Episode 168 of the Institute of Performance Nutrition's "We Do Science" podcast! In this episode, I (Laurent Bannock) discuss "In The Trenches" with Aimee-Ellen O'Keeffe MSc SENR, Performance Nutritionist, Manchester United Women Football Club (UK).
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[00:00:00] LB: Welcome to Episode 168 of the Institute of Performance Nutrition’s We Do Science podcast, the IOPN podcast. And I am Lauren Bannock, the host. Now, today I had a fantastic conversation. I did one of the sort of more recent special editions on In the Trenches where I talk to a practitioner working primarily in elite sport context. And today, you don't get much more elite than Manchester United Women's performance nutritionist, Aimee O'Keeffe. Now, it was a great conversation for reasons that I'm sure you will all realize, as you start to listen and get to the end of it. Absolutely, packed full of honest, raw perspectives by Aimee.
I thought we had a really great conversation about where she's come from like many of these In the Trenches, chats that I've had so far. And we'll have going forward. I'm going to do a lot of these because I enjoy it. And I hope you do, too, is just how many different ways people have arrived at the roles that they have, and just how different people approach practice, which is this whole thing I tried to illustrate throughout my podcast, whether it's talking about applying science into practice, or looking specifically at science. And the fact that there still can be different views and perspectives, and they can all be right, or they could all be wrong, of course. But the point being is that this is a very dynamic field that we're in. It's moving very fast and, and loose, so to speak. But the art of being a practitioner is a really fascinating area. And it is very much an individual process. And it's just so fascinating to hear practitioners talk about the things that led to the roles that they have now, the mistakes they've made in the past, their ideas, their perspectives, and so on.
So anyway, I know you're going to love listening to this conversation today, particularly if you're an aspiring performance nutritionist, and, of course, looking to work not just as a footballer, but also as a female practitioner, or a male practitioner, of course, but working in female sports, which is not as common currently as it relates to the profession of the performance nutritionist, particularly in football. So that is also fascinating. Clearly not my area of expertise. So I learned a lot today. Just really enjoyed the conversation with Aimee.
Now, I will apologize for the standard of the audio. I'm a human being. And like all humans, I've made mistakes, and I did not set up my microphone up properly. So it is more of a raw laptop recording than my pro mic recording. But the editors will make some improvements to the audio. But just please bear with me. It does not detract at all from the quality of the chat and the conversation and what you get from it.
Just before I have you listen to our conversation from earlier today, please do go check out our website at www.theiopn.com where you can access the podcast page, the section of our website for our podcast. You can look at all the back catalogue of all the previous episodes and links to the papers and resources, etc., that we refer to in every podcast, and transcripts and so on. That's all there. You can also learn about our advanced level diploma in performance nutrition, which is specifically aimed at providing our students with a thorough training in sport and exercise science and practice. There's no program like it. It's sort of an 8 to 18-month program, the equivalent of five postgraduate modules dedicated to sport and exercise nutrition. So you can't get more thorough than that. So learn about that at www.theiopn.com. And also, you can learn about SENPRO, our sport and exercise nutrition platform, our coaching software for performance nutritionists, which just happens Aimee is one of our great fabulous users who excels in her practice using SENPRO. So you might want to go check out what that's all about at www.theiopn.com.
Now, I hope you enjoy this chat with Aimee as much as I did.
[00:04:35] KP: So welcome back to the IOPN We Do Science podcast, which, I guess, I'm going to think about changing the name of this podcast because we don't always talk about science. Or at least there is a connection with science in practice. And of course, that bridging the gap between science and practice and sport and exercise nutrition is sort of my obsession. That was my whole focus of my doctorate. And that's what we aim to do the IOPN.
And recently I've been doing these episodes called In the Trenches. And today, my guest for In the Trenches Special Edition is with Aimee O'Keeffe of Manchester United Women's, amongst other things. So Aimee, welcome.
[00:05:20] AO: Hello, Laurent. Nice to be on the podcast. Feels really strange. But yeah [inaudible 00:05:23].
[00:05:25] LB: Look. This is your life for Hollywood lives or whatever. As I was saying, it's you and me. We're both performance nutritionists. We've had interesting careers thus far. I've been around slightly longer than you, Aimee. But my aim here with these podcasts, these In the Trenches episodes, which, by the way, as a sort of a reference to the real world, chaotic environment, obviously, originally first world war trenches, you think of soldiers, stuff's going absolutely bonkers. And it's just a nightmare, and crazy, and so on. And that's kind of how it is in real world practice, the difference between what we were reading in textbooks or had in lectures may not be reflective of what we're seeing on a day-to-day basis. And that's why I love having these chats, because it doesn't matter what sport you're in. We both happen to do a lot of football between us. But it doesn't matter what sport you're in. There're so many different ways of dealing with these things, different approaches. And I would guess, every single club, every single private practice, you've got people achieving great results, but going around it in different ways, which is why it's so fascinating to see how other people look at things and do things. So anyway, not everyone knows who you are. You're probably better known than you think you are. But tell us about Aimee O'Keeffe, and what you're currently up to? And then we'll take it from there.
[00:06:52] AO: Okay. Yeah, so I'm currently the performance nutritionist for Manchester United Women's Team. I also help oversee the nutrition support for the academy, although I'm not based full time there. And then apart from the fulltime role with Manchester United, they also run a private nutrition business, which took a little bit of a break from pre-Christmas because of football. But yeah, backup again this year, and it's called committing nutrition.
So I run small nutrition groups online on there on SENPRO. It’d be good to know. And then I also do a bit of coaching. So I am a CrossFit coach by trade, as you say, but I'd say I just coach fitness a couple of hours per week these days. So yeah, I like to take a little bit of time away from nutrition and be part of a different type of team as a bit of a separate hobby, I guess.
