I have been fortunate enough to work with AFL teams in five grand finals, including the week leading up to the game. I have seen nutrition strategies work well but have also seen some on shaky ground due to factors which are difficult to control but need to be considered and planned for.
September in Melbourne is ridiculous when it comes to weather. I recall one AFL grand final I was involved with was hot and windy, another a few years later had winter-like conditions and rain. If it is hot, it can often be the hottest day for 6 months and players are not accustomed to playing, and drinking, in that type of heat. The weather can impact on hydration but there is a bigger factor that can play havoc with the best laid nutrition plans, and this is not specific just to AFL football but any major sporting events - nerves (for want of a more technical description).
In many ways finals are just ordinary games, but in other ways they are not. I am certainly not a psychologist, but it is clear that there is both internal and external pressure created, and some players manage this better than others. I have frequently heard athletes say that if they don't feel nervous they won't perform well, so butterflies in the stomach can be helpful, perhaps because if you feel anxious it means whatever you are nervous about means a lot to you and you really want to do well. Some players thrive on the 'big-game' pressure and it brings out their best, others may be terribly nervous but can turn this around into a positive, and others can have a terrible time that interferes with them performing at their best.
A common side-effect of nervousness is stomach upset, which can impact on appetite and make it difficult to consume regular pre-game intake both the night before and on game day itself. The type of foods that are usually consumed may need to be altered, for example a change from a dense oat-based cereal breakfast to a lighter toast option, lower-fibre options and avoidance of dairy for improved gastrointestinal comfort.
Often nutrients are more easily tolerated via fluids rather than solid foods, so these can be a good option for athletes who struggle to eat pre-event. But over-drinking can be another concern. Fluid intake can easily be over-done pre-game when nerves are involved, with players taking sip after sip as they count down the minutes to game-time, so fluid intake should be monitored.
Of course not all players experience disruptive physical symptoms, but they still have the challenge of timing their nutrition on the day. Ideally it would be good to wake at the usual time and stick to the usual breakfast then snack and/or light lunch before heading to an afternoon game. But players always like to make sure they get to the ground in plenty of time during finals, so prior organisation is paramount to ensure optimal fuelling in those critical hours.
A finals or competition win is the ultimate for any team sport. I hope everyone involved in finals this year can manage their nerves and nutrition as best they can and play their best games for the year.
Lisa Middleton is one of Australia’s most experienced Sports Dietitians. Lisa has spent over 15 years advising some of the nation’s most elite athletes and teams across a range of sports including VIS athletes, the Essendon, Hawthorn and St Kilda AFL Football clubs, Melbourne Vixens Netball, Melbourne Storm Rugby League and Melbourne Victory Football clubs throughout grand final and premiership years.