Sam Kavarsky on Nutrition Coaching, Building Trust, and Communication
How this human performance coach maximized potential in collegiate athletes and UCLA Football
Imagine being put in charge of performance nutrition for the football team at one of the nation’s premier universities — you’re faced with establishing good nutrition habits in 18 year old young men, combating the fast food options around every corner, and gaining the trust and respect of the team. That was the challenge former Springfield College strength and conditioning coach Sam Kavarsky accepted when he took on this role at UCLA in 2016. We sat down with the latest addition to Momentous’ Performance Engineer team to discuss how he designed and implemented the Bruins’ nutrition program over three years, the biggest challenges in changing student-athletes’ eating habits, and why communication is more important than calories.
Sam recently founded the human performance company Science Over Tradition where he now works to optimize the training, fueling, and recovery process for elite working professionals. Sam is also currently a Doctoral candidate at the University of Bridgeport School of Chiropractic Medicine where he is focusing on combining his current knowledge base with an in-depth understanding of the musculoskeletal system.
MO: What did you learn from being put in charge of UCLA’s nutrition program?
SK: When it comes to coaching in any sense, you're going to look at the relationship you have with players as being the foundation of anything. If that's not something you have, then it's going to be really, really hard to convince them to buy into a program, or set whatever standard and expectations you have for them. That goes for strength and conditioning, nutrition, and whatever sport the athlete may be participating in.
What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem, and that couldn't be more true when it comes to nutrition. A lot of the time the expectation of coaches is that players are going to be able to gain weight if you tell them to eat more, or they’ll be able to improve their body composition if you just give them a few tips. But you have to assess the situation and see what’s available to them, their level of understanding, and their resources, and then reset your expectations and strategy.
For example, back in 2016 we told quite a few players we wanted them to gain weight, but left them to fend for themselves on the weekends. When we recognized that this was an issue, we started sending nine or 12 meals home with them so they would have the kind of nutrition they needed to meet that goal. We also made sure they understood the reasoning behind it. They not only started getting to their target weight more consistently, but also improved their body composition. We saw a drastic change in the numbers when it came to a lean body mass perspective. When you have real food to eat you’re not going out and getting Carl's Jr., McDonald's, or the other garbage that student-athletes often default to.
MO: How did you get better buy-in from the players?
SK: Another big realization we came to — what looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. It’s easy to get frustrated with kids for coming in late or not doing things the way you want them to, but again, it comes back to context. What scenario are they currently in? Where are they coming from? If you can grasp that, then you’re likely to do a better job of meeting them in the middle and setting more realistic expectations.
The most important thing when you’re trying to get buy-in is to develop strong relationships. If practice starts at 8:30am and you don’t get there until 8:25 and then barely say two words to an athlete, how do you expect them to trust you or your program? They’ll just “yes” you to death without really communicating, and then go away and do what they’re already doing. Instead of trying to cram everything into a few minutes a couple of times a week, I was around the players basically all day, every day. Almost too much. This gave me a good insight into how they were receiving the nutrition advice, what they were doing with it, and if it was actually working.
MO: What tactics did you use to make nutrition more of a priority for your athletes?
SK: College kids have a lot going on. They’ve got practices, games, girls, friends, studying, going out, and so on, and all of these things usually seem more significant than what they eat. So it was important to understand that nutrition is never going to be their top priority. But once I built strong connections with the players, I could build educational and assessment components. The assessment part was both quantitative and qualitative. When I met with them in meetings, I would pull up exactly what they were doing, how they were progressing, and if there was one particular area that they were working on that was reflected in the data. We tracked that pretty intensely.
The second piece was education. I wanted to provide them with a “why” for everything we were doing. So, for example, we put multivitamins out at our training table every day. A lot of these kids had never taken a multivitamin in their life. They also had trust issues, so they’d wonder, “What am I going to put in my body and what’s it going to do?” So it was crucial that we could explain what we’re doing and how it would reduce their risk of injury or improve their on-field performance. That made them a lot more likely to buy in.
