Matt Jones discusses his role as a sports nutritionist at West Ham, using education to affect behaviour change and how managers are the industry’s “cultural architects”; “When I first started out, I was there to help people lose weight. Now it’s about fine-tuning athletes”
Matt Jones has been working as a sports nutrition consultant for West Ham since June 2019
When Matt Jones tore his cruciate ligament twice before the age of 20, any hopes of a career as an elite sportsman went out of the window.
Luckily for him, the silver lining was right before his eyes. The industry was not cut off to him forever.
“During the second period of recovery, I started reading about nutrition because I was being treated by physiotherapists, strength and conditioning coaches and even had discussions with psychologists, but no-one ever told me what to eat,” he tells Sky Sports.
“I then found myself gaining weight quite rapidly as I was going from an incredibly high energy expenditure to an incredibly low energy expenditure while being on crutches.
“I became fascinated by the impact of nutrition on health, performance, recovery and injury as well. In those days – around 15 years ago – sports nutrition wasn’t really a thing, so I went on to do an undergraduate degree in sports science, which was fairly broad and generic, and then went on to do a masters in nutrition science, because that sports science degree really hammered home that sports nutrition was the thing I was interested in.”
David Moyes’ Hammers have recorded two top-seven finishes and reached the Europa League semi-final during Jones’ time in east London
As he has built a reputation for himself over the past decade, Jones has worked in Brazil, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the USA, but, since the summer of 2019, he has been working as a sports nutrition consultant in the Premier League with West Ham.
He spends two days a week at the Hammers’ Rush Green training ground, working as part of the performance and medical team. So what exactly does the role involve?
“I like to spend time in various areas that nutrition can impact,” he explains. “What I’ll often do is a theoretical session as a group, which can be like a traditional lesson with presentation. Sometimes, I’ll record a video and share it with the group.
“That will be the first week of a month-long cycle and the second week would be more of a practical applied session, which could be in the dining room. We could be talking about carbohydrates as fuel and how you have a little petrol tank in your muscle that fills up when you eat carbohydrates and, when you do any intense action, the petrol tank drops.
“So after 70-75 minutes of intense action in football, for instance, the petrol tank is completely empty and that’s when players will experience fatigue. Consuming more carbohydrates in the days leading up to the game is going to ensure that petrol tank is full. In the dining room, I would point out the different carbohydrate options and talk about serving sizes and that kind of thing.
“In the third week, I would probably be out on the grass with players, pointing out intense actions, i.e. you’ve just done a 10m sprint, so your petrol tank has just dropped by x per cent. That is an opportunity to think about how to get fast fuel on board at half-time or during breaks in play, such as gels, or taking on carbohydrates to top up those fuel tanks.
“The next month I’ll take another topic and go through the same process.
“Recovery is also a big component of what I do. If you imagine a pyramid of importance, the foundation would probably be sleep. The second layer would likely be nutrition, re-fuelling, repairing damaged muscle, reducing inflammation and rehydrating.
“We try and encourage players to make rehydration the first priority as soon as they wake up. You can get mildly dehydrated in your sleep, but we don’t want them to wake up in the middle of the night and start drinking.
“Before their big toe hits planet Earth in the morning, they need to drink 500ml of water, for instance. One of the first signs of dehydration is general lethargy and fatigue. That’s the first basic behaviour we need to instil in players.”
In the grand scheme of things, the idea of focusing on nutrition and its impact on performance and recovery – among many other aspects – in football is still very much in its infancy. “When I first started out, I was there to help people lose weight. Now it’s about fine-tuning athletes,” says Jones.
As a result, his work is, at this stage, very much based upon education. And to be able to educate successfully, there must be a buy-in from the players themselves.
“Buy-in is huge,” he adds. “That ultimately stems from the relationship you build with the players and the trust you build.
“Behaviour change requires three key things; opportunity, motivation and capability. The opportunities come out of the environment, education and, in some cases, persuasion. Motivation is the reason for doing it. Capability is giving them the skills and shaping the environment to change those behaviours.
“In the early days, I realised I needed to have a strong philosophy that I could come back to all the time, almost like a litmus test. My philosophy is simple, meaningful and with purpose.
“I was fortunate enough to go and work in Brazil with Flamengo and they had no idea what I was talking about, so I quickly realised everything has to be simplified and it also had to be in the language of football and food as well. Rather than talking about 30g of protein, you have to talk in the language of food and say one chicken breast or one salmon fillet.
“Players in Brazil just want to play football, so it had to be in the language of football as well, so that carbohydrate is going to allow you to run for 10 minutes more and play football for 10 minutes longer.
“There is a much greater emphasis and much greater appreciation for the impact of nutrition nowadays. There are role models within clubs and outside of clubs within football in general, like Cristiano Ronaldo, for example. Back in the day, nutrition could change body weight slightly, but now people really understand the true impact of nutrition.
“Now I have 18, 19-year-olds – even 16-year-olds – that are coming and asking how they can eat better to enhance their performance. You then have more time to help them because you can help instil new behaviours and new habits at a really young age that are going to put them in a really good place going forward.
“That has also come from ex-players becoming coaches. They have experienced working with sports nutritionists, felt the difference themselves, started to value it and then started to apply within the clubs they now manage. They are cultural architects.”
Intriguingly, the work does not stop at the end of the working day for Jones. “It’s a good job I love what I do because the WhatsApp messages start around 4-5pm!” he quips.
Players are left to their own devices the second they leave the training ground, or the stadium after a match, with many hiring private chefs to prepare their meals from within the comfort of their own homes.
It is his relationships with these individuals, often forged out-of-hours, that can prove pivotal to cementing the work he and his colleagues have undertaken earlier in the day.
“We’re in direct contact most weeks, if not most days because they are a really important part in us delivering our nutrition plans and interventions to players.
“We have a list of club-approved chefs, but, ultimately, it’s down to the players because the chefs will have specific cuisines they specialise in, so we try and link them up that way. Sometimes it’s a restaurant-standard chef, sometimes it’s a Michelin star chef. They will literally go to their house, sometimes every evening, and cook for them.
“Salmon is always a good option after games because it’s a great source of omega-3, which helps to reduce inflammation, soreness and muscle damage. Incorporating curcumin and turmeric shots can also be beneficial, then also polyphenols like berries, cherries, dark chocolate and pomegranate.”
In the end, though, the extra work has certainly contributed to the greater good.
This is Jones’ fourth season working for the east London club and in the last two, they have finished sixth and seventh in the Premier League.
“It’s fantastic,” he adds. “Working as part of the performance and medical department, you work hard and like to see that that hard work is having an impact.
“It’s quite difficult to objectively quantify the work you are doing, so performances on the pitch, individually and as a team, are one of the best markers we have.”