Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your career?
I grew up in Sydney and did a lot of sport when I was younger, particularly swimming, that was my sport of choice. There were many hours in the pool and lots of training before and after school. While I was Swimming, I actually saw a sports dietitian, Helen O’Connor, and it was at that point I thought, “This nutrition thing is pretty interesting, maybe that’s what I want to do with myself.” By the time I finished high school, I was really interested in sports nutrition and decided that’s what I wanted to do. I went to Wollongong University and did my undergraduate there, which was a Bachelor of Science in nutrition. When I finished that, I had a year off and worked. After one year in the workforce, I went back and did a Masters of Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Sydney. I graduated there in 2010 and I’ve been working ever since.
Initially, I started working in the hospital setting. I worked for three years at Campbelltown Hospital across various inpatient and outpatient caseloads. This was a great place to work and really helped me build a solid foundation of clinical knowledge, but I still had the desire to work in sports nutrition. During this time, I took any opportunity that was even slightly related to sports nutrition, which included volunteer work. I also started working at a sports medicine clinic. Soon after, I received my first opportunity to work with a professional team, which was the Cronulla Sharks. I guess it is from there that everything else has happened. I have been at the Sharks for five seasons, and the GWS Giants for four seasons. This year I also started working with the Giants netball team and the Women’s AFL team.
In and around my team work, I do a little bit of consulting and try and keep as fit, healthy and active as possible.
What are the key things you work on with athletes at the Giants?
I work across a range of areas with the players—it’s really anything to do with their nutrition, hydration, supplementation and body composition. I see my role as helping the athletes understand nutrition and how it helps them from both a health point of view, but more importantly from a performance point of view. Helping the players have an understanding of both aspects of nutrition are really important for me. I don’t want to just build a knowledge base where they can tell me what a carbohydrate, protein or fat is. While that is important, I personally think it is more important an athlete knows how to then put that together and truly understand why they should be eating that food or meal, and know when they should be eating it—it’s really a holistic approach.
There’s a lot of talk about body composition, which is an important part of being an athlete, but I never want them to prioritise their body composition goals over their requirements and what they require to fuel and recovery properly. I help them prioritise their performance nutrition goals in the context of their body composition goals, rather than the other way around.
I also want the athletes I work with to enjoy what they eat, so helping them learn how to cook and create good snacks which fit in with the foods they enjoy is important for me.
It sounds like quite a bit of education and helping them to make good choices. Is there anything you do to influence their food choices at all?
Yes, at The Giants we provide a lot of meals and snacks. Every day, there’s food which is available for them. In pre-season, the club provides breakfast and lunch. There is a lot of learning through the choices which are provided at these meals.
I also take some of the athletes shopping—we do shopping tours and restaurant tours with the draftees (first year players), which include taking them to some different restaurants near where they all live. This is to educate them in a real life setting and to encourage them to try new foods.
Do you write meal plans for the players?
I do write some meal plans. I write less meal plans now than what I would have when I first started working as a Sports Dietitian. I have found that as my contact hours have increased, the number of meal plans I write has decreased. There tends to be more corridor conversations, rather than formalised consultations which I think works better for the environment I work in. I find I am writing meal plans for the younger players or anyone who is particularly struggling or has a specific goal. The majority of the time we might work on a specific meal or snack, rather than a prescriptive meal plan.
In saying that, it really depends on the athlete, their goals, what they want and what will work best for them. Aside from them (meal plans) being very time-consuming, I also find that the corridor conversations and those informal discussions work better and have a better impact with changing behaviour.
What are the differences between working with athletes in The Sharks and the GWS? Is there anything you do differently?
The main difference is the contact hours I have at the two clubs. At the Giants, I am there 3 days a week as well as game day. At the Sharks I am there one day per week. The systems I have implemented at both clubs are very similar, but at the Giants I am more involved in delivering the services on the day to day, compared to the Sharks where other staff members help deliver the programs.
The framework I have developed, and the education I provide, is very similar across the two clubs. For instance, some of the most common themes I am educating the players at both clubs about include the importance of protein (type, timing and distribution), as well as how to periodise carbohydrate intake around training.
One of the main differences I have noticed would be there is much more cultural diversity in League, so when I am educating the NRL players I am often needing to consider more factors such as cultural food choices, compared to what I have found with the AFL players.
What’s it like travelling with the teams and what kinds of things do you do with them when you’re on the road with them?
It has been really good travelling with them. I think you get to know the players and the staff well, especially given The Giants being the most travelled team in the AFL. We’re on the road at least every second week, sometimes even a few weeks in a row. My relationship with the players has definitely improved since travelling with them and I also feel that their food choices and behaviours have improved since I started travelling as well. I think the fact I have been available to answer questions when the players have had them has helped improve their overall nutrition knowledge and their food choices.
Prior to any travel, I am organising the menu for the stay, liaising with the hotels and then organising any other catering which the team need such as post-match meals. I send through the requirements for the meals and all the specifications a few weeks before each trip. When we arrive at the hotel, I check the meals to make sure everything’s there and if there are any issues with the food, I am the point of contact with the staff at the hotel. From a game-specific point of view, anything that is physically at the ground that the players are consuming or drinking, I’ve had some involvement with packing and getting it there. This includes going to the supermarket beforehand and getting all their different snacks they like to have in the change room for before the game and at half-time. That role also includes setting all of the snacks and supplements up.