[00:07:48] LB: A change of scene is a great thing. We've talked about that in many different podcasts. But I know in myself, I have worked with numerous rugby and football teams over the years. But in my particular experience, apart from the fulltime investment that you have with tournaments, well, in my case where you travel for months on end during Euros and World Cups and so on for the rest of the year. I'm not doing that. I'm in private practice, or teaching or whatever.
And the last In the Trenches episode we had was a Dr. James Morehen who, no doubt, you'll know. Another LJMU fine graduate there who has invested a lot of his time and effort recently in this very concept of being a performance nutritionist with his new book that came out. So listeners, if you haven't listened to that, you must do. It's absolutely fascinating. I believe he's coming up with another version of that book. So we’ll wait with bated breath.
But what's illustrated there and in that podcast and what will come out today and in previous In the Trenches episodes, as I've already elucidated, is this fact that there are so many differences in what leads someone to becoming a performance nutritionist, which I want to explore with you, particularly at Man United Women’s, one of the top teams out there is fascinating in itself. But also, the reality, like in your case, that there isn't necessarily going to be a fulltime role. You're going to be doing other things. And therefore, there's a need as a practitioner to have multiple skill sets to be able to succeed and have a good career generally, but also to become maybe a more rounded practitioner. I have a sneaky feeling that actually you might feel that's no bad thing, because having lots of different types of clients, individuals, group settings, team settings, elite sport, recreational, amateur, whatever, brings itself on a sort of a dynamic mix of experiences for you as a practitioner, which also draws upon your need to be what my father accuses me of being on a good day, of being omni-competent. You may not be the world's – I'm not mentioning anyone in particular. You may not be the number one preeminent expert on cycling nutrition, or football nutrition, or whatever. But the reality is that, to be a really great practitioner does require those multiple skill sets. Even within the same sport, you've got many different characters, and likes and dislikes, and needs, and so on. And these are the sorts of things that I find fascinating that differentiates, I guess, that tightly, neatly packaged concept of sport and exercise nutritionist or scientist on paper, relative to where we find ourselves in the real world.
So anyway, Aimee, just walk us through how you got to this point in your career. It's easy to say, “Oh, I'm a Man United Women's and so on.” But I mean, as James pointed out in the previous In the Trenches episode, there's a hell of a lot of people getting degrees and specializing in performance nutrition, for example, relative to the amount of actual roles there are particularly at the level that you now find yourself. So how did you get to this point?
[00:10:59] AO: Pretty long-winded answer, but I'll run with it. So I first got into nutrition when I was at undergrad. I’ve done like a sport, exercise nutrition undergrad course. Didn't really know what I wanted to do, as you can imagine, at 18, 19. I actually fled the nest to Dundee. I thought, “Let's go as far away as we can to go to university away from Liverpool.”
[00:11:26] LB: Oh, this way? Wow! Yeah.
[00:11:28] AO: I didn't last too long. Laurent, I lasted eight weeks.
[00:11:31] LB: The weather's too tropical up here.
[00:11:32] AO: Yeah. So then came back, reassess, took the rest of that year out and then decided to go to Liverpool Hope where I studied three years there, lived at home. And then I went into the public health sector. So work for the NHS on child weight management programs, working with overweight children and their families. It was a very rewarding, frustrating job. So I went down that road, but at the same time I was doing like PTN. And I am quite a sporty person. I've always played sports. And it's just a massive interest of mine.
So I was doing PT and alongside working for the NHS. And then doing that for quite a few years. And it wasn't until by accident, you could call it, or coincidence, I got a client who was a young Liverpool Football Club female footballer. And at the time, I think she was about, I'm going to say, 30. Trained together for a year. And then about a year or 18 months into training together, she’d done every single sport you can think of under the sun, cross-country. She was just a super sporty kid. And she got a stress fracture to her back, like a PARS stress fracture. And she was your typical teenager, like skinny, tall, not much meat on the bone type of kids. And she was injured for quite a while.
And at this moment in time, I was not fully invested in the nutrition pathway. I just got me thinking why is she not healing from this injury? And I used to like probe questions. Like I used to see her on a Friday. She used to always get a Chinese on a Friday, which I was happy with at the time. So it was like, “Yeah, silly boots.” I read a little bit more about it. I found out it was really common in teenagers, especially boys of that age. So from there, I just started to read more and find a passion for it really, and then a mutual friend that [inaudible 00:13:28]. So it was one of his best friends I’m friends with. Small Wales, as you can imagine.
[00:13:35] LB: He’s coming on for a podcast tomorrow, Aimee. [inaudible 00:13:36], I know your ears are –
[00:13:41] AO: Yeah, so it was a guy called Steve [inaudible 00:13:43]. He put me in touch with Graham. And I just asked the questions and met up with him and just said, “What is the possibility of the sport nutrition course at John Moores?” And it went from there, really applied. And then that was it. So then, yeah, I ended up with John Moores. Taken eight years out from education, which, I'm sure if you asked [inaudible 00:14:03] my first assignment was not groundbreaking to say the least. I forgot how to reference. Yeah, I felt way out of my depth.
And then it wasn't until I found my feet a little bit. And then, yeah, I was fully on it by Christmas time, because you have to be. I was the more mature students in the group. I think I was the oldest in the class. And I say old, I was probably 28 at the time, 29. So not old by any stretch, but I had like six or seven years and a lot of the students in the class, which, at first, I was quite wary of. But sitting here now, I'm really glad I took that eight years away just to gain life skills and work in jobs that I guess many of the students I was in class with had never done before. It did really help with just being able to have conversations and get to know people on that different level and just speaking about science and nutrition and things like that.
