Close Encounters of the Nutritional Kind
Number 7– Getting a job in Sports Nutrition (and keeping it)!
I thought this week I would move away from the science and look at a topic I am often asked about – this being how do you actually get a job in professional sport nutrition. I am very lucky that I have spent almost 30 years emerged in professional sport despite only turning 40 next month! From the age of 10 I was the odd job boy for Warrington Rugby League club helping with all kinds of jobs from cutting the grass to cleaning the players boots. The picture below summarises this privilege. This is me as a 9-year-old sat in between the Warrington Head coach (Tony Barrow) and substitute Gary Sanderson during a first team game away at Widnes waiting to run on with the kicking tee (or bucket of sand as it was in those days). From 16-25 I played professional rugby, and since 25 to date I have worked in many sports teams delivering sports science / S&C support, and most recently sport nutrition consultancy. Currently I provide nutrition support to England Rugby, Everton FC, West Brom, professional tennis players, golfers and many other elite athletes. During this journey, I have mentored many young practitioners into full time jobs in professional sport and have witnessed the ones that make it and those that don’t. Moreover, I have been fortunate to work with and learn from some outstanding sport nutritionists (many of which have been kind enough to provide some tips for me in this blog). This blog will look at my top seven tips for getting a job in sport nutrition (random number but that’s how many I thought were good without trying too hard to get to ten) but will also feature some quotes from a variety of sport nutritionists giving their single best tip. Hopefully my insights from 3 decades in professional sport will be of some use as you start your journey into this fascinating, challenging and unique world.
Above: Me, sat on the Warrington bench (circa 1987) in an away game at Widnes. This early experience in professional sport really helped me to understand what it takes to work with elite athletes.
My Top Seven Tips
1. Get properly qualified (and get a mentor)
This may seem an obvious one but it is one where people often fall at the first hurdle. These days professional teams will expect a minimum of an MSc in Sport Nutrition alongside a BSc in either sport science or dietetics. I feel sorry for people who email me for advice having done some random online course following a degree in economics (or any other non-sport science or dietetics degree). They are often really proud of this course and have tried really hard but unfortunately in professional sport a MSc is often essential. There are many excellent MSc courses now including the one that we run at LJMU. However, remember that these degrees often require an appropriate BSc for entry and a minimum of a 2:1. When looking for an appropriate MSc I strongly suggest that you do your homework prior to spending your hard earned (or often parents) cash. Look for things like the quality of the tutors, have they worked in professional sport (and therefore can they open doors for you), are they producing research that is changing the landscape of sport nutrition, do they offer a placement to gain applied experience, do they offer any additional qualifications and perhaps most importantly, does it offer a route onto the SENr register. Without this degree, I am afraid to say that often your CV will not even get passed onto the person making the short list.
A good mentor is also essential and sometimes this can be your university tutor. My mentor was Professor Don MacLaren (my university tutor) who was instrumental in my journey into being a sport nutritionist. Don gave me support and guidance and without him I would not have become the practitioner I am today. I would like to think I am now becoming a good mentor not only to the MSc students I supervise but several young practitioners who are turning into really great sport nutritionists working in professional sport. A good mentor is crucial, find one carefully, treat them well and cling onto them tightly.
Emma Gardener supports my first tip:
“Get your qualifications from a reputable institute/organisation and seek good (again reputable) mentors along the way, those within the field and also those outside to give you direction and guidance”
Above: Emma Gardener, Performance Nutritionist at English Institute of Sport working with Northampton Saints and Great Britain Hockey
Similarly, Wendy Martinson, highlighted to me the importance of the degree needing to include exercise science training which is a great point to make.
“A qualification in nutrition or dietetics is not enough if no sports science background. Performance / sport nutrition is a specialist area and students should make sure they have a qualification specifically in that area e.g a Sport and Exercise Nutrition MSc”
Above: Wendy Martinson OBE, EIS lead nutritionist working with GBR Rowing
2. Get accredited
Once you have the correct academic qualification it is then essential that you become accredited. I firmly believe that the most important accreditation is to get yourself on The Sport and Exercise Nutrition Register (SENr). This is quickly becoming the license to practice sport nutrition in professional and Olympic sport in the UK so much so that the EIS will not employ anyone who is not SENr accredited. I should add that I am the deputy chair of SENr and thus of course push it, but the reason I am the deputy chair is that I passionately believe in what SENr represents. To be on the full register you must be appropriately qualified and experienced in delivering support. It also provides insurance cover which is essential as an independent practitioner, as well as access to a network of like-minded professionals ready to support you on your journey.
Another really important accreditation is to become an accredited UKAD advisor. This course is FREE so go and do it now, it only takes about 2 hours to complete. A formal qualification in body composition from ISAK is very important as is a safe food handling certificate. A level 2 City and Guilds is the minimum requirement for food handling and safety but without this you cannot run cooking workshops. This can be completed online and only costs around £10-20. Some MSc courses include all of these accreditations in their course but if they do not make sure you get all of them yourself. Having these on your CV begins to separate you from the rest of the field and shows you are ready to practice.
