Virginia Tech Athletics staying on top of feeding frenzy

By Jimmy Robertson

A couple of months ago, Jennie Zabinsky and a few members of the sports nutrition staff compiled a list of fall semester accomplishments by those who work in the Virginia Tech Athletics Department’s sports nutrition area.

The exercise brought forth some smiles, especially for Zabinsky, who remembered a time when her top accomplishment wasn’t particularly noteworthy.

In fact, it was the simple purchasing of a small cart to haul food.

“That was my biggest accomplishment the first six months – having money to buy it and then actually having it and not borrowing one from the equipment room,” Zabinsky said, with a smile.

That story puts into perspective the explosive growth made in the sports nutrition area by the Tech athletics department. Roughly seven years ago, the department made enough of an investment in sports nutrition to pay a director, purchase meals for a few select sports and buy a cart. In 2017, Zabinsky – the associate AD for sports nutrition – and her team spent approximately $3 million on food for student-athletes in all 22 sports and now are making plans to move into a new $16.5 million Student-Athlete Performance Center, expected to be completed by the fall of 2019.

The investment, though, makes sense. Proper nutrition, fueling and hydration usually lead to maximum performance from an athlete. Tech’s coaches excel at bringing in athletes with potential and developing them – and nutrition plays a critical role in that development.

Tech AD Whit Babcock and his staff allocated money toward this area, starting with staffing. The athletics department recently added an assistant director and two graduate assistants and secured the services of a Gatorade SNIP (sports nutrition immersion) fellow paid for by both Gatorade and the Collegiate & Professional Dietetics Association. A small army of roughly 20 students from the Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise Department also helps, all with the goal of getting the utmost of its student-athletes.

“Ultimately, we’re here for performance,” Zabinsky admitted. “We’re part of the performance team, and our No. 1 job is to make them better athletes. Without question, 100 percent, nutrition has a part in that, and it’s just convincing them [the athletes] to think that as well.”

A glance at that list of accomplishments from this past fall certainly reveals a nutrition team making inroads with Tech’s athletes.

Many of their top priorities have been devoted to Virginia Tech’s football players. The staff moved a fueling “station” into the football locker room area, and under the guidance of Peter Ritz, a graduate assistant, they continue with the implementation of a post-workout recovery initiative that features individualized smoothies and individualized vitamin supplementation. They also set up a “gainer” table for those who need to gain weight.

Next fall, plans call for doing more pregame, at halftime and following the game in the form of smoothies, vitamins, snacks and/or high-calorie items.

The staff’s accomplishments, though, aren’t limited to football. Alyson Onyon, an assistant director for sports nutrition, coordinates nutrition for both of Tech’s basketball programs. Both programs now possess their own fueling stations, and Onyon makes the smoothies, stocks the snacks and fruit, and most importantly, she consults one-on-one with the student-athletes. In fact, more than 90 percent of men’s basketball players participated in individualized nutrition education sessions with Onyon this past fall.

The staff also oversees the Nutrition Oasis, which sits on the bottom floor of the Jamerson Athletics Center and serves as the team’s main conduit to Olympic sports student-athletes. Built in 2014 after the NCAA loosened regulations on what athletics departments could provide in terms of food, the Oasis became a stopping point for student-athletes before and after practices. They often picked up a smoothie, fruit, trail mix or some other snack packed with nutrients that either helped them before a workout or to recover after one.

Smoothies – a combination of milk, fruit, vegetables, yogurt, nuts, etc. into a vitamin-packed beverage - are a great way of providing nutrients. Zabinsky and her crew made a whopping 11,250 during the fall semester alone.

Consider this: they used 6,750 pounds of frozen fruit, including 5,400 pounds of bananas in the fall semester. Most of that was used at the Oasis.

“That was our avenue in with them,” Zabinsky said of the Oasis. “They have the choice in what they get from that space. They have an input on what we put in there to an extent. Then they think our program is cool because we do that, and then they start chipping away and seeing what else we can do for them. They start getting interested in it.

“I think the Oasis and other fueling stations are the first impact on freshmen. That’s the face of our program, and then it goes from there.”

Zabinsky and her team love meeting with student-athletes because they feel building that relationship helps them move forward toward the latest trend in sports nutrition – individualization. They know that nutrition isn’t a one-size-fits-all concept. So they want to tailor nutrition plans toward the individual needs of each student-athlete.