So yeah, from there, amazingly, the sport nutrition course at John Moores provides you with a six-month placement. I decided to apply for – It was called a scholars’ placement based at John Moores with Dr. Carl Langan-Evans. And I thought, “Okay, I've got this placement. I'm happy.” And then I was thinking about applying for the Manchester United placement too. And then at the last minute, I sort of had a doubt and I canceled the interview. I was like, “I’ve got a part time job. I'm studying. I've got one placement. I can't fit another one in.”
And as you can imagine, Graham just sent three words, “Nothing is impossible.” So, emails [inaudible 00:15:43]. He was a performance coach at the time. And I got a second chance, and I was able to go in and have an interview day where you just spend time with the players. And they actually got to vote between two people, which is quite harsh. Myself and another intern called Molly shared the placement so to speak. We were the first ever nutrition interns the corporate had on the women's side. So it was a really new team. And then COVID hit in like the March. So it sort of naturally came to an end in like April, May. And then kept in touch. I treated it as a fulltime job when I was there. I will sit the announcer to give everything to the placement. And I was able to go back in the November of the next season when I'd finished university. And I was funded for one day a week. And then science and sport were the club sponsor at the time. And it was Professor James Morton who kindly pulled strings, and I was able to be funded full time from February of 2020 to the end of the season. So until May. So I was on the ground full time.
And the difference in behaviors, and just everything was massive, because you just there every day. One day a week was just so hard to see changes. And then, I guess, I'll say luckily, again, but I think a lot of it was through hard work. But there's definitely elements of luck. It was the old manager, Casey Stoney, who valued nutrition and really, really pushed the club to employ me full time, which was really, really rare in women's football. So now, yeah, I'm sitting here as a fulltime nutritionist in MWSL, which I'm obviously really proud of. But I'm also very grateful for because I know that that's not really what happens or is what meant to happen when you finish a master's degree.
[00:17:39] LB: That's amazing, Aimee. I mean, look, and there's a lot more to you and what you're up to, and we're going to get into that in a minute. But I think there's a very human element to how you've arrived at where you're at. People use phrases like, “Oh, it’s luck,” or whatever. But of course, you've played a big role in that luck, turning out the way that it has. On your day-to-day basis, you've made decisions. You decided, for one reason or another, to have timeout in the real world and that top shaped and developed who you are. And of course, you realize now that you're working with human beings. And there's a dynamic there that I know, in my own practice, that the fact that I've been out there and, in my case, lived in different countries and done different things and this, that and the other, and had life's experiences of making some pretty big mistakes, huge decisions or whatever. But any human being that you talk to is going to share some of that with you.
So I think that having that under your belt does enable you to communicate and connect and interact with someone. And as a practitioner, particularly in nutrition, of course, where it's a very personal thing what you eat and drink. And as performance nutritionists, we love talking about our feel for the work required and macros and how many grams per kilogram of this, that and the other. But that's sort of the alien language, the geek speak, that we love to talk about, and hear about, and listen about. But the people that we're working with, we have to use a different language, because we want to bring about changes in habits and behaviors and get that buy-in and trust and belief. And that’s going to start off just by having some sort of relationship professional, obviously. But with your players, your athletes, your clients, just to quickly stay on that topic, I mean, you've recently come into that elite team environment. But as you said, this is not your first rodeo in terms of helping people. And it doesn't even have to be as performance nutritionist, as a CrossFit coach, personal trainer, and weight management specialist in the NHS, whatever. How important have you found in your own successes, not just in career development, but in actually bring about successful outcomes with your clients? Has that been that human element, that ability to connect and relate and so on?
[00:20:01] AO: Obviously, I've worked many jobs. I've been a barista in Costa Coffee while studying to working with the NHS in child weight management programs. And I think there's always that human element where you just – My belief is like be kind and show that you care. If you cared about someone, then he’ll buy-in is to say and show that you care, and he’ll care what you know, or something like that. But I do think that's really important. And showing empathy, especially when I was working with families where they didn't have much money. So showing empathy to them, and just being on a level with them and showing that you care. It has massively helped me in my career from eight years ago to now working with one of the best teams in MWSL. It's still the same principles that I apply all the time. And I do think it's really important that you just get to understand they're not athletes. They're just people that are really good at football, or the families who I work with the NHS, they weren't fortunate enough to have things that we sort of expect people to have and the education that we expect people to have, and understanding that and the reasons why. It just massively helps with how you can help them going forward.
[00:21:23] LB: Yeah. We talked about this with James Morehen, and [inaudible 00:21:26], and Charlie Ashford and various others that have done this In the Trenches. And this will come up every time I have these In the Trenches conversations, where this is very much about human-to-human interaction. And I mean, I get messaged all the time on LinkedIn, I think I've mentioned this numerous times now in the past, where people are like, “Oh, how do I get a job in elite sport? How have you done what you've done?” Or, in this case, I'm asking you, “How have you done what you've done?” And you've made it clear. It wasn't a quick journey. And actually, don't try and take the shortcuts to get there. Appreciate the value of all those other things.
And I think that was a great thing that Graham had told you, “Nothing is impossible.” But you do of course, need to have your sights on something. Everyone has different elements of ambition, and motivation, and so on. But what was on your radar? What were you aiming for at the time? I appreciate there was an organic process for you. And you've had some great people around you, obviously. But when you started out on this path, where did you think you were going?
[00:22:28] AO: It’s a good question. I think, with me being a sporty person, by nature, I've always – Like in school, I want to be a PE teacher, because that was the only thing I knew I want to be, or how to get there. So I always wanted to be in sport. I would be lying if I said I thought I would be here. But to be able to be helping people in sport in some capacity. I would say that was definitely a goal. But I didn't have like an exact job role that I set my sight, so on. So yeah, it wasn't nutrition. It was sport, but I wasn't sure.