Dr Kevin Currell agrees with me on this one:
“Get on SENr and make sure you know the basics. Once you’ve done that focus on your soft skills, they are the differentiator for success not how clever you are. Make sure you understand the mind-set of an elite athlete, stay humble and most importantly work hard, very hard”
Above: Dr Kevin Currell Director of Science and Technical Development, English Institute of Sport
3. Get experience
Once you are qualified and accredited it is vital that you get some experience although for those who have read my position stands on graduate interns it is important that this is experience and not abuse. If you can get this experience whilst you are going through your training that’s even better. Some MSc courses offer placements and this can be a great way to gain experience. Indeed, some graduates from our MSc at LJMU have gone on to further paid work with their placement and / or found this experience essential in their future employment. A common mistake made by many young practitioners is only looking for work in their desired sport. I always wanted to work in professional rugby and ideally with the England Rugby Union Senior Team but there was no way this would be my first job. My first work was with a rowing team in Salford (Agecroft) as well as the University Women’s Rugby Union Team. These experiences proved essential in my future career. Eventually paid work with Munster Rugby came up but only after I had worked my way through amateur rugby teams and then lower grade professional teams. It was from Munster Rugby that England Rugby; my dream job became a possibility. As you will have been told as a kid, you need to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince. I’m not saying Agecroft Rowing club was a frog but you know what I mean!
When I asked Lloyd Parker, a dietician now working in Premier League football his top tip he agreed stating:
“Take every opportunity that comes your way as you never know what doors it may open”
Above: Lloyd Parker, First Team Nutritionist Everton Football Club
Similarly, Sharon Madigan stated her top tip would be:
“Try to get experience in as many areas as possible. Even in areas that may not initially be directly related to sport nutrition. The softer communication skills that you fine tune here will set you apart from lots of other practitioners”
Above: Sharon Madigan, Head of Sport Nutrition, Irish Institute of Sport
4. Be willing to get stuck in
My 4th tip involves making the most of every opportunity and don’t be scared of rolling up your sleeves. Believe it or not, some qualified sport nutritionists seem to be offended at the idea of washing water bottles, mixing protein shakes and basically doing the simple jobs. I’ve heard many stories of young practitioners who after very short periods of time working with a team feel that they are too qualified for this work. Trust me, you are never too qualified for this work. These tasks are often the bread and butter of the sport nutritionists job and although the consultations and problem solving are the challenging and fun parts of the role, without building your foundations the house will quickly fall down. I would also say do not be scared to get stuck in and help out in other sport science departments. Offer to clean up the field after a training session (bring the cones and bibs in etc), see if players need spotting in a gym basically make yourself invaluable to that department. Get out of the office and onto the training field. Make sure you are seen and not hidden in an office. A good team player will always get the jobs over isolated individuals. If you do get your foot in a door, do whatever you can to get the rest of your body in!
It was great that when I asked the most experienced nutritionist I know; (someone who mentored me during my early days at Munster), Ruth Wood-Martin said:
“Sometimes you have to stir porridge’. What I mean by this is that you need to be a team player in all aspects of your work and service delivery, and sometimes this involves doing things that you may prefer not to do, but often compromises have to be made to fit in with the big picture. You need to be flexible in your approach and decide what is negotiable and what is not”
Above: Ruth Wood-Martin, Head of Sport Nutrition, Irish Rugby Football Union
5. Understand the sport and build relationships
Once you get a chance to show what you can do in a sport it is vital that you demonstrate that you understand the sport, both in terms of the discipline itself and the culture of that sport. One of my students, Jamie Pugh, once said to me that before he first went into an elite football team he spent weeks researching the players, knowing their background, where they came from and most importantly their names. With Google this is very easy to achieve and is an absolute minimum. You also MUST understand the physiology of the sport. Without this there is no way you can begin to put any interventions in place. If you do not know this, speak to someone who does prior to stepping foot in the environment.
It is also crucial that you build great relationships within the team. This is somewhat achieved through point 4 above, but also by taking your time. When I go into a new team the first phase is often observation. You may have 1000 ideas that you want to implement but take some time to observe the landscape. It is very easy to offend by rushing in without understand “why” things are happening the way they do as well as “what” is happening. Try and speak to the athletes in some informal situations. Value corridor conversations as well as chats over a coffee. Meetings do not have to be formal in an office environment. Get to know the person as well as the athlete. A simple opening question should be “how are you and how is the family”. Remember the great talk by Simon Sinek – people don’t buy what you do but why you do it. Make sure your athletes know you care about your job but most importantly your passion to make them better. If you do not have this passion I’m afraid you are in the wrong job.
Having said all this it is also important to get an easy win. During your observation period try to find something that you can quickly improve that will make a real difference – we call this an easy win. It could be something as simple as implementing a better game day nutrition routine, some better signage / education in the kitchen, or structure around the daily supplements. By adding some immediate value, you have a much better chance of being accepted as part of the support team.
Mike Naylor suggests:
“Get around the team, coaches and players and understand what they are trying to achieve then use nutrition to contribute to the solutions. Avoid going in with a set tool box without understanding what the problems and questions are”
Above: Mike Naylor, Lead Nutritionist English Institute of Sport working with England Rugby (men’s and women’s), England Football, Southampton F.C.
