Jun 21, 2022
A Multidisciplinary Healthcare Approach in Athletics
Alyson Onyon, MS, RDN, CSS*D, Senior Director of Sports Nutrition, Virginia Tech

A multidisciplinary, team-based approach in healthcare is a leading strategy to improve patient outcomes, well-being, satisfaction, and cost-effectiveness. It allows for a holistic, well-rounded approach to patient-centered care in managing complex conditions of illness, injury, and chronic disease (Isaac et al., 2016). 

This team-based healthcare approach involves a group of clinical staff members from a variety of professions. In a hospital setting, the team can include a physician, nurse, registered dietitian, pharmacist, social worker, and additional specialty positions. They collaborate and share common goals of delivering excellent, patient-centered care, with quality, safety, and overall experience at the focus (Will et al., 2019). Characteristics of a successful multidisciplinary team include a diverse background of professional experiences, willingness to learn from each other, communication, and commitment to the mission of the task at hand (Sierchio, 2003). 

The Multidisciplinary Sports Science Team 

multidisciplinaryA similar healthcare approach and principles can be applied to the athletic setting. A multidisciplinary sports science team (MSST) can have a profound impact on athlete health, well-being, athletic experience, performance, injury prevention, and recovery. It serves as a multidimensional method, providing specialized care for teams and complex athlete cases (Joy et al., 2003). Positive aspects of the MSST are enhanced athlete care, improved communication, opportunities for learning, goal setting, and professional growth among members of the MSST (Breitbach et al., 2017). 

What is considered a multidisciplinary sports science team? The team can consist of any or all of the following: a physician, registered dietitian, athletic trainer, strength and conditioning coach, physiologist, mental health professional, physical therapist, or other coaches. Other athletics administrators or directors may also be involved, and there can be different scales of collaboration depending on the topic or issue at hand. 

For example, eating disorders are psychiatric disorders with nutrition and medical complications; therefore an eating disorder clinical treatment team commonly includes a physician, registered dietitian, and mental health professional. All three roles play an integral part in an athlete’s recovery from an eating disorder, as each provider holds specialized knowledge and skills needed for well-rounded treatment. The physician is needed to conduct a comprehensive evaluation, including labs, physical exams, medical history, and diagnostic testing. The registered dietitian assesses the nutritional status of the individual, develops an eating treatment plan, and monitors nutrition status. The mental health provider reviews the mental status and psychosocial history and develops and monitors the mental health treatment plan. Collectively, there would be planned communication about progress. Beyond the clinical care team, in some situations with the athlete’s consent, it may be appropriate to involve others in communication. Each case is unique, and an opportunity to coordinate support that is best for the athlete. This multidisciplinary approach is recognized as the best practice for the treatment of eating disorders since disordered eating occurs on a spectrum, making treatment multidimensional and teamwork-oriented (Joy et al., 2003). 

On another scale, there can be sport-specific performance teams. This type of MSST may consist of an athletic trainer, a strength and conditioning coach, and a sports dietitian. If communication is usually informal or as-needed, there is value in shifting to proactive meetings. Intentional time allows the sports science disciplines to collaborate, communicate and plan for their designated teams. For example, the athletic trainer can review injury reports, the strength coach can discuss current training demands, and the dietitian can communicate the nutrition plan to support intended adaptations. Overall team trends, athletes of concern, and setting performance team goals are other topics that can be discussed and determined. This collaboration allows for thorough support of the entire sports team, as well as individual athlete performance, health, and well-being.

A Sports Dietitian’s Role in the Multidisciplinary Sports Science Team

A sports dietitian is a food and nutrition expert that applies evidence-based sports nutrition information to help athletes reach their full potential on and off the competitive stage. Research suggests that having a sports dietitian on staff can help improve athlete food intake, and nutrition knowledge, and can lead to enhanced performance and recovery (Hull et al., 2017; Valliant et al., 2012). In an MSST, the sports dietitian’s goal is to incorporate nutrition into training and competition, along with providing medical care and teaching life skills to best support athletes. In the sports setting, dietitians wear many hats, as they embrace the clinical, food service, and management roles of nutrition. 

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The sports dietitian’s role in the MSST can vary depending on circumstances, and there is an opportunity to communicate and collaborate through all stages of nutrition assessment, diagnosis, intervention, monitoring, and evaluation. Let’s look at some examples. A top connection is for the injured athlete preparing for or recovering from surgery, or working through an ongoing concern such as a bony stress injury. The sports dietitian can collaborate with the sports medicine team to learn the athlete’s status and rehab plan, effectively educate the athlete and provide fueling strategies that best support recovery. If strength coaches communicate an interest in measuring body composition, the sports dietitian is equipped to lead the strategy for assessment, data collection, evaluation, education, and the plan for communicating results and goals. Say there is a tough stretch of training or competition, whether it is pre-season camp or post-season tournaments. The sports dietitian can work with the MSST to proactively map out nutrient timing and hydration plans to help enhance athlete performance and recovery.  

Sports dietitians help bring all aspects of a multidisciplinary team together, as they are involved in the nutrition, performance, clinical and psychological aspects of the sport. They bridge the physical aspects of health and well-being with the mental facets. Dietitians are encouraged to go beyond the scientific role, build strong relationships, and be a trusting, supportive resource for athletes (Steinmuller et al., 2014).


Questions to think about to enhance the multidisciplinary sports science team in your setting:

  • How is your relationship with other sports science disciplines? (I.e., sports medicine, strength, and conditioning, nutrition, psychology, etc.)
  • Is there room for growth to hire positions in need? (I.e., does your setting have access to a registered dietitian?) 
  • Are there missing links where the multidisciplinary approach can be improved? (I.e., is there a need to proactively schedule meetings, create a meeting agenda or flow, or remind others of coverage and how to make referrals?) 
  • Are there opportunities, such as weekly sports medicine meetings, that can include other sports science disciplines? 
  • Is there a multidisciplinary committee that can be established to work through certain medical issues such as eating disorders, injury recovery, or goals for general performance? 

Challenges may arise including difficulty meeting consistently, lack of administrative support, or differing opinions of professionals. However, it is important to work through these challenges to best serve the athletes. To effectively work as an MSST, think about determining the best form of communication for your group, schedule meetings in advance, clearly define the roles and responsibilities of team members, be mindful of the scope of practice, and collaborate on decision-making (Tee et al., 2019). Think about how your establishment can best serve athletes by working together as a multidisciplinary sports science team. 

Written by a Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association Registered Dietitian (RD). To learn more about sports nutrition and CPSDA, go to www.sportsrd.org.

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