[00:23:05] LB: But that's important. Because I think it's also – Again, why I keep getting people contacting me about stuff. And one thing I get quite a lot is students still doing their GCSEs, for example, or at that age where they're starting to think about what they're going to do. And they're getting maybe some advice from schools, careers advisors, and or they're looking out. They're going, “Oh, I really want to be Aimee O’Keeffe one day. Or I’m going to be [inaudible 00:23:31],” or whatever. In fact, none of us are particularly well-known in the scheme of things. But that way I want to be working with Ronaldo. I want to work with whoever. It's an obvious allure, isn't it? I mean, you’re like, “Wow!”
But as I said, the reality is there just aren't that many sort of places available. But essentially, a key characteristic is going to have to be at least a desire to want to help people. Or I think there are those people that are obsessed by science, and facts, and so on. And absolutely, you can make a career out of that, particularly, if you want to get into research and so on. I mean, I'm not saying researchers don't have an interest either which way. I'm just saying that that is necessary, one way or the other, to go down that path. And there are going to be things you're going to have to do to build yourself to get there, to get your master’s and then a PhD and so on and so forth.
But the pathway of becoming a practitioner can often be quite organic. So I was person training for years myself. I didn't get into this. I've been doing this stuff for about 30 years. I've only been in elite sort of sport for 10, 12 years. So is there some advice that you would give yourself, the younger Aimee O'Keeffe, going back 10, 12 years or whatever? Is there anything that you would look back at? Or on the other hand, it's sort of a repeat of Graham's statement of nothing is impossible. Maybe don't have too much of a blinkered vision and expectation of where you're going. But maybe uphold some basic principles. I mean, I don't know. What are your thoughts?
[00:25:08] AO: Yeah, I think if going back 10 years ago, I think by nature and from seeing like how hobby moms worked when I was younger, I think I've always had that instilled in me that like graphed in hardware. I'll never be the brightest person in the class. But I know our work the hardest. That's one thing I sort of do by myself on.
So I think going back 10 years, like I wasn't [inaudible 00:25:30] if I was working in Costa Coffee, because I knew that it was serving a purpose. I know I wasn't in a rush. I think if I would have went straight from undergrad to masters, I don't think I'd be sitting here. Definitely not. I wouldn't have those life skills. I don't think I'd be the type of nutritionist that I am at the minute.
See, I just think if I was going back to when I was 18, just be open to whatever happens next in your path. If you like everything happens for a reason. And never say no to opportunities, because you just never know where they will lead genuinely.
[00:26:10] LB: What about football, though? We be both obviously, have had and have interesting experiences within football, which, face it, it's a crazy world. Absolutely, crazy nuts, but immensely exciting. And just the sheer depth to it are just mind boggling, which is why it fascinates a huge percentage of people on this planet. It’s just crazy. I mean, you could go anywhere in the world, Aimee, anywhere, and mention Man United, for example, absolutely anywhere, would know roughly where you're at and the team and so on. Okay, they might be more familiar with the men's team. But in a matter of time, that'll extend because, of course – And I want to talk about this in a minute. The fact that women's football is just going from strength to strength, not just in the UK, but internationally. But what is it about football, though, that makes you want to be there?
[00:27:04] AO: I've played it since I was four. My granddad used to take me to football training on a Saturday morning with all the boys. I just loved it. And my family a big [inaudible 00:27:12] fans, which is it's been a really sad life for me to be honest. I’m hoping times will change. But I don't know. I don't want to spend too much time thinking about it. But yeah, we're a football family. And that is the sport in Liverpool. It's not rugby. It's football. So that's where the passions came from. And then I've never wanted – Like, I am always, in the back of my mind, I'm like, “Oh, I don't want to be a one trick pony and just be in football forever,” because I think it's really important to learn other sports.
But obviously, the placement for Manchester United opportunity came up while I was at university. I was like, “I would be so silly not to like – It's not Everton, but it's Manchester United.” And, yeah, that's where it came from. And it was just a no brainer. It's just something that I've played. And then I played off until I went back to university because something had to give. I couldn't spend that extra plate to be honest. But now, I wouldn't be able to play it anyway, because my weekends are dedicated to the team. So [inaudible 00:28:12].
[00:28:13] LB: Sure. Yeah. Well, look, look. Now, look, it's a no brainer. It will forever benefit you in your career. And I think the listeners here will be going, “Oh, that lucky bugger.” I’m glad you’ve explained. It's not actually a case of luck. You’ve had to work your ass off, clearly, to get where you're at. And at the end of the day, when the dice go a certain way, the cards present themselves however, which way you want to think it, when you do get that opportunity, though, it isn't luck, that got you through the interview, that got you selected. And obviously, there are a number of essential characteristics that had to be there. What would you say those essential characteristics were, in your case, that you feel? And sometimes this is difficult to say why you got a job or why you have someone else. But you're obviously proud. You said you're proud to be where you're at. But what do you think of those essential characteristics that you are the right girl for that job?
[00:29:07] AO: I feel like I'm a very committed person. So I'm hoping that shows day to day and it showed when the girls voted that day. I feel like I have got like good soft skills I can interact with. I'd like to think I can speak to anybody no matter what the background. And from the master's degree, and I know I won't be the first person to speak highly of James and Graham, it was just the messages that we used to say over and over again of be a good person and get to know the individual first. Like it doesn't matter what you know, because they will never be interested in what you know if you don't know them, or you don't even try to ask questions about like not things about football, just their life, or what they’re doing at the weekends. And yeah, I just feel like I can speak to people on a normal level. And I don't feel like that is something that I've had to work harder. I feel like it's something that comes natural. And I know it doesn't for some people. So I do appreciate that.
