An athlete is like a finely-tuned engine. With proper care and maintenance, that engine will give you a lifetime of high-performance. But neglect it, abuse it, and it will suffer. Think of Jessica Watson as the head mechanic for Michigan State student-athletes.
Watson is the head sports dietician for Michigan State University. She is the one responsible for maintaining the engines of over 800 student-athletes. Watson and her staff of 25 undergraduate interns and graduate assistants oversee most of what the athletes eat on a regular basis (if they listen to her advice).
Sports nutrition has become highly individualized. Nearly every athlete has a unique diet designed specifically to reach their personal goals. Height, weight, time of year and even position are all factors that Watson has to consider when advising athletes on what to put in their bodies.
“The wide receiver doesn’t receive the same amount of nutrition that a quarterback might need,” said Watson. “We calculate it out based on their position and what they’re required to do. If they need to be anaerobic or not move as much, they’re not going to need as many calories or carbohydrates as a basketball player would who is very aerobic.”
Navigating NCAA rules
As recent as a few years ago, universities had to be extremely careful in what they fed their athletes. The NCAA rules greatly restricted what was permissible to give an athlete and what was not.
“We couldn’t even provide peanut butter at one point,” said Watson. “They literally meant fruit, nuts and milk I believe was what it was that we could provide.”
On August 1, 2014, new NCAA rules went into effect that allowed schools to feed athletes unlimitedly as long as it was “incidental to participation.” This means a team can feed players before or after a practice, game, film session or any event that had to do with the team.
The NCAA came under heavy pressure to change their rules after University of Connecticut star Shabazz Napier complained during the 2014 NCAA Tournament about “going to bed hungry” because he simply could not afford to buy food all the time.
Watson and her staff also have to be wary of NCAA rules when giving vitamins and supplements to players. One positive drug test can derail an athlete’s season, or even career. Every athlete must get a supplement approved before they can take it, allowing the staff to track what players are taking and give them helpful advice.
“If a kid wants to take creatine, but maybe his goals don’t match what creatine does, it allows me to go back and give a supplement recommendation that might help them reach their goals faster,” said Watson.
Protein shakes are a staple of an athlete’s diet at MSU. Watson and her staff fill these shakes with fresh fruit, milk, vitamin D, protein powder, a multivitamin and sometimes peanut butter. The amount of protein in each shake differs based on the player and his or her goals.
“We did their body composition testing,” said Watson, “and from there we determined how many calories they need, how much protein they need post workout and we created a list. It’s also dependent on their flavor preference. Some guys like fruity ones, some guys like chocolate peanut butter, so we got those preferences.”
In basketball, protein and calorie requirements are even more personalized due to how specialized each position is. For example, senior forward Matt Costello (6-foot-9, 240 pounds) and sophomore guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr (5-foot-10, 175 pounds) definitely do not drink the same protein shake.
“Matt Costello needs significantly more calories in his shake,” said Watson. “We’ll often put up to three scoops of protein powder in there, sometimes four, and that’s the basic. That comes out to about 240 calories per two scoops, so you can imagine there are a lot of calories in there. For Tum Tum, sometimes it’s as little as two.
These protein shakes are available to athletes in several areas across campus, including the new state-of-the-art Gatorade fueling station.
Sometimes what an athlete eats is not nearly as important as when they eat it.
“I always go over nutrition timing with my athletes,” said Watson. “It’s one of the biggest problems that I see in athletes around the nation.”
Being a full-time student and a full-time athlete means that most days they don’t get a chance to eat until nighttime. Watson makes it a priority to emphasize to all athletes how important meal timing is to their diets, and what to eat when.
If a player eats a large meal right before practice, they will likely be slower and weighed down. If they don’t eat enough before practice, they may be tired from lack of carbohydrates. If they do have to eat at night, Watson says they should eat something with more protein instead of more carbohydrates.
Perhaps the most important meal for an athlete is the pregame meal. Anything they put into their bodies could greatly affect their performance in the game.
“We always have a pasta source on there,” said Watson, “trying to make sure they have those carbohydrates. We have people that just want chicken pregame so we do a lean chicken option. We have kids that just want fish and maybe are pescetarians and need fish, so we’ll have that on there. We always have a beef source as well.”
A cardinal sin for pregame meals: fried foods. Anything fried is extremely high in fat, which will slow an athlete down during competition. Even something as seemingly harmless as alfredo sauce on pasta can make a difference.
Senior guard Denzel Valentine has been following the advice of Watson, and it has been paying dividends. He has sworn off fried foods and drinks plenty of water.
