A conversation with Matt Frakes, director of sports nutrition

Matthew Frakes

Matt Frakes, the new director of sports nutrition, is a self-described foodie with a passion for sports. His athletic experience goes back to his high school and college days on the gridiron. His culinary skills have their origin in home cooking, with a little help from a high school class taught by a teacher affectionately known as “Mama Walski.” The first in his immediate family to go to college and one of a very few people of color in his profession, Frakes has taught healthy eating and cooking to youths in the cities where he has studied and lived.

Today, he continues to mentor those who find themselves on the same career path. He brings his doctorate in nutrition and hospitality management with his credentials as a registered dietitian-nutritionist to Notre Dame. He also holds certifications as a strength and conditioning specialist and a level one anthropometrist. Frakes joined the sports performance team at Notre Dame at the end of May, where he is the lead team dietitian for the football program and supervises nutrition for student-athletes in the other 25 sports programs.

Matt Frakes Fast Facts

Matt Frakes wearing camoflauge ND t-shirt
Favorite Dish
Steak, grilled or in an iron skillet, medium done. I also like making my own Mexican American dishes, but enjoy traditional dishes.
Must-have tool in the kitchen
It has to be a rubber spatula because you can either flip or scoop things with it.
Go-to exercise
I do a lot of resistance training — a lot of strength training. It's very important for reducing muscle loss as we get older. It's beneficial in helping us age well.
Favorite non-sport activity
Going on hikes. Also cooking and reading.
Favorite sport to watch
Favorite sport to play
Favorite thing to do with family and friends
Spending time with my wife, Kassandra, and my son, Kingston. No matter how tired I am, we'll figure out what to do to have fun.
Personal mantra for fitness and nutrition
Love pain to achieve glory.

How did you come to be a dietitian?

Honestly, I didn't know what a dietitian was. I wanted to be a chef, but the university I attended didn’t have culinary arts. So I picked the next best thing that I had to do with food. Being a dietitian was a career and a skill set. So I went in that direction. I started taking the courses — chemistry, biochemistry and everything it entailed. I fell in love with it. And then I found out you can get a position in athletics as a sports dietitian. I could work with food and stay in athletics. I said, “Sign me up. I’m there.”

What does the role of director of sports nutrition encompass?

My role involves being the lead team dietitian for the football program, as well as managing the nutrition department and how we service all our other student-athletes.

What is it that you and your staff do for student-athletes?

We ensure that we have the product necessary for the athlete to be fueled for performance and recovery for their day-to-day purposes, whether it’s academic or in training for practice or for competition. We make sure our athletes understand how to adequately give their bodies the nourishment they need to be successful, on and off the field, whatever their field of play is. We also hold consultations and individual assessments with our athletes.

How do you educate your athletes?

We have our social media page, Irish Fuel. We conduct team talks — training sessions at the beginning or end of the practice — whenever it is best for any of our staff to teach our athletes a topic of the day. We send out little notes and tidbits and objectives to their phones. We have handouts and signage around the fueling stations as well, with little tips of the day or tips of the week. In this way they can have continuing education on how to better provide fuel for the body, to get what it needs to perform and recover.

How do you assess what the team or the athlete needs?

We have a plan for the year. We have a plan for the month and the seasons of the athlete’s sport. There’s off-season and preseason. We have to consider all of those different phases of the year, and where the athlete needs to be for their goals, to be at their best health, and where the team needs them to be to be successful.

I see that you did your graduate research on concussion prevention and intervention. How have you brought that knowledge to your position here?

We communicate and assess the athlete to make sure that the athlete is eating throughout that injury, and provide the adequate supplementation to support concussion recovery — to ensure that recovery is taking place in the most optimal form and at the highest peak. Appetite suppression is a common symptom of concussions. We coach and guide that athlete to ensure they are eating and are getting adequate nutrients needed for the cells to recover and get the energy they need to recover.

How are meals prepared for the athletes?

We work with campus dining and chef Matt Seitz on the football training table — essentially where our football program eats after they get done with their day at the Gug [Guglielmino Athletic Complex]. They eat their meals according to recovery and to prepare for the next day.

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Do the athletes eat on their own?

Yes. Part of my job is to educate them and help them optimize making the right selection on their own. It’s my job to get them to care enough to make those selections, to paint the picture of what they need to eat and when and why they need to eat that meal. We try to coordinate with their academic schedules. A lot of times they just don’t know when to eat based on their schedule. It’s my job to help them see the picture, when they can eat and what selection to choose to make sure that they’re meeting their calorie and nutrient needs.

That’s interesting, what you said about them not knowing when to eat.

They’re overwhelmed. We ask a lot of our student-athletes, especially here at Notre Dame, one of the best and most prestigious academic institutions in the entire world, not just the country. Pair that with how we expect them to compete at their best, to bring in their respective championship in their respective sports. We demand a lot out of them. So we try to support them, so they feel supported — so they feel like they can ask somebody for help along the way.

Do you go out to athletic practices? 

I am out there. In order to know my athletes, I’ve got to see how they react to certain scenarios. I’ve been there before as a Division I athlete at Bowling Green State University and I definitely know what they’re going through. I love to be present because you really get a true picture of how their bodies are reacting to the stressor. I can also tell whether or not they are adequately fueled or maybe running into a rut or running into fatigue sooner than what’s expected for that body to do in that typical session.

It sounds like relationship is key.

Relationships are very important, especially food. Food is personal. You have different cultures, different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different ways of viewing food. You have to work with the athlete on how to adjust and change. We have people from all over the world. So, they have to get kind of adjusted to our style of eating. We make sure that they are making the right decisions and are adapting to those adjustments.

Photos by Barbara Johnston, University of Notre Dame