun to the everyday grind of being a student-athlete.

Isaac Hicks: We use social media as a consistent — almost daily — reminder of our program’s core principle: Adequate nutrition empowers performance. The opportunity to engage with today’s athletes via social media is invaluable.

You all seem to post exclusively on Twitter and Instagram. Why?

Carrion: I started with Twitter because it was the most popular social media platform at the time. It allows us to provide detailed nutrition education and link to articles that are relevant and informative. We also use Twitter to share trends or topics from other nutrition experts that I believe will resonate with our athletes.

When Instagram became more popular, I created an account for our sports nutrition program. It enables us to showcase a variety of different fueling resources for our athletes, such as handouts, new food items, and sample performance plates.

Hrdlicka: Those two platforms seem to have the most reach within our student-athlete population. In the past, I used Facebook, too, but it never felt like we were getting the engagement level we were looking for on that site.

We have discussed starting a Snapchat, as well, since our student-athletes seem to use it to document their days. One idea we have talked about is hosting “Snapchat Takeovers” of athletes’ accounts so they can walk us through a day in their life — most importantly, their fueling strategy. We haven’t gone forward with Snapchat yet because it appears to require constant posting.

Silvio: Both allow us to distribute quick education points and photos to go along with them. Being able to see information and visualize meals and snacks can be an important teaching tool for the athletes.

Toy: We have accounts on both, but we mainly rely on Instagram because it is more widely used by our athletes. It encourages more creativity than other platforms, mainly when it comes to sharing stories, and posting is quick and simple.

We’ve chosen not to use Facebook because our student-athletes aren’t on it as much as some of the other sites. In fact, they’ve assured us that Facebook is more for their parents and grandparents.

If we decide to venture more into the social media world, I suspect it will be through Snapchat. This seems to be one of the more popular platforms among our athletes. It would only make sense to give in to the craze and use it as a way to communicate in short, to-the-point messages.

How do you decide what to post, when, and what platform to use?

Hicks: We post based on what we feel athletes would gain the most from, whether that’s current trends/topics in nutrition, specific foods and their health benefits, popular recipes, or ways to develop mindful eating practices. In addition, our department’s vision at Liberty University is to “Fuel Champions for Christ.” To support this, we share weekly biblical encouragement through social media.

As far as when to post, athletes are busy most of the day, so finding windows where you have their attention is crucial to communicating your message. Most athletes check their phones first thing in the morning or during breakfast, so we might post around 7 or 8 a.m. By noon, many athletes are heading to lunch — where they’ll undoubtedly have their phones out — so this is another good time to post. Further, most athletes will reach for their phones around dinnertime, so posts around 6 p.m. are common for us. And since athletes typically check their phones one more time before bed, we often wrap up the day with a post around 10 p.m.

We select the platform based on the content we’re sharing. Twitter users seem to prefer text over pictures. But when using Instagram, the more words in the post, the fewer likes it generally receives and thus the less attention it gets from athletes.

Carrion: On Twitter, we have themes for each day: Motivation Monday or Monday Munchies, Try It Tuesday, Wellness Wednesday or What’s New Wednesday, Thursday Tips, Fun Fact Friday or Fruitful Friday, and Swap it Saturday or Shop It Saturday. My staff comes up with a list of tweets for each week. Once approved, they are preprogrammed into Hootsuite — an online social media management dashboard — to get sent out daily.

For Instagram, we don’t have a set schedule, but we try to post a few times a week depending on what events we are doing. So on Monday, we might post sample breakfast and lunch/dinner performance plates based on the dining hall menu for the week. On Tuesday, we could post a flyer for our Try It Tuesday food sampling, and we might share a special smoothie recipe on Thursday. We fill in on the other days with pictures of meal prep ideas, performance plates, athletes participating in taste tests, special events, food demos, and grocery store tours.

Toy: We also use Hootsuite to plan our posts, sometimes months in advance. Having a set schedule of posts is really helpful in keeping our social media presence consistent and interactive, and it makes it easier for us to track the content we share each week.

Regarding what we post, we like to do Mythbuster Monday, Try It Tuesday, and Winning Plate Wednesday themes. Winning Plate Wednesday is one of my favorites because that’s when I get to be in the cafeteria patrolling plates. I interact with athletes over a meal, do some plate coaching, walk through the serving line with them, and answer any of their questions. We have a good time with it, and it can even get competitive — athletes are always asking for a shout-out on social media to acknowledge their great performance plates.

Silvio: Our Instagram and Twitter connect, so posts from one show up on the other. We like to highlight activities our sports dietitians are doing with our teams and what is going on in our fueling station. If we are featuring something special on a particular day, we usually put a preview about it on our Instagram story. After the event has concluded, we’ll create an educational post about what we did.

Hrdlicka: The most beautiful thing about social media is the ability to capture a moment in time and share it with those who weren’t able to witness it. For us, this may mean showing how we make certain food items, highlighting an athlete who has worked on nutrition as part of their overall performance goals, or showing fun activities we are doing.

As far as picking a platform, I think it’s okay to double dip on Twitter and Instagram. However, if we have a picture that speaks more than words, we’ll probably only put it on Instagram. If the words are more impactful, as is usually the case with a fact or figure, the post may be better suited for Twitter.

How do you make your social media content engaging for athletes?

Carrion: We try to keep our posts relevant, diverse, and exciting so the content isn’t the same every day. This is a work in progress. One recent strategy we have employed is asking questions and encouraging athletes to respond. For example, we might post, “What’s your favorite pre-workout snack?” and see what they say.

Athletes also love to be featured on our social media pages, so tagging individuals and their teams is a good way to get them engaged. At a meal, suggest that athletes try something new or create a balanced plate, and then post a picture of what they come up with and tag them.