Third was the fueling part of it – just providing our players with great options. We wanted to shape their path and present them with opportunities throughout our building to get high quality food in their body. Combining that with great taste had a huge influence on how they received what we provided.
MO: How did you work with other coaches at UCLA to develop a cohesive story around nutrition?
SK: Everyone was all in. The entire coaching staff saw the value of the players eating and supplementing well, and knew the difference it would make in performance and recovery. And having worked for Coach Sal Alosi previously, I understood how nutrition fit into his strength and conditioning approach and the football program overall. If we did it right, nutrition could be a big competitive advantage. Not everyone was an expert on the topic, but the knowledge that you need to help educate players and equip them to make positive changes is very minimal. Again, it’s all about the relationships, and then communicating in a simple way so that the information you’re sharing can be understood and acted upon.
Coach Chip Kelly was adamant that a “same message, different messengers” approach is always the most effective. When there’s a big staff, it’s no good if you’re the only one telling players something, or if they’re hearing 10 or 20 different narratives from other people. So we had a small number of core messages that we settled on, got everyone on the same page, and then made sure that every time an athlete heard from anyone in the building on these topics, we were saying the same thing using the same language. When players get four years of repetition, it really reinforces what you’re trying to get across, and actually helps them make positive change.
Patience was another big thing. We didn’t have the same expectations of a freshman that we did of a senior. As they went through our program, got used to what we're providing, and understood that their body composition was ultimately up to them, the responsibility of the athlete would grow. That's similar to the strength and conditioning approach that Coach Alosi took. You're not going to ask somebody to start back squatting with 90% of their max right away. You begin with goblet squats, then go to front squats, then barbell complexes, and finally back squatting when they’re ready. That's where our progressive, systematized approach to coaching nutrition came from.
MO: What was the biggest obstacle you faced while trying to improve UCLA players’ eating habits, and how did you overcome it?
SK: Previous success. If an athlete has performed at a high enough level to be a star on their high school team, get recruited by a lot of top schools, and then earn a full scholarship to a Division I program while eating junk food every day, they’re unlikely to think there’s anything wrong with their nutrition. So why listen to me and change now? Unless they become symptomatic in some way, they’re likely to keep doing what they’ve always done.
So it was a question of getting them to trust me so they’d really hear what I had to say. At that point, I was able to explain that while they were crushing it on the field and in the weight room, they could be doing even better if they cleaned up their nutrition. If they cut out most of the drive-through meals and started nailing a few basics – like having protein and vegetables for lunch and dinner – their overall health would improve, too.
The Precision Nutrition Level Two course helped me understand how to bridge the gap between the educational component and the actual application. And that was really important. A lot of players understood what to do, but then when it came to actually doing it, they didn’t even come close. The key was getting them to form a few core habits over a four to five year period. If they could just do a few simple things right consistently, then that made a huge difference in their performance and set them up well for later in life, too.
What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem, and that couldn't be more true when it comes to nutrition.
MO: Where did supplementation fit into your approach with the Bruins?
SK: The typical college diet isn’t conducive to good health or performance, so we recognized the need to help the players get micronutrients into their bodies. So we encouraged them to take a multivitamin twice a day – an AM formula that promoted good digestion and higher energy levels, and a PM one that included micronutrients like zinc and magnesium to help elicit a parasympathetic response. to encourage better sleep and a parasympathetic response. It was also crucial that the protein shakes we provided before, during, and after workouts were top quality.
We wanted our whey protein to be grass-fed, and responsibly sourced. So the fact that Momentous AbsoluteZero checked that first box and came from the highest quality source in Germany was a big win. The enzymes made it easy for the players to digest, which was a must when they were at practice or lifting hard. We also liked the plant-based option as we had several players with dairy allergies and more who were lactose-intolerant. The body composition, progress, and goals of each individual athlete determined what shake options we’d present to them and when, but the main things with our protein were purity and efficacy. Quality matters.