Food for Thought and Sport

Changing my diet has appeared on every New Year’s Resolution I’ve penned in recent years. 2014, however, differs from every previous attempt in that it’s now nearly April, and, notwithstanding a few tumbles from the wagon, I’m still riding high. I’ve normally crashed and burned before January gets through.

The motivation for this change in regime came from two sources: my increasing fatigue during my lessons, and reading Novak Djokovic’s Serve to Win book, sub-titled The 14-Day Gluten-Free Plan for Physical and Mental Excellence, which principally attributes his world-domination in tennis to his own diet changes.

Djokovic is dairy and gluten intolerant, and in fact I did attempt to avoid these in a stricter incarnation of this diet at the beginning. However, inconvenience, cost, and a lack of intolerance on my part made me tone down those aspects of my own serve to win diet. He also eats slowly and deliberately after saying a little prayer to a nondescript god, but that also just doesn’t work in my lifestyle. The happy place where I’ve settled in my diet involves no voodoo, no imaginary intolerances (other than to spending a fortune on products I don’t need). What remains is what I believe to be the most important element of Djokovic’s relationship with food. food is information. By minimising refined carbohydrates, and certainly never eating them at night, I am sending my body the message of what I’d like it to do. Djokovic writes, “At night, I don’t need energy… So at dinner, I will tell my body, “I need you to repair…”” This ties in with a heavy protein emphasis at night, which I have followed to a T. Where before I’d have had potatoes, rice, or pasta with every meal, I now substitute with another vegetable or two. Spaghetti bolognese (which Djokovic wouldn’t eat due to the heavy tomato sauce) is now broccoli bolognese, lunchtime sandwiches are now salads, quinoa, or stir fries.

The result? Well I feel much more energised, I eat as much as I want without gaining weight, I routinely wake up earlier, making my productivity higher. As far as this diet is concerned, I’m sold.

But there’s one more, unintended side effect that has sealed the deal. I was given a piece of research from Ollie, a pupil at the WimX Academy who, unfortunately, is out with a knee problem. As a keen young player who will do anything to get back on court, he was encouraged by the physiotherapist working with many of the WimX players, to avoid refined carbohydrates due to their inflammatory properties. I hadn’t connected the dots, but my knee (the subject of eight operations over my tennis career) has felt like I’ve wound back the clock several years. And having eliminated pasta, consigned bread to the occasional breakfast, largely cut out potatoes, and only eaten rice in the form of sushi a few times, I now know why. – I’ve inadvertently avoided many of the foods that inflame it. At its worst my knee clicks, locks, grinds and aches, sometimes all at the same time! I’m not suggesting it’s cured, but I’ve been enjoying my court time a whole lot more recently without too many reminders of its tortured past as a pro player’s primary mode of transport.

So, thank you Mr Djokovic, not only for all of your exhilarating tennis spectacles, but for publishing this infinitely readable and useful book. It not only inspires the next generation of young players with dreams of a life in tennis, but has also put some life back into this old player, whose reinvigorated coaching might just help them achieve those dreams!

Jo Ward is a Master Performance Tennis Coach, Writer, & Director. British National Champion & World 150. Visiting lecturer at UEL and coach education tutor.

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