Human Performance, Performance | Sep 17, 2021
The key takeaways from an afternoon exploring the culture around nutrition, real world examples and predictions for the future of sports nutrition.

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By John Portch

James Morton, the Director of Performance Solutions at Science in Sport and Professor of Exercise Metabolism at Liverpool John Moores University, mounts a convincing case to any performance director for hiring a nutrition team.

“Nutrition, in its simplest terms, is the basis of all human performance,” he says. “It’s probably the only thing we can control in elite sport because we know it’s chaotic, dynamic and unpredictable.

“Perhaps most importantly, it could be one of the best returns on investment that a performance director can make because nutrition, as the basis of performance, allows other members of the performance team to effectively do their roles. In other words, the team physician, the strength & conditioning coach, the fitness team, the psychologist and so on.”

Morton is speaking at yesterday’s Science in Sport Webinar where he was joined by Susie Parker-Simmons, the Head of Sports Nutrition at NBA champions the Milwaukee Bucks, and Mike Naylor, the Head of Nutrition at the English Institute of Sport and Consultant Performance Nutritionist at the Football Association. Tuning in to hear them speak was a global audience of Leaders Performance Institute members drawn from across all sports, leagues and performance disciplines.

This webinar was the first instalment of our Athlete Optimisation Series, a 10-week deep-dive into Human Performance produced in collaboration with series partner Keiser – to uncover the insights you need to push the limits of your athletes.

The following is a selection of key insights lifted from the virtual session.

The growth of performance nutrition cultures

“In my experience of working across high performance sport, I often feel like nutrition was the last discipline of sports science to enter the realm,” says Morton. “Sport’s had fitness coaches for years and sport’s had psychologists before nutritionists.”

The situation was familiar to Naylor. At the start of his career in sport, he worked just half a day a week at Southampton Football Club. “That was a lot of provision at that time,” he says. There is now a greater appreciation across the sport in England that stems from key advocates. “Now we have teams of nutritionists in some clubs and they’re able to do a lot more work.”

This, Naylor reflects, has changed the wider culture around nutrition, including on platforms such as social media. “There’s so much conversation happening every day and so much information around that people are constantly wanting to talk about it or learn more. The managers and coaches want to use it to find an edge too.”

Of the NBA, Parker-Simmons says: “All the NBA teams have dieticians but they range from contractors to full-time staff and probably over recent years we’re starting to get more full-time jobs available, which is huge.” However, she cautions that the season is long and the preparation phase is short. “You can get caught up spending a lot of time on the food service part because that has to be done today or you have to plan it for the next trip today versus making sure you get enough time to work on the dietetics component.”

Nutritionists are in the coaching profession

With a seat at the top table there is an opportunity to educate and influence. As Morton says to Parker-Simmons and Naylor, “we’re essentially in the coaching profession, we’re coaching people into making better decisions, and the first step in that coaching journey is to listen to what people have to say rather than speaking first.” He adds that this can be a challenge for younger practitioners who are all too keen to share their knowledge.

Parker-Simmons, through the use of conversations in the restaurant, targeted messages around the building and even text messages, has worked to develop an instinctive understanding with her playing group. She cites an example related to recovery: “I’m the one that goes on the court and gives them what they need on court and if I’m not happy with how much they’re drinking, and I’m stood right there; ‘take it off me’; and you can even get it down to just using your eyes saying, ‘get this in you’; or if they feel they’re starting to cramp they use their eyes to say ‘I need this other drink’. We don’t even have to talk.”

For his part, Naylor enjoys those conversations in the restaurant. “I absolutely love it. When people ask me if I find social media disruptive to my service I say ‘no’ because it creates more discussions, and as long as they’re talking to me about nutrition and talking about nutrition at the dinner table, I love it. I see it as part of my job to work with them, debunk myths and explore things with them. Sometimes it gets me thinking differently.”

Morton approves. “You’re describing the nitty gritty of performance delivery, as you can react live to what’s happening and intervene to make a difference,” he says. “Whereas I still feel like a lot of sports are employing people to come in one day per week, tell them a few things, and then leave again. That’s not affecting performance in the slightest.”

