Please tell us about yourself
Have you ever wondered what it takes to become a professional athlete and maintain peak performance throughout an athletic season? Well, aside from some helpful hand-eye coordination, it’s always helpful to have a strong team of dedicated professionals behind you, available to educate you on the proper ways to fuel your body and strengthen your muscles.
We recently sat down with Pratik Patel, Director of Performance Nutrition and Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach for the New York Giants, to discuss his passion for performance nutrition and hear more about how he started his career, challenges he faces, and what he loves most about working with the Giants.
FLIK Hospitality: So what made you want to become a dietitian? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
Patel: My interest in nutrition started as a high school athlete. I spent a lot of time reading about nutrition in various magazines and used trial and error to see how nutrition could impact my [own] game. My interest in nutrition continued [in college] despite entering Kansas State as an engineering student. With the help of my college roommate and an advisor, I eventually transitioned into the nutrition program full-time.
F: According to the US Dept. of Labor, 89% of dietitians are female. As a male in a female-dominated field, what opportunities or challenges have you faced?
P: Within sports nutrition, there is more of a male to female balance. In undergrad, my nutrition advisor coincidentally was male, but it was an otherwise female-dominated major. I was the only male in all of my dietetics classes. Being a male in a female-dominated field has allowed me to stand out. People are curious – they ask questions about my career aspirations. You also don’t see a lot of minorities in dietetics, especially on the sports side. I take this head on and use it to be a role model for others [who may be wavering on going the traditional vs. non-traditional career route].
F: Once you made the decision to study nutrition full-time, did you always aspire to work with athletes?
P: I’d always been interested in nutrition and fitness. Originally, I thought I would be working in a gym with a nutrition degree plus a personal training certification – training people, writing meal plans, helping people one-on-one. My career path shifted as I gained more experience. As a dietetic intern at the Mayo Clinic, I was offered a two week elective rotation. Through family connections, I spent that time working with the dietitian who was contracted to the Houston Astros. After my internship, I began working at Kansas State University with the men’s basketball team. From there, my career took me to Michigan State University, then the University of Oregon, where I was became the Director of Sports Nutrition. When the position with the New York Giants opened, I decided to apply and have been here for a year and a half.
F: Tell us about working with NFL players on a daily basis. How you approach the nutrition plan for the New York Giants?
P: We take a holistic approach at the Giants. We look at the players’ nutrition status and also at their sleep habits and hydration. We assess their recreational activities at home and off the field. Often we don’t have time to do a full assessment, so it’s about getting a message across quickly. I always ask if they’re eating at the appropriate times and encourage them to get anti-inflammatory foods and adequate protein throughout the day. We recommend that the players stay away from convenience and fast foods as much as possible, too.
F: What is one of the biggest challenges professional football players face when it comes to their nutrition status?
P: Consistency. The players are bombarded with an overwhelming amount of information from different sources. We’re all struggling for a piece of their time and a commitment that they’ll do what we ask to stay healthy and perform at their best. I expect them to think about nutrition, but they also have doctors, sports agents, and PR agents, families and contractual obligations to attend to. Sometimes they might get tunnel vision and forget to eat breakfast before going to the weight room or forget a recovery drink after a workout. The challenge is getting them to buy-in and then do these things day in and day out, make it a habit. The margin for error in the NFL is very small. Everything you do on a daily basis adds up over time.
F: What is one of the most surprising things about working in the NFL and with professional athletes?
P: It’s incredible the sheer number of things these players have going on – many that aren’t even football-related – that contribute to their career as professional athletes. It’s a business. In college athletics, you offer a scholarship, you have the player for four years. In the NFL, the roster is a living document. You bring in, cut, bring in, cut. So we have to do what we can from every angle to make sure we have and retain the best players who fit our roster strategy.
F: Do you have any tips for students interested in a similar sports nutrition career path?
P: The good thing is, we’re still very much in the early stages of this field and sports nutrition is expanding rapidly. I highly suggest to anyone interested in sports nutrition to reach out to a professional dietitian to ask questions. If you’re interested in getting hands-on experience, you’re much more likely to find it at the college. Most Division 1 schools have upwards of 3-4 sports dietitians serving 20-30 teams.
Before entering the field, getting that hands-on experience is crucial. It’s important to understand how grueling the hours can be. You wake up early, go to bed late, work weekends and holidays. The titles are exciting, but a lot of times the work isn’t. It’s also important that, beyond knowing the material and books, you must understand athletes, sports, and how teams function. A good amount of my job is about getting to know the person behind the athlete and building rapport so that players are more receptive to my coaching. They’ve got to trust you.