Hicks: Our posts are strategically created to attract athletes. All food photos are set up in the most appealing way, taking into consideration lighting, appearance, and positioning. In addition, we highlight a “Nutrition Athlete of the Week” by sharing a photo of them with a performance plate, as well as a picture of them in action. This encourages other athletes to pursue more mindful fueling.

Our educational posts are created using the online graphic design software Canva, which allows for easy, quick, and free document design. With this content, we focus on keeping text succinct. Athletes should be able to read the material in a matter of seconds.

Hashtags can be useful, too. The privacy settings on your Instagram account should be set to “public” to allow your hashtags to reach all audiences. We have our own #lusportsnutrition and #fuelingchampionsforchrist hashtags that we use, along with others for different occasions. When using hashtags, keep them simple and easily accessible, such as #fuel and #athlete.

Hrdlicka: Posts should be eye-catching, well-rounded, functional, and fun. Using polls on Twitter or having hashtags that allow athletes to vote or answer a question are easy ways to encourage more than just likes.

Infographics are also a great way to communicate information. I print them as physical handouts or post them on social media for a more engaging and entertaining way for athletes to read content.

What are your strategies for increasing your social media following?

Hicks: We encourage athletes to look to our Instagram for giveaways, special events, and recipes, and we advertise our social media accounts every time we meet with a team. Our fueling station contains signage encouraging students to follow us, as well.

Carrion: We post our Instagram and Twitter handles on all the handouts, flyers, and e-mails we provide to student-athletes.

Toy: We’ll advertise fun competitions, contests, or new opportunities on our social media accounts that athletes can only participate in if they follow us.

What are some of the challenges with using social media to promote sports nutrition?

Hrdlicka: It can be difficult to know what to post. This is an area where my department is still looking for ways to improve.

Another challenge is that the information we put on social media can easily be misinterpreted by athletes. This is a great concern for me because I then won’t be able to fix their misconceptions. To prevent this, I tell my staff that posts must provide direct information, and all material needs to be vetted for how it could be read by athletes in different sports, with different needs, and who have different relationships with food.

Hicks: One of the challenges is knowing if a post will be catchy or creative enough to stimulate feedback. A tweet or photo will generally receive a good response if it is generated at the appropriate time of day and contains something specific the athletes are interested in. For example, pumpkin spice-flavored snacks are a seasonal favorite in the fall, so we post about them whenever they are available.

Another concern of ours is the possibility of deterring followers by over-posting. To avoid this, we post once per day to offer the information we need to relay without drowning our followers with content. The key is to subtly remind them we’re around to provide nutrition education without becoming too overbearing.

Silvio: Not knowing which student-athletes we are reaching or who is viewing our content is a challenge. We have tried to address this by talking with our athletes and asking if they follow our social media accounts or saw a particular post we made.

Another potential issue we have to be aware of is properly crediting any content we share that is not originally from our department. To do this, we tag the source of the information or write it in a caption.

How can social media specifically benefit sports nutrition programs at smaller schools?

Toy: Even at a smaller college like Lipscomb University, it’s impossible for me to reach every athlete from every team as much as I would like. Without a huge budget, we don’t have the option of offering tons of cooking classes, training table meals, or bags of groceries to our student-athletes. But we can always educate and encourage them, and social media is so helpful for this!

In addition, it’s been beneficial in recruiting. We encounter prospective athletes who are choosing between Lipscomb and a Power 5 program, and our coaches are able to point to our nutrition department’s social media presence as a way to level the playing field.

Hicks: At smaller schools, student-athletes’ ability to meet one-on-one with nutrition staff can be limited. But social media allows for virtual, quick, and free communication so we can access most, if not all, student-athletes on a daily basis.

What advice would you give athletic trainers or strength coaches about using social media for nutrition education?

Hrdlicka: First off, as an individual who works with both strength and athletic training staffs, I’d hope that any information shared through their respective pages would reinforce the messages I send. I would hate to present conflicting advice to athletes. So if your institution has a dietitian, it’s important to understand their key points in order to work together effectively.

The other piece is to make sure any information posted on social media comes from a reputable source and is evidence-based. In general, I think everyone who works in sports performance strives to deliver science-based content, but I know that it’s easy to find data to support almost any nutrition trend — it’s just a matter of how strong the data is.

Hicks: Know your audience and what they want to see. Understand when to post. Follow other strength coaches, athletic trainers, sports nutritionists, and any other professionals you find helpful to your craft, and then comment and like their material to build a social media presence. And don’t forget to make your posts fun!

Silvio: Keeping it simple is hugely important with student-athletes. Educating about one topic at a time — for example, creating separate content on recovery, competition fueling, snack ideas, macronutrients, or hydration — can be helpful. Being too wordy or trying to provide a lot of information at one time can cause athletes to lose interest.

Toy: I would always err on the side of being practical and fun. Science and research is important and can definitely be included, but don’t overwhelm athletes with data to the point that they just scroll past your post.

While social media is a great tool, I also think it’s important not to “hide” behind your online accounts. Don’t forget to be out interacting with athletes so you know their questions and concerns, inside jokes, and where they are in their seasons.

This article appeared in the March 2018 issue of Training & Conditioning.


David Hoch retired in 2010 after a 41-year career as a high school athletic director and coach. In 2009, Dr. Hoch was honored as the Eastern District Athletic Director of the Year by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. He was also presented with the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association Distinguished Service Award, and in 2000 he was named the Maryland State Athletic Director Association's Athletic Director of the Year. Dr. Hoch has authored over 460 professional articles and made more than 70 presentations around the country. He welcomes comments and questions and can be reached at: [email protected]


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