“Definitely can see it in my body,” said Valentine, “and I don’t get tired as much in the game. I recover faster, definitely see a huge change.”
Meals before practice can be just as important. Watson goes to nearly all men’s basketball practices to get a sense of how their diet affects their game. Sometimes even the most minor changes in calorie intake or meal timing can make a huge difference on the court.
“If we change something in their diet, I want to know how it’s affecting them,” said Watson. “Is it giving them more energy? Is it giving them less energy? The last thing we want to do is cut their calories a bunch and then they can’t perform in the sport they need to perform in.”
So, who pays for all of this?
If you’re a student or a parent paying for tuition at MSU, don’t worry, you’re not paying for Matt Costello’s protein shake. MSU relies on a number of sources of income to feed its athletes. Corporate sponsorships make up a part of that.
The National Dairy Association of Michigan is the official milk sponsor of MSU. Gatorade sponsored and built a state-of-the-art “fueling station” in the Clara Bell Smith Student Center. The rest of the money comes from players’ scholarships.
Athletes want to have fun, too
Too often, people forget that these college athletes are also students as well. Their life is not all practice and games and training. They want to have a little bit of fun too. For athletes of age, this can mean drinking. Watson goes over the effects of alcohol on the body with all the athletes, so they know when is a good time to drink and when is best to lay off.
It takes about three to five days for alcohol to completely leave the system, according to Watson. During that time, athletic performance can be hindered, so drinking right before the big game might not be the best idea.
Having fun might also include indulging in junk food once in a while. After most games, basketball players can be seen with a half-eaten pizza in front of their locker or a box of chicken wings. While this may seem counterintuitive to the emphasis on a good diet, it serves a purpose.
“We try to give them what they want,” said Watson. “You have to understand that these guys need 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day, sometimes way more than that even. So when you’re looking at that you want to also provide them with something that’s good, and they are college students, so we gotta give them a little slack.”
Eat this, not that!
Watson and her team have also developed a guide for athletes that helps them decide what to eat at nearly every local restaurant in the East Lansing area. The guide includes over 40 restaurants and is presented in an “Eat This, Not That” format. And yes, McDonald’s is even on there too.
“I never say no to an athlete when it’s out of their control,” said Watson. “If their friends are all going to McDonalds, I’d rather them look through the menu and find something that meets their calorie goals or ask me rather than just not eat.”
One of Watson’s graduate assistants, Mackenzie Kohlhorst, is working on finding healthy options for players beyond East Lansing.
“I’ve been working on projects for her, looking up different healthy options for different restaurants around the Big Ten,” said Kohlhorst. “So when the athletes go and travel to different games and events, they have good options of what to eat if they’re on their own or if [the team] orders meals to supply for the athletes.”
Watson’s staff also collects the menus from every cafeteria on campus and advises what each athlete should eat and what they should avoid. This prevents some of the athletes from falling into the traps of all-you-can-eat pizza and self-serve ice cream.
Food is a huge part of anyone’s life, especially athletes. For someone you don’t know to come in and tell you to completely change what you eat is not always a seamless process. Watson joined the MSU staff in January 2015 and is still working to build trust with the athletes. She said over the past year she has noticed a change.
“They’ve been berated by so many people and so many fans that they really have to build that trust,” said Watson. “Once they build that trust they come looking to you for advice. I have kids text me all the time, even track and field or swimming and diving, that are asking me questions. ‘Hey I’m at this restaurant what should I get? I don’t know.’ They’re very trusting and they do try to follow my advice to the best of their abilities.”
That trust not only extends to the players, but to to training and coaching staffs as well. She works closely with Quinton Sawyer, the athletic trainer for men’s basketball, and Todd Moyer, the strength and conditioning coach. Together, they make sure the players and coaches get exactly what they need.
“Todd and ‘Q’ and I are always communicating,” said Watson, “and one of us is making sure that Coach [Tom Izzo]’s needs get met. Any concerns he has, we bring the research to him. He’s been exceptional at letting us know what the players need.”
Small, growing field
The sports dietician field is quite small. According to Watson, only about 53 schools in the nation have sports dieticians, and only 13 have more than one. To get a sense of how small those numbers truly are, consider that there are over 1,000 member schools in the NCAA. Watson said MSU is considering adding another sports dietician to help her look after the more than 800 athletes she’s responsible for.
Looking after all those engines is a daunting task. Jessica Watson might be the most important mechanic Michigan State has.