4 Dimensions of Athlete Development, Part 3: Nutrition

This is the third article in a four-part series on athletic development, from Clemson strength and conditioning coach and #VoltFamily member, Kaitlyn Cunningham, MS, CSCS, SCCC. To read Part 1, click here. To read Part 2, click here.



Continued success in developing student athletes must not only come from the first two dimensions (mental/cultural and performance), but also in aspects that occur away from the weight room. The third dimension of student athlete development is the nutrition component.

While there is a lot of misleading information presented on nutrition, we want to guide athletes to proper nutritional habits to help fuel performance. With our athletes we start with a snapshot of where they are, figure out where they should be, further educate them on how to reach their goals and watch their consistent effort turn into tangible results.



Prior to any nutrition education being implemented, we must understand where the athletes stand from a body composition and visual standpoint. As a part of our performance evaluation we calculate their body composition as well as take pictures.

Body composition is determined through two different methods: circumference method developed by the United States Navy and skinfold caliper measurements. Pictures are used for the purpose of comparison during their tenure at Clemson. This allows coaches and athletes alike to not only see numbers for changes, but also a visual change in the pictures.



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Since student-athletes make nutritional decisions without us next to them the majority of the time, it is extremely important to educate them. With our Clemson Basketball student-athletes, we utilize a digital education format in order to do so.

This digital format is the Nutrition Guidebook in PDF form, developed by Mike Bewley, Director of Basketball Strength and Conditioning at Clemson. Moving through the curriculum with readings, inputting individual data and utilizing quizzes, student-athletes learn about the topics listed below:

  • Defining Sports Nutrition

  • Calorie Burn

  • The Six Nutrients: Part I - Carbs, fats, proteins

  • The Six Nutrients: Part II - Vitamins, minerals, water

  • Meal Planning & Nutrient Timing

  • Nutrient Ratio Performance

  • Sleep & Rest

  • Nutrition Tracker App “Lose It!”

  • Serving Size Vs. Portion Size

  • Starting A Performance Nutrition Plan

  • Before & After Pictures


Logging and Monitoring

As the final step in the education program we begin the Simple Start program where the athletes log their food through an application on their phones. We utilize the application Lose It (put picture of app), because it has the ability through Ascend for LoseIt to communicate with the athletes regarding their food logs. Ascend for Lose It also allows us to keep a full history of communication about their nutrition logs.

The Simple Start Program requires them to record breakfast for 10 days, lunch the next 10 days, and dinner the last 10 days.

After the 30 day Simple Start Program athletes will record every meal and snack for 10 days. This allows them to see a day in its entirety, instead of just one meal during their day.

When logging, athlete’s goals are to meet the following criteria:

  • Daily calorie needs

  • Individual meal calorie needs

  • Nutrient ratios

Athletes know all of this information from the education prior to any logging. Communication is largely based on if they have met their needs and ratios. It also allows for suggestions to be made for trying different foods to further help the athletes.

Referring back to our high performance sports car analogy, the food that student-athletes consume is the equivalent of the fuel that the car would be running on during a race. The high performance sports car will not perform to the same level running on a tank full of regular gas as it would on a tank full of premium gas. This analogy is used to explain the food choices they make, shown in their food log, and how the food they put into their bodies affects their performance.



Understanding team and culture dynamics is paramount in holding athletes accountable for their nutrition. Let's be clear: Athletes are not going to be disciplined based on what their log consists of (i.e. the food they are consuming), calorie needs, or nutrient ratios -- unless it shows a bunch of “n/a” information not allowing for accurate nutrient ratio information to be seen.

Athletes are being disciplined if they do not log. There cannot be dialogue about an empty food log, other than the fact that there is nothing there. If they are not truly eating, then that is a situation to be handled by a professional. Each athletic department should have a protocol on whom to contact to inform of those situations.

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Accountability is an extension of the mental/cultural dimension. To continue to build a strong culture, athletes must be held accountable and hold each other accountable. This is no different in regard to the nutrition dimension. For there to be success within this dimension, there should be clear and concise communication on expectations of the food logs along with the accountability parameters so that there are no questions. If the athletes know what to do and how to do it, then it allows you as the coach to ask them why they did not do it.



Working with female athletes in regard to nutrition can bring about difficulties (i.e. they don’t want to get bulky, they just want to get “toned,” fad diets in the media, etc.). This can happen with male athletes as well but for the purpose of this post, I will speak about female athletes I have encountered during my time as a strength and conditioning coach.

I do not care what my athletes look like in their bathing suits or how their jeans fit. I care about the ability to perform in their respective sport. To help give the athletes an idea of what that means, have them put a 20-lb. weight vest on and ask them if they would be able to sprint faster and jump higher with that added weight. The answer is no because if we can increase contractile mass “muscle” and decrease non-contractile mass “fat” then the high-performance sports car can perform without pulling a trailer loaded down with bricks.

In this example, you can see changes in this athlete’s body in the pictures. She took her body fat percentage from 19.16% (top row of pictures) down to 15.61% (bottom row of pictures). No, she does not have a visible six-pack, and no, these before and after pictures will not be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but based on her increase in contractile mass “muscle” and decreased non-contractile mass “fat”, she was able to significantly improve her performance on the court. In large part, this is a testament to her consistently making the most informed decision based on her knowledge of nutrition.



More times than not, athletes will tell their coaches and strength coaches alike that they want their bodies to change. As strength coaches, it is our job to ensure that they are educated on how to make this change occur. Our Clemson basketball student-athletes are told, “you can’t out train a bad diet…” Not only must they work on weight training and conditioning, but they must also put the work in nutritionally.

Disclaimer: I am not a registered dietitian, nor do I hold a nutrition degree or certification. I do have experience and success working with student-athletes with regards to nutrition as a means to improve performance.


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Kaitlyn Cunningham, MS, CSCS, SCCC, is the strength and conditioning coach for the Clemson women’s basketball team. A four-year letter winner as a soccer player for the University of Kansas, Kaitlyn went on to earn her master’s in Sports Administration from Eastern Illinois University, where she also spent time as a grad assistant. In addition to her MS, Kaitlyn holds certifications through the NSCA and CSCCa, and has worked with Clemson’s women soccer and rowing programs before moving to basketball.