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Relationships First, Facts Second: Gaining Trust with Athletes

Updated: May 24, 2020

Athletes come to sports dietitians for answers:

  • "What is X diet?"

  • "What are the pros and cons?"

  • "Should I go on this diet?"

If only being a dietitian and seeking behavior change were that easy.

The above athlete's simple ask is shrouded by something under-emphasized in the literature: Building trusting relationships with an athlete. Paper after paper is published, recommendations for how many grams an athlete should consume exist, but what good is all of that information if nutrition professionals can't get through to the athlete?

Below, I’m going to talk about three steps to consider when aiming for positive behavior change in athletes.

Step 1: Focus first on forming a trusting relationship with the athlete

Remember sitting in a college class, week one, and the fear you had raising your hand to ask a question? Keep this butterfly stomach feeling in mind when working with athletes.

Often, newer athletes I’m working with will say, “this is probably a dumb question, but…” Right there, you know there’s a lack of trust. What they’re likely thinking is, “my dietitian thinks this question is beneath them.” No, it’s not, but nutrition professionals can work wonders to change this narrative.

Athletes need to trust that you care about them as a person and have their best interests in mind. Once you have a relationship with the athlete, the “dumb” questions go away.

So, what can you do? Get to know the athlete rather than immediately coming at them with nutrition. A short list includes asking them how their family is, learning their kids' names, finding a common interest, being present around the facility, and being available when they call/text you. Building positive relationships with other members of the high-performance team and successfully working with other athletes to show your acceptance and work ethic may also help.

There's a reason why word-of-mouth marketing is so effective: Someone the athlete already trusts is vouching for you.

For some athletes, this relationship is going to take time. Granted, there are athletes that will trust you from day one, but I always lead with the assumption of relationship first, facts second.

Step 2: Before telling the athlete what you know about X, dig deeper

As nutritional professionals, we know a lot about the science and could talk someone’s ear off for days, but only talking facts and research as a means to show off knowledge isn’t what the athlete needs. It’s our form of a “weird flex.”

Recently, an athlete asked me, “is dairy bad?”

Rather than assuming what they’re asking about and talking their ear off about it, I simply replied, “no, but what have you heard?”

That response led the athlete to share their negative symptoms after drinking more than two cups of cow's milk per day.

Ok, so we’re talking possible, dose-dependent lactose intolerance. Not acne. Not if plant alternatives are better. Not if dairy should be consumed during a workout.

Yet without probing for more information—the why behind the ask—I ran the risk of providing an answer that gave the athlete no immediate benefit. My probing led to a deeper conversation based on what specific thing the athlete was inquiring about.

Behavior change requires understanding the core reason a person does X prior to designing an intervention. If we don’t know X, our solution likely won’t be helpful, and we run the risk of being labeled ineffective.

Step 3: Be aware of your biases and how/where you project them.

When I was studying to become a dietitian, my director said something impactful: “The most common answer you’ll ever give to a client is, ‘it depends.’” Years later, she continues to be correct.

Let’s say an elite cyclist asks their nutrition professional about the keto diet.

Research shows this style of eating:

Maybe their wife is a keto convert. Maybe the athlete's role model raves about keto. Maybe the athlete mistakenly heard that keto is a high-carb, high-fat diet. You don't know what the athlete knows.

Even though the cyclist is an athlete, one cannot assume the inquiry is performance-based. Never assume. Ask questions to clarify.

Yet, just like we need to probe for the why behind an ask, we need to be mindful of our own biases as nutrition professionals when supplying feedback. We can’t begin our response with a rolling of the eyes, laughter, and saying the diet is a bad idea for reasons X, Y, and Z.


  • Ask them why they’re interested in the diet.

  • Ask them what they already know about the diet.

  • Provide them with information surrounding the diet’s pros and the cons, tying in their performance goals. Doing so helps the athlete consider both sides of an argument, think for themselves, and come to a conclusion.

  • Be neutral in the information you provide.

  • Talk less, listen more.

There are other questions you could ask and approaches to the conversation you could take, but keep the discussion athlete-focused—not a here’s-everything-I-know-and-what-I-think-you-should-do approach.

Inform your athlete and let them decide. If they ask for your opinion, great! If they don’t want your opinion—and only the facts—that’s cool, too. Be happy that they’re asking for the information in the first place.

Lastly, keep in mind your social media presence and comments. If an athlete knows you’re making fun of keto online, are they going to ask you about it? Probably not.

Further Reading

Learn about cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and how to apply it.


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