Recovery is the next big step

As England celebrated qualifying for the final at Euro 2020, the players, coaches and support staff gathered on the turf at Wembley Stadium to sing ‘Sweet Caroline’. But Naylor was not present. “I was actually on the bus with the chef preparing the food for the players on the coach in preparation for the final,” he says. During that tournament, recovery was the foremost concern for the performance staff across each discipline.

Morton is not surprised: “Recovery could be one of the big steps forward in the next ten years.”

Naylor continues: “Recovery is an integral part of competition when you’ve got such a number of games in a short period of time. The level of detail we went through in our three-phased recovery plans; making sure the players get the right drinks as they come off the pitch, then the right food in the changing room, and then the right food on the coach because we had some three-hour journeys. There’s so much emphasis placed on recovery with our nutritional strategist to ensure that we could get enough protein, get enough carbs to rehydrate effectively to be as ready as possible for the next training sessions and the next game.”

Fuelling is important too

Another area of focus for the panel is fuelling. As Naylor says, it is: “a fundamental of our profession that often gets overlooked because it seems so basic.” He describes the Football Association’s ‘Project 6g’: “We wanted players to have a minimum six grams per kilogram of carbohydrates to optimise muscle glycogen stores before performance. That’s become language that’s stuck with the players who are running around the canteen singing ‘6g’. Even the detail around our in-game fuelling; we’ll be deliberate in the number of gels and access points around the pitch.”

Influence key staff members

The world of sport is “chaotic and murky,” as Morton describes it, and he raises the need for key advocates and influencers within an organisation; those who “touch the athlete in a 24-hour period.”

Parker-Simmons returns the conversation to education. “The head of sports science and medicine is crucial,” she says, adding that the players themselves have an essential role. “If they’re facing an injury [one might say] ‘go and see Susie now’ or they’re the eyes when they’re on the road with them. I feel like educating all the sports science and medicine staff and being a team is crucial to be able to keep moving forward and getting feedback out.”

Managing up is also important. “I know we hate the paperwork, but you’ve got to make sure that you’re identifying all the changes and what you’re working on so then, when the time’s right, it’s ready for the general manager, the head coach or whoever. We need to spend time really putting down our programme, and then our results, and share them as appropriate.”

The value in mentorship

Parker-Simmons is both excited and wary of the increasing availability of roles in performance nutrition in the US. “We don’t have enough really experienced sports dieticians,” she says. “We have a lot of new grads who are getting a lot of high up positions and I’m a little nervous of that because they haven’t had that progression in steps I would normally suggest for those roles. We also don’t have enough mentors. I’m really excited for them to get that position but they need a mentor to be able to do it. It’s a crucial time in sports dietetics in America where it shows we’re a really important profession to be involved in but I really encourage those starting out in the jobs we’re getting, even at my age. Who is my mentor? Who have you got? They ensure you’re doing things successfully, you’re enjoying it and you’ve got a progression there.” She speaks highly of fellowship programmes for graduates. “I wish there were more,” she continues. “You’d have an incredible mentorship programme for those 12 months to help you be successful in the field.”

“That’s one of the things we’ve been successful with in the UK, placing PhD students into sports, almost conduct a research-practitioner-type PhD, and it’s been successful because the research is giving a performance benefit back to the sports and the student comes out a different person and a really accomplished practitioner.”

The future of performance nutrition

The panel were excited about the potential for technological advancements but it is in the field of behavioural change, with regards to nutrition, lifestyle habits and the broader performance culture where they hope to witness development.

Also, they acknowledge that sport remains a people business. “I think the practitioner of the future will emerge through a journey of coaching and leadership much earlier in their career,” says Morton. “I can see a lot of nutrition courses and wider sports science courses really embedding coaching practices and leadership skills.”

To wrap things up, Morton makes a point to further underline the importance of performance nutrition. “I think we’re also going to see an explosion in nutrition for other target tissues. I think our discipline has been guilty over the years of being muscle-centric, but of course we know that nutrition affects the brain, the gut, our bones, our tendons and ligaments.

“If you bring it back to performance, that’s probably why the coach should be getting involved in these conversations; the physio, the medical staff. Because the nutrition staff can affect the success of those other performance team’s roles and outcomes.”

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