Newswise — Fueling Victory in the NCAA Football Playoffs

Championships are won and lost at the end of a grueling, months-long road. Starting with spring practices, summer conditioning, through the grind of fall training camp, week in and week out duals that culminate in late November with regular season finales and conference championships, ultimately finishing in the bowl games of January.   Successful programs understand the health and preparedness of their athletes in these final months can be the difference between victory and defeat.  Attention to adequate fueling and recovery through a well designed nutrition program has grown in the last decade.   Recent legislation changes at the NCAA level have allowed programs to put resources behind nutrition progams and the support of student-athlete health and wellness.  

In an unprecedented occurrence, each of the four football programs participating in the College Football Playoff will feature a sports dietitian (Sports RD) who spent time professionally or scholastically at the University of Alabama.  Amy Bragg, Alabama’s Director of Performance Nutrition, has been with the Crimson Tide for eight seasons and has built one of the leading sports nutrition programs in the country.   A founding member and past president of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association, Bragg was a key  player in supporting the 2014 initiative to deregulate NCAA feeding restrictions.   Deregulation has allowed athletic departments to more completely fuel student-athlete health, wellness, and performance.  This increased focus on fueling athletes led to a dramatic growth in the number of full-time sports dietitians at both the FBS and FCS levels.  With a focus on providing nutrition  education and guidance to all student-athletes, Alabama has grown their sports nutrition staff to support its more than 600 athletes.  Bragg, explains her role as Director of Performance Nutrition, “I am fortunate to be a part of the Alabama program, functioning within a very cohesive football support staff.   Our primary objective is to facilitate optimal fueling and hydration practices while educating players about the role of nutrition in performance.” 

The impact of the sports dietitian’s role in supporting health, wellness, and performance has caught the eye of head coaches, university administrators, and sports medicine professionals over the last decade.  As these individuals from schools with established sports nutrition programs move on to new opportunities, establishing a strong nutrition role at their next institution has become a high priority.

Tiffany Byrd, who began working as the first Director of Sports Nutrition at the University of Oklahoma in the summer of 2013, was both a student-athlete and performance nutrition intern at the University of Alabama.  It was there, under the services of Bragg, where she learned firsthand the importance of fueling performance and the impact a sports dietitian can have on health and performance.  She has applied this knowledge while growing the sports nutrition department at Oklahoma.

Sidney Smith is in her third season as Director of Football Performance at the University of Georgia.  Before joining the Bulldogs, she spent five years at Alabama as a sports nutrition intern while completing a bachelor of nutrition, her dietetic internship and also a master’s degree in human performance.   In her final year at Alabama, Smith served as a full-time sports dietitian. When former Georgia head coach, Mark Richt, hired Jeremy Pruitt as his defensive coordinator, Pruitt was able to attest to Sidney’s hard work and dedication from their time together at Alabama, making her an ideal candidate for Georgia’s position.  When current head football coach, Kirby Smart, left Alabama to take the Georgia job, his familiarity with Smith, her role and the value of a full time sports RD made retaining her an easy decision. 

Prior to the 2016 football season, Clemson added a Director of Football Nutrition position and hired Paul Harrington, who had spent the previous three years as the Assistant Director of Performance Nutrition at the University of Alabama.  Clemson had invested heavily in its food and fueling strategy after the deregulation of feeding rules and was in search of a director with experience both in football-specific nutrition and culinary management.  Harrington’s impact was immediately felt and he has fueled the Tigers through the college football playoffs in both seasons he has spent at Clemson.

A hallmark of the sports dietitian community is an unparalleled focus on developing students and younger dietitians who are up-and-coming in the profession.  As the field grows and the role of the sports dietitian becomes more robust, mentoring has become a major factor in the successful  development of strong nutrition programs throughout the NCAA and professional sports.  The goal is to leave those currently in charge capable of turning out another generation of sports dietitians behind them.   On the importance of mentoring, Bragg shared “Our program’s commitment to student-athlete development and nutrition resources has allowed the opportunity to develop and mentor young nutritionists along the way.  I am very proud of our former Sports RDs’ achievements in the field and will continue to prepare young practitioners for new opportunities in sports nutrition”.  That the other three teams are fueled by sports RDs who were previously a part of the Alabama program is certainly a testament to this statement. 

Heading into this football season, 67% of Power 5 conference universities employed at least one full-time sports dietitian and had for at least three years.   Currently, 72% of those programs employ at least two full-time sports dietitians,  a long road from only eight full-time positions in 2004 when Bragg got her start.  There has long been an understanding in sports dietetics that by doing a great job to establish the importance of nutrition on performance within a program, you are thereby teaching the next generation of coaches to value fueling as well.   An established bit of advice to sports dietitians regarding growth advises ‘the best way to get your next job, is to be great at the one you already have’.  The work these four dietitians have done  within their respective programs continues to lay the groundwork for more sports dietitians to find their next job and make their mark in collegiate athletics.