But yeah, I think having soft skills, and being kind, and showing that you care, going that extra mile. I think I'm guilty of doing it too much where the girls need to start doing a bit more themselves. But yeah, I think it's always the way in football. But yeah, and I think being able to just adapt and spin 400 plates at once. As you know, like being a nutritionist, obviously, I appreciate that. I've got a fulltime role. But I have other roles as well as I know you do, and the likes of James Morehen and everyone else. So yeah, being adaptable and working hard, and being really good with your time.
[00:30:44] LB: Yeah, just give it your all, right? And just accept that there are going to be issues, but you got to learn how to take things on the chin and actually learn from them, don't you?
[00:30:52] AO: Yeah. I hadn't had any – like a predecessor. So I had no one before me perform a nutrition work at the club. So I didn't know whether I was doing it right. After I left university, after those no supervisor one-to-ones ended at John Moores, I didn't know whether to do it or not. But I've just done it. Some things paid off. Some things didn't. But yeah, I guess you just got to take chances. And I think with a sport like this, I think you can, as long as the safe chances. But as long as you reflect on them and be like that, “Wow! Never ever do that again.” Or, “You know what? I think there could be success here,” then, yeah, just be confident in yourself and roll with it.
[00:31:37] LB: It's great. There are similarities to what you're saying to the other guests I've had on in various stages of their career. And there's this common theme. But I think at the end of the day, you just got to accept that you're a human being. You're working with other humans. I think everyone makes allowances for that as long as you keep trying to do the right things for the right reasons, right? With a sense of integrity, and honesty. And we all will be given our answers as long as we do actually make an effort.
And I think some of the practitioners that don't do so well, or find themselves not being re selected for their roles or whatever is not necessarily because they don't have the right kind of resume on paper as it relates to what degrees and qualifications they've got, which does seem to be an obsession for some people. And don't get me wrong. It's obviously an important thing. You have to have the right training, education and knowledge. They're like keys to get you through doors and so on. But you should never underestimate your own personal characteristics. And it's that area of soft skills and those personal traits that I love to highlight in these sessions, because these are the things you don't get to a university. How could you? You will get them. And in your case, with James and Graham and the many others that you have in that environment have all played obviously a great role in your own growth development. And so on James and Graham, I mean, that they're on the first ever podcast I did. And those guys –
[00:33:04] AO: They’re showing their age then, Laurent? Aren’t they?
[00:33:06] LB: I know. [inaudible 00:33:08]. That's what we used to call them [inaudible 00:33:09]. And then they developed. So neither of them were professors back then. So it's kind of interesting. And of course, they contributed a lot to our program at the IOPN. And so I'm just grateful one way or the other. But there are hundreds of others out there as well. Awesome experts, professors, and so on that I've been lucky enough to talk to you.
But let's get back to your role as a performance nutritionist. I was fine. So back in the day – Well, you're either a nutritionist, or a dietitian, or a sports nutritionist. And we've got this title performance nutritionist, which is much more recent. And I much prefer it because a performance nutritionist allows for the fact that you're involved in performance, human performance, but not necessarily in a football or an athletic environment. It could be corporate. It could be anywhere where the human being has to perform at their best. And that's what I find exciting about what we do, is that our work in enabling optimum health and performance in high-achieving physically, or otherwise, individuals, makes our scope of practice really quite exciting and fascinating. But also, we shouldn't be limiting it to being a one trick pony, like you just talked about.
And of course, I realize you now have this “fulltime role”, but you still are doing other things. And that is a reality for us as performance nutritionists. Just tell us a bit about some of the other things that you're up to, and how maybe they integrate to make each side of these things maybe work a bit better. And then we are going to come out and talk a bit about your role as a performance nutritionist in the football world, because that I think will be very interesting.
[00:34:47] AO: Yeah. So the private work that I do, like you mentioned a little bit earlier on, it's your average Joe gym goer to your working class mom who is balancing, having two kids, working fulltime, trying to get to the gym, trying to eat healthy. So it's obviously different ends of the spectrum. But I think working with both is really important. So that's on a group level that I do at the minute, just like small groups at the minute. I'm running a group program until the end of this month. And it's pure nutrition basics. Just focused on habits and just massively hitting them with education, because I think you can give anyone a meal plan. I'm sure you've heard this a million times. But that's the first thing someone will ask you for if you’ve got a meal plan. And I’m like, “No.” Because by the end of the month or whatever, I want you to be able to build your own, just by knowing what to choose, if you go out in a social situation and you're not going to know what to get. So I'm quite stubborn on that.
And then I also do some freelance work with Liverpool Women's Academy through the diet program. So that's more like workshops and one-to-ones. And just focused on [inaudible 00:36:00]. So far this season, really, that can have the biggest impact. And also, halftime, what are they doing at halftime? So yeah, I guess all of them together, as well as like working as a fitness coach. Because I've got a sporting background and enjoy the gym and, I guess, I used to be a bit of an athlete myself. But I'd sort of takeaway that's term now. I just like to train hard. But understanding how to move in the gym, and what different movements are, the names of them, and being able to spot someone on the bench press in the gym at United. It just really helps with – Because sometimes they ask me, like, “How do you do this?” And I'm like, “Okay, I can show you.” I'm glad I've got that background, because I can – It's like another string to the bow, really.
[00:36:46] LB: It’s funny, isn’t it? We talk about sports nutrition, sport and exercise science, or fitness or whatever. And particularly, I guess, when you've done your degrees in master’s and so on, it's very easy to get stuck into evidence-based science and whatever. But ultimately, a lot of this just comes down to education, particularly on very basic things, because most people can't grasp the basics, or they've been influenced by social media fads, fallacies, or whatever to focus not on the basics, but on crazy things like cutting out certain food groups, or having cups of coffee with tons of lard stuck in it, or certain fat-burning supplements or whatever. I mean, just talk to us about your approach to education. You do group coaching, and also the team that you work with as a group, how do you approach that? Because one on one is one thing. But when you've got a whole bunch of people, how do you approach that?
