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Career Story: Performance Nutritionist, IRFU

Nóra Ní Fhlannagáin

Job title
Performance Nutritionist
Company
IRFU
Industry
Sports – National Governing Body
Experience
5 years
Education
  1. BSc Hons Human Nutrition & Dietetics at RGU (Aberdeen)
  2. MSc Applied Sports and Exercise Nutrition at Oxford Brookes University
Favourite subjects in school
Biology, physics and chemistry- I loved all of the sciences!
The best thing about my job
I have great variety in my work, I also have a lot of autonomy in my role and my department encourages innovative thinking.

Sports nutrition is such a new field in science, it’s a really exciting area to work in at the moment with a lot of growth in the sector.

High performance sports nutrition is hard to get into and generally requires a postgraduate degree (PgDip or MSc) so you need to take education seriously even though the job is very practical.

My main tasks

There are many key skills required in my area of work. Excellent communication skills are crucial. I need to be able to interact with all players and to help them understand what they are doing and why they are doing it.
 
Organisational skills, I need to plan ahead and ensure that I have ordered all of the foods, supplements and equipment if there are a number of teams travelling abroad at the same time. Our teams travel all over the world so it is important to have everything organised for the players well in advance of their travel. 

Critical thinking, it is essential to critically appraise all of the scientific studies on nutrition science and sports science to use the most effective strategies for your team.

What I like

I enjoy the variety I have in my work. I also have a lot of autonomy in my role and my department encourages innovative thinking. I’m really passionate about nutrition and sports nutrition so getting to spend all day thinking and talking about a topic I love is great. Sometimes during tournaments or training camps the hours are long or I’m required to travel and this can add to the variety of my work. 

It is great to be part of a winning team and to be very performance driven in your job. Singing the national anthem on the pitch with a team is an amazing feeling too and very clearly seeing an athlete play better because you’ve helped them to gain muscle or fuel properly for their match is very rewarding. 

Challenges

In my current role there are a lot of squads and projects to be looked after and that involves a lot of head-space and organizational skills. 

Working in a male-dominated area like sports isn’t always easy. I’ve come up against my fair share of challenging and awkward situations in that respect. 

There can be less job security in sports than in a lot of other industries. When I started out part of my work I was self-employed, I had to learn about how to run a business which is difficult for someone who’s not a natural businesswoman. 

Who influenced me 

Originally, I was planning to work in clinical nutrition, I found the general public so frustrating to work with and so unmotivated to change, that it spurred me on to do my postgrad and to move into sports nutrition. I have since found that there are motivated and unmotivated athletes too! But I’ve improved my own behaviour-change skills to be more effective while working with different types of people!

I’ve been very lucky to have three great mentors in nutrition and sports nutrition who have provided me with great example that I’ve tried to emulate. They have been fairly instrumental in my career so far as a performance nutritionist. Meeting people at conferences and networking events has often been invaluable for opening doors.

Work/life balance 

Job security is difficult to get in high performance sport as typically if a coach leaves, the back room team goes with them. Additionally, funding for sports and their support staff goes in one and two year cycles so you have to be aware that most work is done on short contracts. I’m very lucky that I have job security in my role, but it is one of very few roles of this nature. 

Sports nutrition and most work with high performance sport involves working evenings and weekends so you have to be flexible, it can conflict with your social life sometimes but once you are enjoying the work that is all that matters. In my role, it gets busy around certain times of the year e.g. the 6 Nations, Christmas camps and games, and for age-grade players during Summer and Easter holidays so it comes in spurts.

For a nutritionist working with a professional rugby club, you could be working and travelling every weekend and working 6 days a week, it depends on what job you’ve got and the team around you, how you manage your work-life balance.

As sports nutrition is such a new career pathway, there are limited career progression opportunities in Ireland when you compare it to other jobs, but there is a wide range of opportunities abroad in the UK, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Most useful aspects of my education 

Both my degree and my masters were essential criteria for applying for my job.

Useful work experience 

Ideally work experience with a sports nutritionist would be great but that can be very difficult to get. Work experience with any other member of the sports science or management team like the strength and conditioning coach, the physio, the coaches or the bagman could give you a real insight into how the high performance team works.

Work experience in a hospital or a community dietetics department is good to get an opportunity to speak to a dietitian or with a corporate health companies would be good to see group presentations and liaising with catering.