Sept. 28, 2011
BY JOHN PAINTER
Allison Maurer loves a good food fight. That's why she fights to get the right food inside the bodies of her Tennessee student-athletes.
And after four years as UT's in-house nutritionist, Maurer says the Vols and Lady Vols have gained a much better understanding of eating right and its benefits on performance.
"A lot of our coaches want to know what their athletes can do right now to get better, and that's probably one of the hardest things," Maurer said. "Nutrition is not easy. The athletes practice and then go home, and they don't have to think about it. They watch film and then go home, and they don't have to think about it. They go to their weightlifting session and then go home, and they don't have to think about it.
"But food, when they go home, that's when they have to think about it."
Cleanup on Aisle 5
One of Maurer's tricks to helping student-athletes transition to college life is - dig this - grocery visits. Maurer takes them Krogering. Or to Food City, Food Lion, Ingles or Walmart. Take your pick and there's a chance you might find the entire swim team browsing the produce section.
"As high school students, they went to the pantry and it's full. It was magic," Maurer said. "Then they got to a college campus and realized, `My dorm fridge is only this big and I don't get meals on weekends. What do I do now?'"
What Maurer wants them to avoid is swinging through the drive-thru. French fries don't equal first downs.
So Maurer promotes the grocery tours as providing different plans for different needs.
"I have some athletes who just want snack ideas," she said. "I have some athletes who are off campus. I have some who are trying to gain weight and some who are trying to eat healthier. I have some who are on a budget.
"Every single time we go to the store it's something different, and that makes it exciting for me as well. I don't feel like I'm saying the same thing over and over again."
Six in the SEC
Maurer is the longest tenured SEC nutritionist. She's also one of six in the conference and one of only 21 in major college athletics. It's a young profession, but Maurer appreciates the ability to trade insight with her newfound colleagues.
"It's so helpful to be able to glean information from others, but it's still a challenge," she said. "When we start somewhere, we're starting from scratch. We don't take over a job someone just left behind; we're starting a brand new one at a school like I did here. I find that pretty exciting."
Before Maurer arrived on campus, UT handled its nutritional needs out of the strength and conditioning office. But schools are coming to appreciate that eating right is just as important to the outcome of a sporting event as scouting, film study and extra batting practice.
"Most coaches are now starting to realize that nutrition is the missing link," Maurer said. "It's one of those things that sometimes is forgotten.
"Yes you can do weight-room work. You can practice. You can do all those different things. But if our athletes aren't taking care of themselves from a health standpoint, what does that mean at the end of a football game? What does that mean at the end of a mile swim, a three-hour tennis match or in the fifth game of a volleyball match?"
Student Assistance & Assisting Students
Helping Maurer cover Tennessee's 20 varsity sports is Jenna Waters, who assists with football responsibilities while handling men's and women's golf, volleyball, softball, baseball and men's tennis. Maurer takes care of the rest, and both get help from 11 students who combine to work 90 hours a week.
"When I started it was just me," Maurer said. "Now the whole program has exploded. I'm able to do more things for more teams on a daily basis because I have that help."
The Holland, Mich., native's food instruction is not limited to athletes. She teaches an undergraduate sports nutrition class that's required for all freshman Lady Vols but also open to the UT student body.
"My main focus is to get our student-athletes understanding their needs versus the general population," Maurer said. "A lot of times, especially with females, they don't understand why `so-and-so's just eating a salad and I'm on my third plate of food.'
"I tell them it's because they exercised five hours today while their friend was on a treadmill for 30 minutes at a really low intensity. I'm trying to get them to be OK with why three plates of food probably isn't such a bad thing if they have been swimming for five or six hours."
It's a fight Maurer knows can contribute to the winning edge.