[00:37:46] AO: With the work at United, I've tried to – I do think group work is impactful. I think there's things that the whole group do need to know. But I personally like them to feel like individuals in a team. So I'm always conscious that I will have conversations on their own, or like I'm just starting to implement, like, mid-season reviews, and then the season like sort of – And I say review. It will be like an informal chat where I just note down a few bits of information and try and just keep it quite light-hearted so then they're getting that individualized approach as well as the week after they might be sitting in a group and working in small groups, but with one goal. So yeah, I think it's important to combine the two. I guess you can't just throw one sheet over everyone and be like, “You're all the same.”
[00:38:38] LB: And some people need more help than others, don't they? Realistically, if you give everyone 5% of your time, it's not necessarily going to work, is it? Whereas some people are much more in need of help. And I guess you need to have your eyes and ears open to that, don't you? Have you spoke to those that need more help than others?
[00:38:55] AO: Yeah, I think quite good. Really, with players at United, they've got a relationship where they will just openly come and ask, like, “I don't understand what you're sort of asking me to do there. Or I don't really know what this is.” So that's quite good. But I know there's some players that I know that I can just leave. Like you don't need me to keep packing the heads all the time. Because I'd like to think over the past, I'd say, 18 months that we've had a decent amount of education. Obviously, it can always be more. And time is always an issue. But yeah, I'm confident that there's a few players that I can leave be for a while and just touch base sometimes, or just a chat. But then it could be more of like the younger players coming through from the academy, which I’ve found. There's a couple that have came through over the past year. And if everyone comes through like them, like this job is going to be amazing in the next like 5 to 10 years, because they’ve been super coachable.
[00:39:53] LB: Or great legacy. I mean, you must be proud of that.
[00:39:56] AO: Honestly, the blew me away. And its credit to them for sorts of trusting someone new who they didn't know. I've asked them to eat more and they’ve done it. And especially that age, coming from academy, I guess earlier than 18, like start on about like that 16 age up until you know even whatever age, up until now, I think there's that body image change in perception, which is something that I'm really interested in, I think. I think I'm going off on a bit of a tangent here. But yeah, I think that change of perception of body image, if you're asking female football players to eat more carbs, eat more calories, fuel more. And then they're like, “No. I don’t want to get fat.” Like I want to go out with my mates and I want to look good in a dress or things like that. So I think, personally, for me, I want to explore that avenue way more of why we're not hitting six grams per kilo every month. Why aren't we doing it? And I do feel from my time at Manchester United and other experiences, I think it is – Some of it is a body image issue.
[00:41:02] LB: They're humans, aren’t they? I joke about this a lot. But in my work, I’ve only ever worked with male football players, but particularly at the level that I’ve been working at lately, there is a propensity there. So when a goal is scored, there's a few dramatic antics on the pitch involving taking the shelf. And they do do that. And I’ve had so many conversations with players who are so concerned about how the nutrition strategy might be great for performance. But they are worried that it's going to affect how they look with their shirt off, whether it's after scoring a goal, or on holiday, or whatever. They are human beings. And I think you lose sight sometimes. We sort of pigeonhole them into being sort of a robot, "You're a player. You're an athlete." No, you're a human being.
[00:41:48] AO: Yeah, I think it's definitely an area that I want to explore more. How to do that at the minute, I don't know. But I think I heard – It might have been when Dr. James Morehen was on your podcast last time, and he said what he said in the past where until the England National Team, until every player hits six grams per kilo, like they're not going to win a tournament. And it can be the same for you know a WSL game on the weekends. And what are those limiting factors? And I do feel one of them is body image more so in females. Oh, well, obviously I’ve not worked in male sport.
[00:42:18] LB: I think you're right. Yeah.
[00:42:19] AO: I think maybe more like prevalent in females, yeah.
[00:42:22] LB: Yeah. No, it's fascinating. Of course, there are consequences to that. Body image is – This isn't just with football. This isn't anything where people are cutting out food groups or under-eating to the extent that they're in that relative energy deficiency problem. And I’ve had numerous guests on to talk about the science of that. But managing that is a difficult one, isn't it? And of course, you do have to be part nutritionist, part psychologist, part friend. In terms of that relationship with a player, with a client, with an athlete, inevitably you're going to have some people who will just blur out their concerns to you. But then there's others you've got to break down some barriers. Have there been some interesting experiences in that regard, obviously without saying names? But, you know.
[00:43:09] AO: Yeah. There's been a few conversations in the past couple years where there's players and people that have had really – Well, very different types of diets where they've restricted and only, I say in sweet or chocolate bar one day, or at another diet where they've done something else. Or because of maybe in the past they've been told or they've heard the comment where they're overweight, and that's just stuck with them. So that body confidence and perception of how they look and how they feel is that a massive negative impact on then like nutrition behavior.
So yeah, I think nutrition is so complicated. And that is one thing I always say first to the girls. And I say nutrition is so complicated. And for one person, it will be so easy. And I can ask them and they will do whatever I ask them. But for someone else, there's so many things going on in their mind where they're like, "No, I can't do that right now." And there's still players that I haven't cracked. And I always look to my face and I’m like, "What can I do different? How can I approach them?"
But yeah, there's a lot of barriers to just forget about eating carbs. Just eating enough food in general. So yeah, I think there's a lot of work to be done. And how I do that, it'll be a lot of different ways. But I’m not too sure with some people at the minute. But we'll get there.
[00:44:40] LB: Yeah. Well, at the end of the day, that's why you've got to turn up and talk to people, but also be approachable, haven't you? Because at the end of the day, you can't be spread that thing. Sometimes you have to leave it up to people to come up to you. And I guess if you present yourself as an unavailable, unapproachable person, that's going to be a major barrier to you achieving success in that scenario, isn't it?