Warren Bradley is a nutritionist I have been mentoring for many years now from his days at Munster to now with England Rugby. When I asked him for his top tip he said:
“Know your environment – working with athletes from a variety of sports requires a practitioner to possess both an in-depth knowledge of the specific training / competition requirements alongside an understanding of player behaviours / group dynamics to provide the most effective and individualised nutritional guidance”
Above: Warren Bradley. Lead Nutritionist England 7s Rugby, Hull City FC, Salford Red Devils and Derby County F.C.
6. Be reflective and manage your time well
There is actually a science to getting better – it does not just happen by chance. James Morton always says to our students that you do not learn from experiences, rather you learn from reflecting upon experiences. Most clubs will tolerate a mistake – once – but if you continue to make the same mistake this is writing your own exit pathway. Take a notebook everywhere with you. There is nothing more annoying than when I am speaking with someone giving them some advice and/or jobs to do and noticing that they are not taking notes. Unless they have a photographic memory, the chances are they will forget at least one thing. Having a notepad and making notes shows you have a desire to learn. Many of the best athletes I work with come to meetings with me with a notebook. If they see the value in this so should you. Also use the notepad to make some reflective notes about your experiences during the day to reflect upon these at night. I know these days a lot of people may use note apps on your iPhone but for me this looks terrible. It can look like you are tweeting or simply not paying attention – I always suggest pen and paper. Don’t be scared to reflect with your mentor, phone them up and talk through the scenarios. James Morton and I speak most evenings to reflect on our days’ work and try and get better. This is so important in your development.
It is also important that you manage your time well when working in professional sport. Try and get some structure to your day. It is very easy in sport to slide through a day and get very little accomplished. Plan your days’ work in advance, set yourself goals and targets for the day and make sure you go to bed with these achieved. Leave room in the day for writing up your notes and reflecting.
James Morehen from Warrington Wolves suggests:
“Quickly become efficient with managing your time both on and off site to enable organised and effective practice. The Pareto principle is one I have followed personally”
Above: James Morehen, Head of Nutrition; Warrington Wolves and West Ham Utd F.C.
7. Grow your network and stay humble
Sport Nutrition is a very small world and everyone knows everyone. Somehow you need to not only get to know these people but make sure they get to know you. Unfortunately, many jobs in sport nutrition are not advertised but are given via world of mouth or by previous experiences. So how are you going to get yourself known? One way NOT to do it is by becoming a twitter warrior calling out fellow practitioners. This may help you get personal training clients but will impair your chances of working in elite sport. There are several people I would not employ because of their behaviour on social media and I am sure I am not the only one.
One good way to grow your network is to attend appropriate conferences, ask great questions and try and speak with people in the breakout sessions. In the UK, ISENC has an annual meeting where most of the UKs sport nutritionists attend. I would say this is a good starting point. Don’t be afraid to email people and introduce yourself and ask for advice. You may not always get a reply but a polite courteous email can certainly begin to get yourself known. Also check out EIS skills for performance. If you can get on this I strongly suggest you do it.
Another word of caution is to not follow the wrong people. There are loads of “experts” on social media. In my day to be an expert you needed to be an active researcher and then try and translate this into applied practice – these days it seems you need a twitter page and a podcast. I have had many applications to work with me that I have been put off by the “experts” they claim to follow and be guided by. It is also wise not to get carried away with trends. Nutritional trends will come and go with many things claiming to be “the next best thing”. In reality, the basics will always win over fads so make sure you focus your practice around cementing the basics rather than thinking you have to be on trend.
Finally, please stay humble. If you do land that dream job, remember that when a team wins it is not down to you and likewise when they lose it is not down to you. We are a small (yet important) cog in a big machine. Be nice – if someone comes asking for advice please help them just as others (hopefully) will have helped you on your journey
I really hope you found this useful and can take some things from this to help you on your journey. I genuinely wish you every luck in your career. If you see me (or anyone I have quoted in this blog) at a conference, come and say hello and ask for advice. We are all passionate about sport nutrition and want the standards of practitioners to continually get better so are always happy to offer advice and support.
I will just finish with a final word from my good friend Dr James Morton who summarises a lot of the points above in his top tip.
“As with all elements of sport science, I would put science as the core of your lifelong learning plan. The development of your practitioner skills during your career and ability to work with others should all stem from a firm scientific understanding of the core principles. In the case of sport nutrition, I believe this core should be built around exercise physiology and metabolism i.e. how do we store and use food to produce energy. There is no point putting fuel in the car if you don’t appreciate how the engine works. And there is no point putting fuel in a car if you don’t know how far it has to go i.e. understand the physical and physiological demands of your sport and determinants of performance then devise all your technical interventions from there. Ultimately, the success of these interventions then comes down to your practitioner skills but if the input is not correct then neither will the output”
Above: James Morton, Reader LJMU and Head of Sport Nutrition Team Sky
Until the next Close Encounter of the Nutritional Kind