JANUARY 26, 2024 — The San Antonio Spurs is the NBA’s youngest team this year, with an average player age of 23.5 years old. As the team competes against older, more experienced squads, it must put in a massive amount of learning on and off the court.
Practice, training, drills and game knowledge are paramount to a player’s success, but one often-overlooked aspect of a player’s game is nutrition.
This past fall, UTSA graduate student Maria Neira worked to fine-tune the team’s nutritional roster through her internship with the UTSA Department of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Neira worked closely with Mandy Tyler, the team dietitian for the San Antonio Spurs and Austin Spurs. Tyler also serves on the advisory board for The Basketball Embassy, is the chair of the NBA Dietitians group and was formerly the chair of the San Antonio Mayor’s Fitness Council.
Throughout her internship, Neira developed fact sheets to help the athletes understand the nutritional products they recommended and why, the research behind them and how to get the same benefit from food sources. She also created recipes for smoothies and wellness shots and helped plan the team menu.
“I have been working with Mandy on planning in-flight meals for the team and working with the chef to tweak some of the menu items,” Neira said. “We want to make the menu options more ideal for the players to ensure they receive the proper nutrition in foods they enjoy.”
Tyler and Neira have even taken a tour of H-E-B with the team to identify best practices for finding and purchasing nutritional foods.
In addition to planning proper nutrition for the Spurs, Neira helped Tyler manage nutrition logistics for the team. They made sure the team’s supplements were third-party tested, and they educated players on various aspects of nutrition and performance. Neira learned that the key to a successful program was getting to know the players and their nutritional preferences to help them reach peak performance.
“Working with Mandy was incredible,” Neira said. “She is a role model. I see her confidence and leadership skills, and the way she meets with other dietitians to set future goals is really motivating. It makes me want to be that kind of person.”
Born and raised in San Angelo, Texas, Neira attended Angelo State University and obtained a bachelor’s degree in exercise science.
“My older brother is a professional boxer,” she said, “and seeing all of that work and preparation at a professional level inspired me to go into exercise science.”
As she progressed in her degree, however, she realized she wanted to explore health beyond its physiological aspects. She discovered the dietetics program in the UTSA College for Health, Community and Policy and knew it would be the perfect complement to her bachelor’s degree.
In UTSA’s dietetics program, a student earns a joint degree – a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Dietetic Studies. This certifies graduates to take the national exam to become registered dietitians. Additionally, the program requires students to clock over 1,000 hours of supervised experiences equivalent to an internship.
UTSA sets up the practicum rotations each graduate pursues. This ensures students learn how nutrition is approached in different environments, from health care settings to schools, sports arenas and government offices. Before her rotation with the Spurs, Neira worked in a clinical setting with patients in various stages of illness and with differing health and nutritional needs. Going from patients with possible nutrition deficiencies to working with high-performance athletes highlighted the importance of nutrition in various environments, Neira said.
“Maria has excelled in coursework, showcasing an exceptional understanding of the complexities of human nutrition and its applications to health and wellness,” said Lance Whitlock, senior lecturer of nutrition and dietetics. “This rotation with the Spurs offers the opportunity to integrate theoretical knowledge into a practical but high-level professional sports setting in which nutrition can enable an athlete to not only improve performance, but draw closer to their true top-level potential.”
When Neira entered the dietetics program, her goal was to work as a sports dietitian for boxers and to promote healthy habits in the younger populations. Since then, however, her focus has shifted.
“I have been exposed to many different paths that allowed me to be more open-minded and open to many opportunities,” she said. “A dietitian is essential in many fields, and working with the Spurs has really ignited my love for health and wellness. I would love to stay with the Spurs.”
To become a sports dietitian, Neira would take the registered dietitian national exam and then work for two years in sports-related nutrition before taking the board certification as a specialist in sports dietetics exam.
“As one of Maria’s Instructors here at UTSA, I have had a first-hand viewpoint of her rapid growth through her course work,” Whitlock said. “Maria’s performance has demonstrated to me the qualities of a dedicated and promising professional, and I am confident that her journey in dietetics will be marked by continued success and meaningful contributions.”
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