Part 3 – Results, reception, and lasting impact
**Please see disclaimer in Prologue (found here)…
As the 2015 season wrapped up for the aspiring “Healthiest Team in Professional Sports”, the strength and conditioning staff of the Los Angeles Dodgers began assembling and distributing the off-season training program to their players. Professional baseball – similar to the other major professional sports – is different from amateur ball in respects to the players’ exposure to the training staff and coaches during the off-season. Where college and high school coaches get focused blocks of periods to work with their players in the off-season, professional baseball coaches may at most get three-to-four weeks with a player during their five or so months away from the team (if a player is invited to instructional league). With no coaching supervision, the off-season program must be intensive, all-inclusive, yet somewhat basic in order to ensure compliance and convenience.
One facet of the off-season training program is the nutritional goal section for each player. Here, the coaches outlined a player’s qualitative and quantitative body composition goals for their break from the season, and how to go about achieving them nutritionally speaking. This is a challenging process for the strength and conditioning coach, since again, they were tasked to give as much advice, instruction, and guidance as possible, while knowing they have very little control over what happens once the program is taken back home by each player.
The question is rhetorically asked in the coach’s head each time he hands over a program: will this player have the compliance and commitment to follow through with the nutritional guidelines as suggested? More appropriately the following could have been asked: are they even capable of following the guidelines?
Professional baseball is a demographically and socioeconomically diverse sport, probably more so than any of the other major sports. Players hail from from all over the world to play this game in the United States, with a vast amount of the international players coming from Latin-American countries like Venezuela, the Dominican Republic (the DR), and Mexico. Whether American-born or international, each player also has a unique background and circumstances to deal with when returning home, and most Minor League players simply don’t make much money during the season. Combine this with the sheer fact that many players will not have access to a variety of whole foods makes the chances of seeing a high execution rate for the nutrition program of any given off-season quite slim.
The 2015-2016 off-season would be even more challenging in some regards, as players now had new concepts to consider when going out to eat or grocery shopping back home. Jargon like “grass-fed”, “all-natural”, “nitrate free”, “antibiotic free”, and “organic”, were just some of the new stipulations that had been thrown at the players from the months of February through September. And, unlike most seasons, when it was usually the international players who had the greatest adjustment to make to American cuisine, now even the American-born players had to get used to foods they may have never experience, as the Dodgers had moved to a whole-foods first approach that adhered to the strictest of nutritional guidelines yet to be seen in professional baseball.
The six-plus month season had been something unique and enjoyable for nearly all of the players and staff of the Dodgers organization, as both food and nutrition education became a centerpiece right alongside athletic performance, and exquisite meals normally reserved for the big leagues found their way into Minor League clubhouses throughout the organization. The program made a tremendous impact; in combination with all of the efforts of the Dodgers’ front office, coaches, and medical department, both the Minor League and Major League clubs saw tremendous success on the field. While it can’t all be attributed to organic nutrition, it certainly can’t be denied that this new wholesome initiative did leave a positive impact.
Yet, it is the sustainability of such an extravagently healthy lifestyle that would most likely pose its own unique set of challenges for the 2015 off-season. This, though, is where my time with the Dodgers came to a close, so the sustainability of the organic and whole sustanence for the players during the off-season is not something I was afforded the opportunity of whitnessing. However, considering the new organic approach was foreign to me, just like most of the players, I am able to attest to its crossover to my own personal off-season and lifestyle going forward.
Building a House of Cards, or a Strong Foundation?
I recently spoke with a notable nutrition expert, sports nutrition consultant, and high-level university professor about the nutritional initiative that Los Angeles took during 2015. She told me about her advocacy of the USDA “My Plate” approach, where positive changes of poor habits at the meal table should, at least initially, be stressed to come more on a general basis; fill your plate with color and properly portion out nutrient-dense foods, while not necessarily worrying about the sustainability or sourcing of the products (at least initially). And, we talked about the similarities that the Minor League players have with the audience that the USDA was primarily trying to reach. While these are elite athletes we are talking about in professional baseball, they are still often young players, or those from all over the globe. Regardless of their cultural or socioeconomic background, it is still a sample size that can represent a similar snapshop of our country’s general population.
In other words, your average Single-A shortstop is going to need just as much nutritional guidance and simple structure in his diet than any desk jockey, despite their actual nutritional, portion, and macronutrient profiles being much different. In this way, the professor begged the question: by forgoing an emphasis on small, basic changes and a balanced plate (e.g. USDA My Plate), and first attempting to move an athlete toward sustainable, whole, organic food sources (e.g. Dodgers) are we actually building a house of cards, rather than a strong foundation? Meaning, when they are no longer provided food meeting these high standards, or have a coach guiding them through the process (or enforcing the protocol), how would this process hold up (i.e. in the off-season)?
This was a valid question posed, but I believe another paradigm can be broached as well. For me, personally, I found myself more cognizant of the quality of foods that I purchased and consumed off-site during the season, and at home after I departed for the off-season. This doesn’t neccesarily mean that I bought all organic, nitrate free, grass-fed, etc… But, it did mean that I was aware of the difference, and strove to make some changes, despite already eating what I consider to be a healthy diet.
And, having experienced the nutritional initiative first-hand, I can tell you that many players enjoyed the food provided to them. Of course, there was a great share of resistance, just like there is to just about any significant source of change in life within a diverse group of people, but overall, the sentiment was overwhelmingly positive. Many enlightening conversations occured amongst players, and between the players and staff, and education on nutrition, fueling, and strong dietary choices at home was every bit a focal point during the season. If we take a look at player development in professional baseball as a more long-term approach, rather than year-to-year, we can truly appreciate what the Dodgers did. What’s less important are the specific changes that were made in year one. What’s more important is the long-term process of making steady positive changes.
Regardless of what you give the players – whether it be organic or not – it still has to be hinged upon an educational process. But, if an organization like the Dodgers can – and more importantly, is willing to – go all out in order to strive toward this long-term development, in terms of nutrition, why they shouldn’t they? In fact, when you look at the entire landscape of Minor League Baseball, you might say it’s about time somebody made a drastic change to the food provided to the players. In that way, it seems like the nutritional program is much less a “house built of cards” and more a strong foundation for a long-term plan to develop the Dodgers’ players.
And, after all, like any other lofty goal, it isn’t going to be achieved over night. The Dodgers made it a mission to be the “Healthiest Team in Professional Sports” – and while we can debate whether this came to fruition after just one season of the new organic, whole foods initiative, I believe we can say with little uncertainty that they took a giant step toward this goal, and in this way are helping the entire game of baseball by setting a new standard.