Jan 29, 2015Plan of Attack
When Princeton University hired its first sports dietitian three years ago, she and the strength coach came up with a detailed plan of attack to work together.
By Jason Gallucci & Victoria Rosenfeld
Jason Gallucci, MS, SCCC, is Director of Strength and Conditioning and Victoria Rosenfeld, RD, CSSD, is a Sports Dietitian at Princeton University. They can be reached at: [email protected] and [email protected], respectively.
At the NCAA Division I level, there are currently 25 full-time sports dietitians. In the last three years, Auburn, Alabama, Georgia, Florida State, Indiana, Washington State, Houston, and George Mason have all created new full-time positions. Texas A&M and Notre Dame both added second full-time positions.
In addition, there are nearly 200 sports dietitians working in athletic or athletic medicine departments on a part-time basis or as consultants. If your school doesn’t have a sports dietitian on board yet, chances are one will be coming soon.
As more athletic departments hire or consult with sports dietitians, it is important that strong partnerships with current staff members are formed. Along with making the work environment comfortable for everyone in the department, great partnerships allow the student-athletes to reach their performance goals.
One of the most important relationships is between the sports dietitian and the strength and conditioning coach. Both positions have the same overall goal: to help athletes perform at their best. And when the sports dietitian and strength coach work together as one team, this goal can be met quickly and easily. This, however, can be easier said than done.
Although they share the same goal, when a sports dietitian is brought in to work side-by-side with the strength coach, it isn’t always a seamless transition. The strength coach may feel that their “territory” is being invaded. The dietitian may feel that their knowledge of sports nutrition is being ignored. Here at Princeton University, we quickly learned how to work with each other for the benefit of our student-athletes, and it’s brought about some great improvements in performance.
UNDERSTANDING EACH OTHER
We have been growing and cultivating our working relationship at Princeton for three years, and we believe that the main key to making it work so well is the level of respect we have for each other–both as professionals in our fields and as co-workers. We embrace the reality that without each other, our efforts result in suboptimal outcomes for the athletes we work with.
As the strength coach, Jason understands that a sports dietitian can be an extremely valuable asset to his department. Not only do dietitians possess expert knowledge about how to help athletes take their training to the next level outside of the weightroom, in order to obtain board certification as a specialist in sports dietetics, they must also have a good understanding of energy systems and exercise physiology. In short, they understand how strength coaches develop training programs for athletes.
At Princeton, one of the strength staff’s greatest challenges was finding time to disseminate nutritional information to the student-athletes. With over 30 teams and a staff of only four, time is a precious commodity. The inclusion of a sports dietitian to the “team” was certainly a welcome addition. Having someone with expert knowledge in the field that sees things from a slightly different perspective, yet has a shared purpose, has saved the strength staff countless hours and has strengthened our program.
A sports dietitian is also a great resource for student-athletes, which can be a big help for the strength coach. For example, many sports dietitians are advanced practitioners in specialty areas like eating disorders and body image issues. If a strength coach is struggling to get through to a female athlete who is reluctant to follow the training program for fear of “bulking up,” the sports dietitian may be able to step in and ease the athlete’s worries. He or she can dispel myths about weightlifting and explain to the athlete what changes they can expect to see in their body while emphasizing the improvements they will see in their performance if they follow the strength coach’s program.
Sometimes athletes are more comfortable approaching sports dietitians with sensitive questions or concerns because the dietitian is not generally viewed as a member of the coaching staff like a strength coach is. Instead, he or she is seen as a support staff member whom athletes can confide in.
One of the benefits of Princeton’s sports dietitian being a member of the athletic medicine team is that all conversations with student-athletes, along with their medical records, are considered confidential. This helps an athlete who is struggling with a serious issue like an eating disorder or disordered eating to feel more comfortable and willing to speak with the sports dietitian.
This respect goes both ways. As an incoming sports dietitian, Victoria understood that the strength and conditioning staff had been filling a void when it came to athlete nutrition–for many years. While a strength coach may not have the same depth of education in sports dietetics as a dietitian, nutrition is a key topic in major certification exams and many have studied nutrition as part of their undergraduate and/or graduate education. They may also have participated in nutrition training and have developed the sort of expertise that comes with hands-on experience.
If the strength coach has been working at the school for any number of years, they have spent countless hours with student-athletes and may be protective of the relationships and results they have worked to achieve with them. When a strength coach seems reluctant to work with a sports dietitian, the dietitian should respect the strength coach’s past efforts and maintain professionalism while allowing their work to speak for itself. Victoria’s advice, especially to sports dietitians just starting their careers, is to be confident, yet humble. The dietitian’s clear contributions to athlete performance will not be lost on the strength coach and he or she will come around soon enough.
