Stephanie Kolloff O’Neill, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN
Biography: Stephanie Kolloff O’Neill is a board-certified specialist in Sports Dietetics providing performance nutrition expertise to athletes within the NCAA Division I Southeastern Conference and the National Football League for the last 9 years.
- What inspired you to become a dietitian?
I first learned about registered dietitians through my mom, who was a pediatric nurse for over 45 years. The thought of a career that coached and inspired people to eat better was very appealing to me, but the hospital wasn’t my ideal setting. Loving sports and having worked with a personal trainer in high school, I had hoped to be able to find a position where I could work with athletes. Thankfully, a friend let me know that a sports dietitian working for a top university locally in our area had presented to them at a sports camp, and from there the wheels started turning as to how I could become a team sports dietitian.
- Could you tell me about your educational background and the path you took to become a dietitian?
I went to Arizona State University, and attained concurrent Bachelor’s Degrees in Nutrition (Dietetics) and Exercise & Wellness, to help round out my education in physiology and performance. I was very involved in my student dietetics council and had close relationships with my professors. I was able to do an extended internship with a sports dietitian in my hometown, which led to an internship with ASU’s first full time team dietitian my junior year. After graduating in 2013, I began ASU’s non-degree dietetic internship. My goal for the non-degree track internship was to be able to move into a graduate assistant sports dietitian role, where I could work as a sports dietitian within the athletics department while earning my master’s degree. After my dietetic internship was completed, I was selected as a Gatorade Sports Nutrition Immersion Program fellow through the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association at Auburn University, and I sat for my RD exam that summer. What started as a 6-month internship at Auburn, evolved into a 12-month internship for the remainder of that academic year, before I began my master’s degree in Kinesiology (Exercise Physiology) as a GA sports dietitian in 2015. It was a lot of hard work to attain those degrees while balancing work and studies, but they prepared me well for my professional roles. I have continued to have a learning mentality in my career through advanced certifications, staying abreast of current research, attending conferences, and finding new podcasts and books to learn from and apply into my practice.
- What does a typical day or week look like for you as a dietitian?
In sports, the standard day is dictated by your team’s periodization- whether they’re in the off-season, pre-season, or in-season. During pre-season and in-season, the day starts between 4:30-6:00 a.m., before breakfast for the team, to ensure food service and fueling stations are operational as players, coaches, and staff fuel up before the day begins. The mornings usually consist of a training session for some of the roster followed by classroom meetings to review strategy and tactics for the week’s opponent, while we ensure fuel and hydration preparations are made for on-field practice in the late morning. In Florida, we have unique environmental demands from extended months of heat and humidity, which can lead to high sweat rate losses that require a high level of detail for in-practice hydration and fueling for athletes. Once practice is through, recovery is paramount to refuel carbohydrate stores, rehydrate fluid losses and repair proteins that may have been broken down, utilizing immediate grab and go items prepared and another full meal. Afternoon meetings occur again for the team. In-between all of this, we’re finding time to coordinate nutrition logistics for the road, having formal or brief consults with players, following up with the performance team members, keeping up to date on budgets and procurement…the list goes on! Off-season is a vital time to coordinate nutritional plans for players who may be off-site or require medical procedures and clinical nutrition support. As well as a time to review the previous season and make recommendations or changes for what’s required in the coming season.
- What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of being a dietitian?
There are two important aspects to the challenges a sports dietitian faces, and both can get tied up in a lot of us being type-A individuals who want to give an A+ effort each time. This can get hard when recognizing we’re managing rosters of 125+ athletes, 35+ coaches, 25+ support staff and occasionally (usually regarding food service/meals) someone ends up unhappy and it can feel like the job wasn’t accomplished. It’s important to recognize not everyone will be pleased every time, but having a great rapport with your team and staff can make up for that. The second thing is to be able to go with the flow; undoubtedly something is going to come up in your day that can jump right to the top of that day’s to-do list and with no option for any of the remaining items to go incomplete. Making sure you’re well organized, flexible, and great at prioritizing is very important. Equally as important is the self-awareness to know when on occasion you need to ask for help or to say politely no/not at this time.
The most rewarding parts are when you see things come together for your team. That could be when a player who finally bought into a fueling or hydration plan sees it pay off on the field. It could also be when a big road trip arises that requires a lot of work planning between your department, logistics, operations, performance, and everything works out as planned and the team comes home with the win. There can be a lot of stress within sports nutrition and so celebrating these smaller ‘wins’ for players and staff is an important way to keep morale high, especially when you can find ways to celebrate with more ‘fun foods’ while teaching balance within a performance diet. Those are the best moments when you know your piece of the puzzle was able to benefit the bigger picture for the team!
- What advice would you give to someone considering a career in dietetics?
Our field is so much more than ‘clinical, community and food service’. There are unique roles dietitians can have, and sometimes the best way to find your dream role is to advocate for your dream role. I am grateful to have been blessed with wonderful roles as a student and professional, a few of which were created because I pitched them to a professor, supervisor, or colleague, while being a positive and hardworking team member. Find ways to gain experience in business, entrepreneurship, and leadership, because these aren’t always taught in undergrad and are vital to paving your professional path.
- How do you balance your professional life with personal wellness and self-care?
Sports dietitians can have extremely demanding roles in an embedded model where you travel with your team(s) and it’s not uncommon to tally 60, 80, or even 100+ hour work weeks. I am a firm believer in ‘you can’t take care of others if you can’t take care of yourself,’ and ‘if you’re there you care’ (which athletes are also firm believers). The best way I’ve found to balance these is to block out dedicated time for a workout, prioritize sleep, maintain my fueling and hydration, and use commuting time to keep close with family, friends, and mentors who I live far from. Basically, how you would educate your athletes or clients for optimal health, we do in fact need to do as we say!
- What do you see as the future of the dietetics profession?
The exponential growth that sports dietetics has seen in the past 10-15 years is inspiring! I am so happy to see the opportunities that students now have for internships and work exposure within collegiate athletic programs and local teams. As well as the number of athletes who now have an advocate and resource as a sports dietitian embedded and working full time for their team. I hope to see this trend continue, with all professional teams having an embedded sports dietitian to support their athletes, as well as expansion into lower division colleges or universities, and youth programs/high schools. Our position as sports dietitians supports performance physically, but also mentally and emotionally, so having us as resources on hand is integral to a holistic approach for athlete optimization.