Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your career?
I always wanted to work in sports nutrition and community nutrition. After graduation, I started working at a community health centre and then shortly after, part-time at the Western Bulldogs AFL club. So, I was doing what I wanted. And then, to cut a long story short (because it’s been 23 years), I increased my sports work when my son was born. It’s been nearly 18 years since then!
The next thing I did was work with the Australian cricket team part-time for seven years. I have always done some private practice and some form of presenting throughout.
For the past nine years, I have been working at Hawthorn Football Club. I’ve seen three premierships there and during that time I also consulted with Melbourne Storm for about four years, Melbourne City A-league soccer team from their first year for 4 years and Melbourne Rebels for their first year. Lots of men’s elite sport—team sports have been my specialty.
I’ve worked at Swisse Wellness one day a week for about nine years, mainly providing input into their sports’ supplement range, looking at 3rd party supplement testing, educating health professionals about TGA and FSANZ regulations and writing about health in general.
I’m also President of Sports Dietitians Australia (a fabulous organisation) and am a media spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia where I love to chat on the radio, comment for TV and contribute to journalists print and online media. On top of all that I’m currently writing a book.
What is the book about?
Nutrition for the everyday person. I’m trying to provide the idea that people can also eat like an athlete.
It’s also debunking myths that find people restricting their eating unnecessarily.
I want to talk more about what you can eat rather than what you can’t.
So, a very positive focus on nutrition with fewer rules, no dieting and a sports feel.
What are the main things you work on with the athletes at Hawthorn?
I mostly work individually with them. I don’t write diets for them, but I talk about the sort of things they should be eating and educate them to make their own choices to fuel their asset, which is their body.
We do cooking sessions, visit the supermarket to help them with that. Sometimes I take them to the supermarket and look at label reading. I also put together information for them to take home to host families or their partners.
Other parts of the role include taking skinfold measurements, looking at the food that we eat interstate, deciding supplements we use (with the medical team) and what sort of fluids we should be having. Some have great nutrition knowledge and skills, and some have very minimal when they start.
And it changes with time. For instance, Luke Hodge just had his press conference announcing he’s retiring. He’s played 300 games and his nutrition journey as a 17-year-old was quite different to at the end. Nutrition needs changes as they go along through their career.
Do you provide food for the athletes at all?
We do some. I just cooked a fresh batch of muffins today and made a hummus dip out of Lupin flakes, but we do have caterers come in and provide lunch about three days a week. There’s always lots of fruit there and the ingredients to make sandwiches or and wraps. The fridge is full of those sorts of foods. I do like the players to be responsible for making their own food choices also.
How much influence would you say you have over athletes and changes to their nutrition?
I think the biggest influence you can have is equipping them with knowledge and skills because you’re obviously not with them for the majority of their food intake. I’m at the club once a week and I don’t travel with them.
I think you have influence when you get them to realise that it’s going to have a beneficial effect on their performance. That can take a couple of years to sink in for some, and others might already get it. But if they’ve come with a lot of talent, sometimes it takes a little bit of time for them to realise, “Yeah, I need to eat the best for my body to get the best out of it.”
I’ve noticed that you’ve been with teams for a long time, for example, Hawthorn for nine years—what do you think you do differently from other dietitians to get the roles and keep them for so long?
I think that’s a really good question because I don’t do what I would call a lot of technical things, but I do the basics really well. And the basics are partly making sure that you have a personality or an approach that makes players trust you, and respect you at the same time. I would say I’m firm but fair.
You’ve got to be confident and have thick skin to survive in footy because they joke around a lot and give you a hard time. You’ve got to be able to banter a bit, but also take some things on the chin and let some things go through to the keeper. You’ve got to read the play basically, to use a sporting term. You’ve got to know which players to push and when to back off when to joke with them, but when to be firm with them. Being nurturing at times when they need it. How to liaise with the staff also. And know which things to stand up for and which things to leave.
I think a lot of it is your personality and the ability to read the social situation of what’s going on in the club and what’s going on with the players. Counselling skills are also important, what sort of mood that player’s in; what else is happening in their life? Where is nutrition going to fit? When is it the time to really make it a priority? When is it time to back off?
I have a consistent mood, positive, half glass full attitude. My VIA strengths survey shows I am full of zest so I think the personality fits the work environment!
What do you think about people volunteering with sports teams?
It’s great; volunteer to get your experience. There comes a point where you’ve had enough experience though, so you need to take on paid jobs or think about what else you might want to get out of it and negotiate that so that it is no longer voluntary.