ON THE SAME PAGE
One of the first steps we took when we started working together was to make sure that we both sent a consistent and clear message to our student-athletes about how much nutrition impacts sports performance. A shared philosophical approach to nutrition and strength training is a must. We know that if we are going to be effective as training and nutrition specialists, we cannot undermine each other in our respective areas of expertise.
It is especially important that our athletes always hear the same message because here at Princeton, sports nutrition is housed in the athletic medicine services department. This means Victoria does not have an office in the strength training facility and is not always able to spend time directly with the student-athletes. It’s often left up to Jason to communicate our shared philosophy.
Nutrition is a component of a well-balanced training program, and we share a food-first philosophy. Food first means that until an athlete has achieved all they can with their nutrition program, we usually won’t consider supplementation. We often ask our athletes, “Why would you supplement a poor diet?” Then we educate them about what eating right can do for them.
We were very lucky that we both believed in this philosophy before we met. As the sports dietitian, all Victoria had to do was listen and support what was already going on.
One way that we both promote our shared philosophy is by working together on various projects. This furthers our respect for each other and shows our student-athletes that the areas of nutrition and strength and conditioning go hand-in-hand.
We distribute educational materials to athletes that we created together, including what we call high performance nutrition fact sheets. These one- to two-page handouts are based on specific goals or needs we see in our athletes, and address topics like hydration, pre-exercise fueling, post-exercise fueling, nutrient timing, and the effects of alcohol consumption on performance.
We also created tabletop cards with similar information on them to adorn the dining hall tables during preseason camps. In the near future, we intend to better utilize new technology and social media to share these messages. The strength and conditioning department launched its Facebook page last year, which includes all of the high performance nutrition fact sheets.
One of our other collaborations resulted in the first official nutrition supplement policy at Princeton. The policy provides clear guidance to students and staff on the health and safety issues surrounding supplement use, as well as a guide for coaches who are making supplement purchases.
In the policy, our preference for food first is made clear and student-athletes are instructed not to purchase or ingest any supplements without first meeting with Victoria for a complete nutrition assessment or product evaluation. Together, the two of us have full oversight of the specific products that are recommended and approved for purchase by coaches. Victoria was also recently appointed by the athletics compliance office to fulfill new NCAA bylaws that require institutions to have someone responsible for supplement evaluation and education of staff and students.
As with any relationship, regular communication between the sports dietitian and strength coach is a must. If communication skills are lacking on either party’s part, we strongly encourage you to recognize it and get some training on how to communicate better. Great communication is especially important right away when your relationship is just beginning.
Each person should familiarize themselves with the other’s work and environment. Whenever possible, the sports dietitian should be present in the weightroom and other training facilities on campus during various training sessions, including teams’ preseason, in-season, and off-season workouts. The strength coach should explain the teams’ or athletes’ daily, weekly, and monthly workout programs to give the dietitian an idea of the physical requirements the athletes face. And the strength coach should consider attending any performance nutrition presentations by the sports dietitian. These opportunities are extremely valuable in conveying a united front.
The sports dietitian should also ask the strength coach how he or she can help. If the strength coach already has a nutritional program in place, it should be discussed so that the sports dietitian knows what sort of plan the athletes are already following.
As our relationship grew, so did our communication. Because we work in separate buildings, we communicate frequently via e-mail, but also make sure not to lose sight of the value of routine face-to-face meetings. We speak freely, directly, and don’t hold back any punches. That is the benefit of working together over time and being open minded.
In the fast-paced setting of intercollegiate athletics, it can be difficult to find time for regular face-to-face meetings. So while we do not have a set schedule for how often we will meet or for how long, communication between us remains constant. These meetings don’t often take place in either of our offices, but rather are regularly determined by the best place to eat.
At our meetings, we discuss goals and projects for each season, including specific needs of certain teams, which athletes are using recovery drinks and why, which athletes need help with preseason fueling, and the progress of individual athletes who are working on weight gain or loss. We may also discuss the safety and efficacy of popular supplements to recently hit the market. Both of us typically prepare information that is pertinent to our respective department and then we collaborate through open discussion.
As with any relationship, differences of opinion are bound to arise. The key is to be able to listen to each other and compromise. When a disagreement does occur, both parties should look at the facts, gather research and evaluate the results, including doing literature reviews. This is particularly important when it comes to topics like changing body composition or the possibility of using a supplement. Communicating as a team will make a positive impact on student-athlete health and safety.
To download the supplement policy that the authors created together, go to: www.Training-Conditioning.com/PrincetonSupplementPolicy.pdf.
Sidebar: DIETITIANS FOR HIRE
If you are a strength coach in the process of convincing administrators to hire or consult with a sports dietitian, here are some talking points on the benefits a dietitian can bring to your school:
– Diet management and monitoring – Dietary supplement control – Anti-doping supervision and education – Performance and recovery foods – Education and one-on-one counseling – Athlete recruitment and retention – Budget management and cost reduction