April 2021

· 4 min read

What Parents and Coaches Need to Know About Supplements for Student Athletes

NSF offers tips and advice about what parents and coaches need to know about the safety of supplements for exercise and athletic performance.

Team huddle - What Parents and Coaches Need to Know About Supplements for Student Athletes | NSF

It’s no secret that athletes looking for a competitive edge often use supplements to build muscle and strength, speed up recovery and boost their performance. While a healthy diet, regular exercise and training can be enough for some, a growing number of student athletes are eager to jump on the supplement bandwagon in the hopes of getting bigger and stronger to perform their best.

If you are a parent or coach of a high school or college athlete wanting to take supplements, you may be asking yourself: “Do these supplements work? And, most importantly, are they risky?”

Many experts, including John Travis, Technical Leader of NSF’s Certified for Sport® program, warn that there are popular misconceptions about the regulation of the supplement industry, which increasingly targets young athletes. A chemist with more than 25 years of experience in analyzing dietary supplements, John points out that supplements are regulated by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA), though more like food products than to medications, and do not need pre-market approval. This means supplements are considered safe until proven otherwise by the FDA. The lack of pre-market approval, while great for innovation, provides a path for harmful substances to make it into the marketplace.

With so many high school and college athletes using supplements, parents and coaches need a heightened vigilance about the potential impact of supplements on their student athletes' heath.

“With the history of adulteration and contamination that has been reported on sport supplements, you need to consider the stakes when choosing dietary supplements.”

In 2019, the NSF supplements team collaborated with the women coaches’ organization, WeCOACH, to survey coaches to learn how supplements are perceived by both coaches and student athletes. Based on that survey, NSF experts recommend the following to parents and coaches when purchasing a supplement for their student athlete:

  • Bring in the experts. Respondents stressed the importance of bringing dietary experts -- such as the team’s registered dietitian (RD), athletic trainer or a student’s doctor -- into any conversation about supplements as soon as possible. “I think it’s important for coaches to be knowledgeable about supplements, especially supplements that pertain to their sport,” says Ashley Bastron, Women’s Assistant Cross Country/Track & Field Coach at Wake Forest University and one of the coaches surveyed. “For example, it’s good for cross country coaches to understand the impact that iron supplements can play. However, it is important for coaches not to play nutritionist. Don’t try and be a doctor.”
  • Educate student athletes. Coaches stressed the importance of educating student athletes to read and understand product labels and look for products that have been certified by an independent organization. “The biggest challenge in teaching athletes about supplements is providing the educational structure needed to best inform them of the safety and compliance of supplements,” says Indiana University Associate Softball Coach Kendall Fearn.
  • Read labels closely. Registered dietitians with expertise in understanding supplements are important for more than just the student athlete’s athletic success. They also contribute to their overall health and well-being and guide them when assessing questionable supplement ingredients. Kelsey Hinton, Gymnastics Head Coach at William & Mary College, reminds her athletes about a simple but deceptive ingredient, sugar, noting that “all smoothies are not good smoothies.” Various products make claims of ingredients being “all-natural” or “healthy,” but commonly contain lots of sugar.
  • Learn the risks. Some supplements may contain banned substances that could potentially disqualify student athletes from competition. Others can contain unhealthy or illegal ingredients. Be sure to avoid supplements that:
    • Claim to be an alternative to anabolic steroids, cause rapid weight loss or treat or cure a disease or health condition
    • Contain high levels of caffeine (more than 200 mg per serving), green tea extract and other stimulants, which may lead to restlessness, anxiety and racing and/or irregular heartbeat, especially in teens
    • Contain adulterants or unapproved synthetic stimulants, which may appear on product labels as ingredient names like geranium extract or 4-AMP citrate
  • Use tested supplements. Only use tested and certified supplements. A supplement that has been certified by NSF’s Certified for Sport® program has been manufactured in a facility that complies with Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs). It has also been tested to ensure that what is on the label matches what is in the product and that it is free of prohibited substances. This certification also confirms the supplements do not contain harmful levels of contaminants like heavy metals, pesticides or E. coli.

“With the history of adulteration and contamination that has been reported on sport supplements, you need to consider the stakes when choosing dietary supplements,” John says. “Ultimately, a student athlete is solely responsible for anything they take, which is why it is so important to be diligent when looking for certified supplements and deciding which ones are right for your student athlete.”

You can check for NSF certified supplements at nsfsport.com/certified-products or download the Certified for Sport® app on the App Store or Google.

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