You might want them to pay for you to go to a conference or a course. You might say, “Well, I can just do this many hours or I can do this activity for what you’re going to pay me.” And sometimes, you need to be prepared to walk away. It depends what you want to get out of it at the time, but you can’t continue to do things for free since it degrades the profession.
You said you worked with Cricket Australia. What kind of differences are there between the things you do with the AFL players and a completely different sport such as cricket?
It’s been quite some time since I was in cricket. I was there during the Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist, Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath days. The team was very successful at that time and it does always help if you are working with a successful team. But a lot of it was trying to make sure they didn’t eat when they were bored.
When we were batting, there was a lot of downtime, so you need to eat to fuel, but not just eat out of habit. It’s also harder to predict because, until the morning of a match, you don’t know whether you’re going to bat or bowl.
For fast bowlers, it was about how to fuel quickly if we’ve just found out we’re bowling. A lot of it’s about hydration because they’re playing in extremely hot conditions for prolonged periods. There is also a lot of travel at that level of cricket. So, a big focus on food hygiene to help avoid getting sick when travelling the sub-continent and things like that.
Did you travel with that team then?
No, I didn’t travel with them. So, that was also a challenge because if you’re playing in India/Sri Lanka/Pakistan, there’s language barriers and cultural barriers when trying to arrange food from here. The players eat out a lot because they’re travelling so much.
Some of them used to take bread makers with them or rice cookers so they could prepare some of their own food. There was a lot of discussion about eating away from home. It was a fairly small group of elite players, but I didn’t get to see them very often, it was a lot of remote contact and then over the Australian summer we could catch up.
Back when I worked with the team the doctor didn’t even travel with the team. The one masseur travelling or the physiotherapist would test the temperature of the food for me on the sub-continent at mealtimes to help with food safety issues. I had to educate other staff to help with nutrition.
How often would you have contact with them?
I would see them when they were playing in Melbourne a few times and then two or three other times over the summer.
Have you ever enforced rules or anything?
Generally, we have a protein drink after each game at Hawthorn. If a player is feeling unwell, I don’t force them to drink it, but they’re certainly encouraged. I suppose I have one rule; I stopped pizza post-game some years ago and that took a lot of persuasiveness. And now, we might have it for one special occasion this year, but otherwise, I’ve stopped that post-game. I also stopped lollies post-game because I thought they could have more nutritious choices than that. We always have wholegrain bread at the club; we rarely have white bread. I like to think they are more guidelines than rules!
What are some examples of things you have athletes eat before games?
Before games, I often tell the players the foods I’m recommending are not the sort of nourishing foods I necessarily want them to eat during the week. We often have pikelets with jam/honey, fruit, pretzels or salad rolls. But the pretzels and the pikelets are not something I encourage them to eat too often during the week because they’re not the most nutritious choices, but they’re easy to digest pre-game.
What’s the most interesting thing you do with Swisse?
I really enjoy writing articles. It can be information we send out to journalists, it could be for our team within Swisse or it might be for the website. I enjoy spreading nutrition knowledge, that’ probably my favourite thing. I also do a lot of helping other sports dietitians understand the regulations to do with sport and supplements if something is therapeutic, good administration or TGA listed if it’s Food Standards Code listed, how they can make an educated decision about whether a product is safe with WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency). That’s an important role because I find a lot of dietitians have a very limited understanding of the codes.
Is there anything else that you’d want to add?
Back yourself, value yourself and the profession and then others will do the same and give respect. I think if there are things you want to change in your community, then make it happen. Get involved, like Sports Dietitians Australia, you don’t have to be on the board to make a change, you can go to your branch meeting, you can write an article for Fuel, you can just contact us with ideas.
I think being involved in your own profession is important because that’s the only way we’ll grow and have influence. Together we are stronger and it’s great fun! See you at the Sports Dietitians Australia Conference on October 20th and 21st in Melbourne. It is value for money a great networking time even for those not in the sporting field (lots of small business info too) and it is our 21st birthday so join us at the dinner!
Simone has worked with the Australian Cricket Team, the Melbourne Storm Rugby League Club, and has seen the Hawthorn AFL Football Club through three consecutive Grand Final wins. An Accredited Practising Dietitian and Advanced Sports Dietitian, she shares practical and engaging nutrition advice (as well as funny stories about our favourite athletes) at corporate engagements and conferences nationwide. Find out more by following her Instagram or checking out her website.