While the NFL’s Chicago Bears worry about their performance on the field, a Ryerson food and nutrition grad is worrying about making sure they are fuelled for the fight.
Her name is Jennifer Gibson and, at 35, she is the sports dietitian and sports science co-ordinator for the Bears. As the dietitian, her job involves recommending diet plans to players, co-ordinating meals with the team chefs at home and on the road, and teaching the players about the importance of staying hydrated, among other things. As the science co-ordinator, she explores ways that science and technology can be used to give the team an edge over the competition.
“It’s kind of a big overarching umbrella that I oversee,” she said. “We’re looking for any way that we can implement sports science to improve performance for our players.”
Gibson was hired by the Bears in April of last year after spending five years in Colorado working with the U.S. Olympic team. She has also worked with the Canadian Olympic team and the New Orleans Saints of the NFL, providing advice to everyone from Canadian snowboarding gold medallist Maelle Ricker, to Kobe Bryant and Drew Brees.
Gibson says the athletes understand the importance of this side of the business and for the most part are responsive to what she has to say.
“In the pros they’re trying to prolong their career and obviously perform at 100 per cent,” she said. “You’re obviously not going to get 100 per cent buy in from anyone … but for the most part they realize the importance of it.”
Originally from Toronto, Gibson grew up with a big love of sports. Since she was eight years old, she played volleyball, softball and ran cross-country. She even tried out for the Ryerson volleyball team, but didn’t end up playing for the Rams, opting instead to focus on academics.
Gibson was also a self-described “science nerd” in high school and she was looking for a career that could mix her love of sports and science. It wasn’t until she went to a sports leadership conference and listened to another graduate of food and nutrition talk about the program at Ryerson, that she knew she had found her calling. “I’ve known since Grade 12 I guess that I was going to do this,” she said.
After completing her undergrad in 2003, Gibson completed her master’s in exercise physiology at the University of Victoria. Her thesis was about female nutrition in sport. After graduating from there, she started working at the total sport nutrition program in B.C., which was one of the first sports nutrition programs offered to Canadian athletes. Gibson said the program was only a year old when she took over as the dietitian there and so she was breaking a lot of ground in that industry. Even something as simple as having a dietitian travel with the team was new to Canadian athletes at the time.
“To be completely honest with you, when I got my first job, it was only one of two in the whole country,” she said. “When I was hired on … it was basically just about growing that kind of service for athletes.”
Although she enjoyed travelling around the world with the Canadian and U.S. Olympic teams, Gibson appreciates the more organized schedule of an NFL season too. While she admits the Bears are rebuilding, she says the work they are doing will help the team get back on track.
“The only constant thing in sport is change, so for me to come to one team in one location, without any international travel, has been a really nice changeup,” she said. “My most favourite experience of my career so far was the 2012 Olympics in London … but the next one will be the Super Bowl.”