“We’re trying to be more individualized, which is a challenge … but that’s the direction we’re trending, really, in all sports,” Zabinsky said. “That requires us to be available for student-athletes, both before practices and afterward, so we’re putting in 12- to 14-hour days, but the impact that we’re trying to have is to let them know we’re here to help.

“When they see you every day, that’s when they start being convinced. If we’re not around all the time, then they’re going to think, ‘Oh, that’s how I’m supposed to treat nutrition.’”

The nutrition staff offers an array of other services as well. They oversaw the installation of a new Bod Pod, a critical tool used for measuring body mass and body fat. They conducted 488 Bod Pod sessions this fall, allowing student-athletes to track their successes and adjust if they weren’t meeting their goals.

In addition, the staff gives one-on-one consultations and provides team nutrition assessments. They coordinated two cooking demonstrations this fall, showing student-athletes from eight different teams what to cook and how. They offered a “Dine with a Dietitian” program, which allowed student-athletes to dine with a chosen member and learn more about nutrition. They oversaw grocery-shopping tours to help student-athletes make the healthiest choices.

In other words, through their services and devotion, they continue to show student-athletes that they want them to perform at their very best.

“What makes Virginia Tech sports nutrition special is that there are five knowledgeable dietitians on staff who work hard to meet athletes’ individualized nutrition goals,” Tech track and field standout Liv Privitera said. “They create learning opportunities for athletes and teams, such as grocery store tours and cooking tours, and fuel student-athletes through the Oasis with the best foods they can bring to us. What also makes the nutrition area special is how unique our program is, and I would love to see the program expand.”

Expansion, both in terms of the facility and their vision, certainly is in the works. For the first time, they will conduct a cooking demonstration with an international theme as part of International Week at Tech. This allows international student-athletes an opportunity to spotlight cuisine from their home country, while showing American student-athletes a different, healthier style of food.

The team plans to do more nutrition support for teams traveling as well. This includes packing snack bags and supplying other recovery items as needed – and in select cases, having a staff member travel with the team.

“We want to have an impact off campus as well,” Zabinsky said.

For sure, sports nutrition at Tech has changed drastically since department officials hired Amy Freel as the first nutritionist in 2003 – making Tech one of the first schools in the country to hire a nutritionist. Zabinsky took over in 2011, with Babcock and his administration gradually adding personnel and providing the financial resources necessary to carry out the vision of that group.

Today, the crew meets each Monday, taking a collaborative approaching to finding ways to do more. Their vision consists of finding ways to impact the nutritional aspect of each student-athlete on a daily basis and preparing for the days when additional staff members allow them to do exactly that.

“We’re really focusing on having more meaningful relationships with teams … so that they feel like the culture of their team involves nutrition on a day-to-day basis,” Zabinsky said. “We want to impact them on a day-to-day basis – not once a month when, for whatever reason, nutrition pops in their brain and they feel like they want to come talk to us.

“That can only occur with having a staff like ours – credentialed staff with experience in athletics – and taking that village and building rapport with athletes quickly. We want our staff to be clinically trained on the nutrition side, so they can deal with deeper issues that come about. And we want to be with them to really make an impact on a personal level – to make them feel special and to make them realize that nutrition can be a really important part of their college life.”

Thanks to an anonymous $15.2 million donation and other gifts, the athletics department now is in the design phase of the Student-Athlete Performance Center, which will serve many purposes, but primarily be used as the home for future meals for Tech student-athletes. The plans bring a sense of excitement to Zabinsky and her crew.

They’re not alone. Coaches understand the benefits, both from performance and in recruiting, and the student-athletes themselves cannot wait – yet another sign of buy-in from, without question, the most important group.

“I think an in-house dining hall will be so cool because it will provide us with great food to fuel our bodies,” Tech football player T.J. Jackson said. “It will help us learn more about nutrition and healthy eating and make our lives so much easier with the busy schedule we have.”

Success in the nutrition area hinges partially on the staff’s plans, strategies and long-term vision, but perhaps more critically, student-athlete buy-in.

Zabinsky and her organization know what they do works, and they are seeing more and more of the buy-in. Hopefully, what happens in the playing venue going forward provides the final proof.

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