During the game, I am on the bench. When the AFL players come off, I give them their drink of choice, whether that is water, sports drink, hydralyte or a combination. During the breaks, I am providing players with their gels or lollies or Pickle Juice.
Post-match, I organise what the team have with the caterers before the match, but I would be the point of contact on the day as well. After the game my role involves making sure the players are re-fuelling, weighing out and starting to replace the fluid they have lost in the game. Not all the teams have a dietitian which travels with them, they have other staff members that absorb some of those roles. I think in the ideal situation it is good having a dietitian who travels as that means there is one key person who can work across all of those areas.
There’s a lot of organising and a lot of spreadsheets and a lot of background work. If it sounds like a luxury life, it’s not necessarily because the travel is exhausting, both for the players and for the staff. It’s still great and feel very lucky to be working in the role I am, but it is hard work. I do think it is great being able to experience this because you’re fully 100% part of the team.
What are some of the things you have athletes eating before the games?
Depending on the time of game, the pre-game meal, which will often be 3–4 hours before, is either breakfast or lunch. Let’s use lunch as an example. If it’s an afternoon game, there’ll be options like a sandwich bar if they prefer something lighter. There will always be a pasta and or a rice-based dish available as well, for those who prefer a bigger, heavier meal and they can tolerate that. Sushi is a popular one as well. There will always be fruit, yoghurt, cereal, toast and condiments available as well which are popular ‘top up’ options.
In the 1–2 hours before the game, they have a pre-game snack. That’s more likely to be fruit, rice crackers, pretzels and muesli bars. Very high carb, low fat, and relatively low in protein. They are all foods which are easily tolerated and digested.
So you are choosing lower fat foods and lower protein foods before a game?
Yes, this is because the more fat, protein, or fibre, that’s in a meal, the longer it takes to digest. The size of the meal will also effect the digestion time. If you have a high fat meal or a high protein meal, it is going to sit in the stomach for longer, which means it might not digest. The purpose of eating a pre-game meal or snack is not only to feel comfortable with it, but to ensure the meal has been digested, which means it ready to use.
If you’re having something around two hours before playing a game, you do want it to be pretty low in fat, low in fibre and low in protein just so you know it’s going to digest and it’s not going to be uncomfortable and sit in your stomach. The best advice I can give is to practice your pre-game meal and snack in training, to make sure it is comfortable, familiar and tolerated. You never want to try something for the first time in a game or race.
Any differences when you are working with the females, for example, the netballers at GWS?
I just started working with the Giants netball team and the women’s AFL team this year. Probably the main difference, and I guess it’s not just in the nutrition space, but it’s across the structure of the whole business, would be the difference in resourcing. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything is compromised, it just might be what is available and appropriate for the nature of the sport. With the netball team, there are 10 or 12 contracted players compared to an NRL or an AFL squad where you’ve got 35–40. I find the resourcing is scalable to the size of the group.
I found that age was a lot more diverse as well, so with the women’s team, there were a larger portion of older athletes, compared to the AFL side. Age and life experience alone will impact on nutrition knowledge, so when you’re comparing a 30 year old netball player to an 18-19 year old draftee you are expecting there will be a large discrepancy in baseline nutrition knowledge and life skills.
All the athletes I work with are excellent people which make it a really positive experience. The men are great and I absolutely love working with them, but the women are awesome as well. The women are a little bit more self-sufficient maybe compared to the men, but they’re all fantastic.
With the AFL players you can individualise everything, you can do quite a lot for them—can you do the same for the women’s AFL team? Is there the funding there for that?
There’s definitely a difference with the funding. With the men, I can individualise everything as I spend a lot of time with them. The contact hours are very different between the men and women, a few days per week compared to a few hours per week, will of course result in different levels of servicing and individualisation. We were still able to implement some similar systems and strategies which was good. I still try and individualise everything as much as possible with the women’s team. But from a resourcing point of view, it’s not at the same level as what the men are because the overall funding and structure is different. We do the best we can though which is a pretty good job.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
For anyone that is interested in working in sport, it can be a difficult area to get into, but it is not impossible. I have a lot of people who email me looking for work experience or opportunities, and I guess if you’re not afraid to do a little bit of free work, network and put yourself out there, opportunities will come.
I strongly encourage you to do the SDA course, take any opportunity which is even slightly related to sports nutrition and network with as many sports dietitians as possible.
Working in sport is very rewarding, but it might not be for everyone. You should know you will work long hours, and you probably won’t work a Monday to Friday Job. There are not many full-time sports Dietitian rolls available so you will also probably be juggling a few different jobs. In saying all of that, it is an extremely rewarding role and the people you get to work with and for everyday are extremely motivated individuals who want to always be better, they are awesome.
For me, I wanted to work in nutrition as a way of helping people be the best versions of themselves whether that be improving their performance or their health. That was just what I was interested in and was passionate about, so there’s nothing better than going to work and being able to work with people that are there just trying to be better every single day.
If you want to work in sport, just be persistent and don’t be afraid to do a little bit of free work when you’re starting out. If you are the right person, once you get your foot in the door there will be no turning back. Don’t be disheartened if it takes time. Good luck!
To find out more about Jessica see below:
Insta – jess_Spendlove_dietitian