[00:45:03] AO: Yeah, and I guess it's like I’ll be naive to think I’m approachable to every single person in the team. Obviously, some people that would like to speak to me more than others. And that's just life. But some cases, may be bigger than me. It might need to go external. Like some of them are probably cases that I can't deal with and it's above my capacity. I’d love to, but it could be more of a psychosocial type issue. So there's that element where you do need to pass things on and things do need to go external to help even more, I guess.
[00:45:36] LB: Yeah. I mean that's an interesting point, which we make a big deal with our own students. And I fundamentally am aware of my scope of practice nowadays in my practice. And it's very understandable that you want to do everything and try and help people with everything. But you need to know the limits of your knowledge and expertise. But also, the value of outsourcing, referring to a specialist. For example, I know a fair amount about relative energy deficiency and so on. But absolutely, once I see that, I will refer them to a specialist dietitian or a specialist doctor who that is their area of expertise. And I feel very good about myself for having connected them with that specialist, because it is a difficult journey to go with. And it's not within my scope of practice.
So I think having those connections around you and finding specialists can be a two-way process, particularly for those people that are wondering how to build and develop their own practice. The fact that you know when to refer to someone else will also engage a process where someone else is going to refer back to you as well. Build your referral.
[00:46:44] AO: Yeah, yeah, definitely.
[00:46:46] LB: And you don't have them all within the team. Yes, there's a club doctor or doctors, but they're very limited in time. And sometimes you have to go out and find people. Like you say, in your scenario, it's a new-ish thing particularly in women's football. You're sort of starting from scratch, aren't you?
[00:47:02] AO: Mm-hmm. Yeah, definitely.
[00:47:03] LB: So, Aimee, we've been talking for almost an hour. It's amazing. There're so many things we can talk about. But very selfishly, I just wanted to come back to the fact that you did mention that you use SENPRO. And that is something that we have built and developed, and we continued to build and develop as a tool to aid practitioners in working with their clients and developing their practice and so on. And just interested to briefly hear about your experiences since you use it in your own practice.
[00:47:31] AO: Yeah. I think Sean could correct me on this. But I think I was maybe one of the first people that signed off, to be honest. I was like pecking this out at the beginning because I was sort of ready to have some kind of hub and like base. So I’ve really enjoyed the platform. I think it's easy to navigate around. Now it's got an app. Like, from a member's perspective, it's way better than having just a login on the website. If you can scroll through Instagram for two minutes, you can scroll through SENPRO and tick off your habits and reply to my messages.
I’m a real fan of the platform. And I think it'll only go from strength to strength. And I’ve done quite a few groups on it now. This is obviously the first one in 2022. And I’d like to think that I can continue to do them every couple months if the demand's there. But it's just a nice thing –
[00:48:22] LB: What [inaudible 00:48:22] are you using, by the way? I mean, when you talk about groups.
[00:48:26] AO: So going back to – Yeah, I’d say last year, in the summertime, there were groups of 30. But now I’d say the average – So it went from like 30, then like 22-ish. But then now, I personally never have – I’ve never not done too much marketing over Christmas, because I took a bit of a break. But I’ve got 11 people on this one now. And I just think it's a nice sort of entry back into getting back into group work and private work. So I’m happy with the number really.
[00:48:56] LB: And what's interesting about that type of work is that, obviously, when you're working with your players at Man United, you have to be in Manchester for the most part and/or have elements of that relationship with face-to-face. And of course, you can then bridge the gap in time and convenience by then interacting with them on whatever mechanisms you use, whether it's something like SENPRO, or WhatsApp, or email, or text, or whatever. But you and many others have developed these amazing practices where you're working with clients essentially anywhere in the world, which is a great thing about technology nowadays. You're not limited to who's in your postcode. How do you find that? How have you found that?
[00:49:38] AO: Yeah. I think it's good for when you're on the go. I think lockdown really helped with bringing this together. Like I would have never run a group session before lockdown. I think, for me, with COVID hitting, like I lost my job like in a gym. So I didn't have any income. So I sort of pressed fast-forward on launching my own business. Like, personally, I don't feel I was ready. But everything happens for a reason. And you just got to think on your feet. So I just started to do 30 days of commitment, I call it. I just done it as a feeler, and having everything in the central hub. Because I used to do groups where it was a Facebook group and it was too clunky, whereas this is just so smooth. And I couldn't really think of ever going back to a nutrition Facebook group or something similar.
[00:50:27] LB: Yeah. Yea, that's so 2000's and not 2020.
[00:50:32] AO: I know.
[00:50:32] LB: But that's great. As I said at the beginning, is the fact that you can wake up on a different day each week, and you've got your private practice, you've got some of your coaching in the gym if COVID allows us to do such things. And also, you have your work with your football players. And presumably, that makes your week more interesting to you. I mean, your own satisfaction, mental health, etc,. has to be something that is an important aspect of being a functional not just human being, but a functional practitioner, right?
[00:51:06] AO: No. That's correct. And making that as easy and manageable as possible makes my life easier, makes full-time role at United run smoother, because I’m not having to worry about, I don't know, being back to meet a client at five o'clock to talk about carbohydrates or something. But it's just moving with the times. And yeah, I’m happy to have access to it and have it [inaudible 00:51:32] really. And I just think as the way the world's going with social media and everyone being on the phones all the time, it is a bad thing, but it's a good thing for things like this. Because like I said before, if someone can spend 10 minutes a day scrolling through Twitter and Instagram, then they can take two minutes to check th SENPRO notifications.
[00:51:52] LB: Yeah. No, no, no. Well, look, it's exciting, isn't it? I mean, I feel like a dinosaur. I sort of come from the black and white days of everything is face to face, manual and so on, and the evolution of our profession is just mind-boggling. But it's so exciting. I remain excited about where this field is going and my own small partner, of course. And for yourself, if you're to think forwards now sort of 10, 15 years, have you got any idea where you think you might want to go? You just see what happens and enjoy the process?
