Jennifer Gibson's cool sports job: Chicago Bears sports science coordinator and dietitian
She's never thrown a 45-yard pass, tried to block a blitzing linebacker or drawn up the X's and O's of zone pass coverage, yet Jennifer Gibson is right there on the Chicago Bears sideline for every practice and game. Tucked among the behemoth linemen, coaches and training staff is a fit, 36-year-old Canadian with long, blonde hair dressed in Bears colors who's in her second season as the team's sport science coordinator and sport dietitian. Her goal: to help every athlete on the roster perform at his highest level.
Gibson came to the Bears after several years working with the U.S. and Canadian Olympic programs, guiding many athletes to the medal stand. She's also worked with teams and athletes in professional soccer, tennis and the NBA. She has a degree in nutrition, is a registered dietitian, has a master's in exercise science and is a graduate of the International Olympic Committee's sport nutrition program. Seeing a sport dietitian at a leadership conference piqued her interest. The combination of liking science and growing up in an Italian family played a factor, too. "I liked food," Gibson says. "I was trying to find a career path that blended the two, and there it was."
She works with coaches and training staff to develop fueling and recovery plans for every player on the Bears roster. Over her career she's helped athletes lose weight and gain weight.
A former standout high school three-sport athlete (cross country, volleyball and softball) in Toronto, Gibson continues to stay active. She runs or cycles every day and also does yoga three to five times per week. She works daily at the Bears facility in Lake Forest, Illinois. She and her husband live in the Chicago area with their two dogs.
Here is Gibson's story, in her words:
Feeding the Bears
As sport dietitian, I'm responsible for anything involving food for the guys. All their nutrition needs from handling the cafeteria here -- where we feed them twice a day -- to all our food on the road: hotel meals, plane meals, postgame meals, pregame meals, locker room food and individual plans for the guys. Also, individual strategies for hydration and recovery.
What's on the menu?
What you're trying to do is satisfy the needs of a delegation of up to 130 to 150 people. You want to make sure there's something for everybody. Plus, guys have routines and habits, especially for pregame meals. You just want to make sure everyone has what he needs. We also accommodate food allergies or intolerances. We had a player last season for a short period who was a vegan. Our scoops in our cafeteria are pre-measured to make it easy. There's a whole lot of science that goes behind their (individual meal) plans, but when it gets to the player's level it's about, "three scoops of this and two scoops of that."
It was an interesting transition for me here, because I came in from Olympic combat sports. I was dealing with wrestlers cutting weight. So you're managing really small calorie budgets and then, coming to football, you're sometimes on the opposite of that for bigger guys. So when you're doing meal plans for 6,000 calories, you're kind of going, "Wow, this is crazy." As you can imagine, we go through a lot of food here.
It's not mandatory that our guys have an individual meal plan. But like all teams in the league, we have mandatory weight targets the guys have to meet. So that lends itself to making sure I touch base with almost every single one of our players. You get to know each other pretty quickly. For sure, there are guys with 100 percent buy-in and guys that are 5 percent in. But there are few guys that are 0 percent in.
When you're doing meal plans for 6,000 calories, you're kind of going, 'Wow, this is crazy.' As you can imagine, we go through a lot of food here.Jennifer Gibson
This isn't Timbuktu
Arranging team meals on the road isn't that difficult. I used to travel around the world with the Olympic teams. I'd try to set up food in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, China and remote villages in Europe, with language barriers and crazy things. So this is pretty easy. We're in the United States.
Helping them heal
We have a big emphasis here on anti-inflammatory foods because the players' bodies are getting beat up all the time. So we have lots of fruits and vegetables, we have a juice bar, we have healthy, fatty fishes and nuts as snacks. We try to incorporate all those anti-inflammatory foods and have them available as snacks and in the cafeteria all day.
Following her own advice
I have this joke that no one trusts an out-of-shape or overweight sport dietitian. I do eat a healthy diet. It's not that I'm a food [stickler], either. Definitely there's 5 percent of my diet that I just enjoy whatever I want. But the bulk of it is absolutely what I preach.
Science and tech
Our general manager, Ryan Pace, wanted to build our sport-performance department out a bit. My job as sport science coordinator is to investigate areas that are a bit non-traditional to improve performance. For example, we brought on a sports psychologist. And we're using GPS technology. My job is to be aware of the research and trends so we can take a progressive approach.
Tracking movement, sleep
The GPS trackers give us a sense of what they're doing day to day on the field. How many yards they're covering in practice, their speed, direction. Players are tracked during the game as well so you get a sense of what the load is on the body. That can influence practice tempos and reps and the stresses we're putting on guys through the week. We're also educating players about sleep and looking at ways that can be optimized. We know sleep can be a valuable asset in recovery.
Adapting to different athletes
You have to learn about the physiological demands and competition demands of different sports and adapt your nutrition interventions. Olympians and pro tennis players do a lot of global travel, so optimal eating on the road is an emphasis. Football has a lot of physical trauma and impact, so recovery strategies are important. Plus you have to understand the culture of each sport. Each sport and team has a different way they go about their business, chains of command and how you need to work. You really have to spend time learning the system to achieve your goals.
One of the things that makes this a really cool job is I know with the Bears, I'm the first female staff on the football operations side. Last year there were six to seven of us in the league in football operations and this year there's 12. It's neat to see, to be on the forefront.
Catalyst for change
It's been a little bizarre being the first woman on this side of the building. Like, where do we put you to change? What do we get you for apparel? Are you allowed to go here? Even on the sidelines I'll be stopped sometimes and told I can't enter because they think I'm media, or not being allowed in the locker room until you show them your credentials. But it's neat, because you feel you're at the beginning of something.
At the 2012 Olympic Games in London, I worked very closely with the combat sport athletes, because they have to make weight. To be a trusted member of an athlete's journey to an Olympic medal, the highest sporting achievement on the planet, is an indescribable feeling.