Ask the expert

Ask the Expert: Craig Umenyi (Arsenal FC)

Craig Umenyi is an Academy Performance Nutritionist at Arsenal FC. He holds a Masters degree in Sport Nutrition from Liverpool John Moores University, as well as a Postgraduate Diploma from the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Prior to working with Arsenal, Craig worked for the Toronto Wolfpack Rugby League Team, Everton FC, as well as working with elite youth motor racing drivers for Pioneered Athlete Performance.

What has led you into youth sport?

Youth sports sort of chose me! My first applied work was working with junior racing drivers for a physical performance company called Pioneered Athlete Performance (PAP) run by my good friend Jon Malvern. We would accompany two drivers racing in a European series and try to do a little of everything to do with physical performance – food, sports massage, travel strategies, physical preparation, hydration monitoring. The programme and support now that PAP offer has continued to grow leaps and bounds. However, the experience of working closely with youth athletes in and around competition helped with the initial development of my skill-set. I have since been fortunate enough to work with other elite youth athletes in other sports.

2) What has been your biggest influence in your practice in youth sport?

Personal development. At Arsenal, a lot of our projects are organised in collaboration with our psych/social team so nutrition falls perfectly in between personal and physical development. From the outside looking in, there is often an unrealistic focus on youth athletes eating with the discipline and palate of elite adult athletes. Young people can often have a very fixed mindset towards food e.g. not wanting to mix foods, bland foods, poor variety etc. However, if we start to shift focus towards creating or trying new foods as an area of challenge – just like they would try to work on technical weaknesses, then I feel we are on the right path to developing an athlete who has a better relationship with and openness to food. Just a few weeks ago we had a group of athletes between the ages of 13 and 16 years old in a nearby school kitchen creating dishes of their own voluntarily. Realistically, an individual who enjoys cooking, exploring new recipes and can make a variety of different options is likely to have better nutrition habits. Can we help develop this interest, curiosity and skill-set so that nutrition practice becomes better? In the bigger picture this means developing an individual with better life skills to be able to look after themselves whether they make it as an elite adult athlete or not.

3) What is your particular area of interest?

A growing interest of mine includes how social, parental and cultural factors influence nutrition behaviour in youth athletes. From a physical standpoint, assessing physical development changes with regards to bone and muscle when exposed to a full-time training environment.

4) How do you think this particular area applies to youth athletes?

The youth athlete is likely going to be dependent on others (parents, carers, school, the club) providing their meals and dictating their food environment. Eating behaviour is learned it becomes about trying to find new ways to reach parents – who may not have the best relationship with food themselves. Whilst with younger athletes you are not going to be providing tailored, bespoke advice, a mistake I made when I started working in youth football was to generalise athletes. However, a London-based elite football academy is probably one of the few environments in sport where you are going to get a true melting pot of children with regards to ethnicity, backgrounds, eating behaviours, taste palates, socio-economic status etc. How can we as youth practitioners better provide practical nutrition advice across this spectrum? 

With full-time youth athletes, I am interested in physical development changes. I am extremely fortunate to be able to assess body composition of our full-time athletes (U18 and U23) at the academy using a DEXA machine. This allows us to shift the focus from body fat measurement to bone density and lean mass, which I strongly believe should be the priority. This is our first season tracking this across the season and we see some vast changes, particularly in our first-year scholars (U18s).

5) What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?

People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care. I hate clichés but I think it is especially applicable to youth athletes. This is difficult to achieve for a performance nutritionist in youth sport who are often contracted to a limited number of hours or days per month. I have noticed a big difference with the buy-in of many athletes in this my second season at Arsenal with an increase in working days simply by having more to talk to them about besides from nutrition.

6) What advice would you give to coaches working with youth athletes?

Working in youth sport after all is about the long-term development of athletes. I have had parents of 13 year olds tell me that they are restricting their child’s carbohydrate intake at meals so that he does not put on fat whilst he is out injured, whilst coaches may ask “what are we doing” about his nutrition as they feel a child’s face is beginning to look a little rounded. Marcus Hannon at Everton’s academy who I have had the pleasure of working with is doing some excellent (currently unpublished) research into the energy demands of youth footballers and it is becoming clear that the demand is greater than we have previously assumed.

Therefore, it is likely in 95% of cases that our focus should be about increasing overall energy intake with the inclusion of sufficient protein and nutrient-dense foods to support physical maturation, reduce injury risk and improve training availability. I know carbohydrate periodisation (matching carbohydrate intake with the physical demands of the day) is a big thing in elite sports nutrition currently but I question if there is much, if any, scope for it in academy football if we want to meet energy targets. Remember, many youth athletes will lack opportunities to regularly access nutritious food in large enough volumes during school and/or training days so they may naturally compensate for this on lower activity days. It also helps instil the message that message that performance nutrition is not limited to a bowl of pasta pre-match and a Gatorade at half-time.

7) Can you recommend any particular resources for youth sport coaches?

I think there is a lot of confusing information out there regarding nutrition for society in general so please be mindful of what you read from fitness bloggers on Instagram or online newspapers. There are plenty of good sports nutrition recipe books out right now that are useful and informative with regards to the science. These include:

Cooking For Fitness: Eat Smart, Train Better – James Haskell and Omar Meziane

The Vegetarian Athlete’s Cookbook: More Than 100 Delicious Recipes for Active Living – Anita Bean

The Runner’s Cookbook: More than 100 delicious recipes to fuel your running – Anita Bean

Although not sport-related, I recently purchased James Wong 10-a-Day the Easy Way: Fuss-free Recipes & Simple Science to Transform your Health which had some brilliant recipes and tackles some myths around things like tinned and frozen vegetables.

If you want something a little more interactive and can spare a few quid each month, Colour-Fit is a subscription based recipe and information hub with videos and infographics.

8) Where can people find out more about you and your work? (Social media links, websites etc.)

My online presence is currently pretty poor but I am on Twitter – @CraigUmenyi and you can find me on LinkedIn.

Thanks to Craig for his time and expertise and providing so many great resources!

Are you a grassroots youth sport coach or PE teacher who wants to improve the athleticism of your athletes?? Check out our Fundamental series athletic development programs here.

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