[00:52:25] AO: Yeah, I think I wouldn't want to like jinx anything at the minute. I think, deep down, and I’ve said this openly to people in conversation, there is something in me that feels a little bit unfulfilled, because I haven't done a PhD. And if you would have asked me about that during my master's, I would have laughed and just been like, "No. Never ever in my life might be one of them." But I think taking, obviously, time away from academia and finding interests within your full-time role and where you see potential gaps in the research, I think I would like to get on board with a PhD.
[00:53:04] LB: There's no rush, is there? There is no rush.
[00:53:07] AO: No, there's no rush.
[00:53:08] LB: I think you've proven yourself. There's been benefits in those gaps. Allow yourself to do what you do. And it's like I did a professional doctorate. I mean, I wouldn't have been able to do that if I hadn't had many years of experience and things to reflect upon. It's not just a straight you do your degree master's, PhD, whatever. As a practitioner, that's probably not the most useful pathway. And James Morehen talked about that in detail in the last episode. And then there are a lot of very successful practitioners who don't have PhDs or ripped off prof docs or even master's degrees actually. I would hope for people to feel that that's essential. But in your case, that is an opportunity that is absolutely in front of you. And one day, I imagine, you'll be sitting on this side of the microphone or the other side –
[00:53:57] AO: [inaudible 00:53:57].
[00:53:58] LB: Professor O'Keeffe. You never know, do you? I think, again, if we leave it on – Well, there's one thing I want to come back to, but it is the nothing is impossible comment, which I think is awesome. But look, we're going to run out of time here. People are going to go nuts if I didn't ask you just a bit more of an insight as to what your day day-to-day or week-to-week life is like as a performance nutritionist at Man United. I mean, you turn up, drive there, walk there. You're there. What happens when you get there? What's it like?
[00:54:29] AO: Oh, God! [inaudible 00:54:30]. There's never any two days is that the same. Like I didn't expect to be doing – Well, I don't know. I think your perception of a role is so different until you're actually in a club. And I end up doing every single job. And I’m fine with it. I’ll always muck in. Like we haven't got the biggest staff group. So we've got this culture where everyone helps everyone.
[00:54:57] LB: Team behind the team, right?
[00:54:58] AO: Team behind the team. Yeah. So I’ve gone from, I don't know, filling hot water bottles up on a match day to – I can't actually think. To be honest, like setting up the half time nutrition trays. And, well, yeah, I think like day to day, we've got a bit of a unique space. So we eat in the same room where we have like analysis and a meeting, because we're in the middle of changing venues. So everything happens in one room. So it's just carnage. So one morning I can be helping the catering girl put the dishes in the dishwasher, because there's no one to do it. And then next minute I’m having a chat with a player about how they felt on the weekend and putting things in place to make sure that they've got everything they need to be fueled. And I think my approach, since I got here, was that sort of availability of food. So if it's in their eyesight, they're more likely to reach for it. So we've gone from, I don't know, putting bread in the middle of the tables pre-COVID, to now having a lot of snacks in the porter cabin where we're at. And it doesn't help staff if we're trying to eat well. Put it that way.
My approach was let's just have a lot of things around, because we came from such a low-carb culture before I started, and a real carbohydrate fear and a real under-fuelling issue. To pushing – Like my message is like confidence in carbohydrates, like fuel to win. Just fill in the fridges with things or having a budget, which is really good. I know it's quite rare with some teams. And having the ability to order things and make sure that there's – I don't know, energy bars, Jaffa Cakes, different types of fruit pots. We even have brownies and cookies sometimes, because we've still mending what was before. So you could pick up like my nutrition philosophy and move it and put it into Chelsea and it would not work. But it works at the minute for where we're at for this group of players. They've made amazing progress. We've done a lot of – I’ve done a lot of research in the team. We've done like a match day minus one like nutrition analysis. We've done a half time analysis. And focused on carbohydrates and reduce that fear. That was my main priority when I started the job. And it still is now.
[00:57:28] LB: Well [inaudible 00:57:28], isn't it? I mean, there's so much to do. It takes years to get to whatever state of perfection, right? And then anyway, you've got a new manager and a location, everything changes. It's like eat, sleep, repeat, rinse, whatever, isn't it? That's just what's going to happen. But there's so much to what you're going to do on a day-to-day basis. I just think that you illustrated it well with the fact that, as I said at the beginning, it's going to be different per person different location job scenarios. It's highly context-dependent, which is my favorite term. Context is going to be actually everything, which is why I’m going to be having dozens of these In the Trenches conversations with people doing on paper kind of the same roles. But it's so not the same thing. And that's why I and all the listeners, Aimee, are going to be extremely grateful for the time that you've given us today with all those spinning plates still spinning around you. You've done a brilliant job. And looking forward to seeing you continue to further develop, and grow, and impact the individuals, and the teams, and the players, and everyone. So, well done. And thank you so much for today, Aimee.
[00:58:37] AO: I really appreciate it. I’ve listened to this podcast since I was studying in my master's. And I never ever thought I’d be on this side. It's a bit strange. But, no. I’m very grateful that you provided the opportunity.
[00:58:48] LB: Oh, no. The privilege is mine. Yeah. No, no, no. Look, there are a lot of people that listen, but there's a lot of people that were potentially, you, 10, 15 years ago, me, 40 years ago, whatever. And look, we're all in it together, aren't we? That's what I like to think that we're doing with these podcasts. So well, that's it. Thank you so much, Aimee. And I look forward to catching up with you again at another time.
[00:59:11] AO: Oh, thank you very much. Thank you very much.
[00:59:13] LB: Yeah, yeah. Take care.