Leah Thomas is a dietician and nutritionist and director of the Total Person Program. Hailing from Oak Ridge, Tenn., Thomas has led the more holistic side of GTAA, preparing Tech’s student-athletes for their futures.
Technique: What exactly is the Total Person Program?
Thomas: The Total Person Program basically has six categories. Everything that we do throughout the year falls into one of those six categories. Those categories are health and wellness, … leadership development, community service, personal growth and development — which is kinda generic, you might put any number of things into that category — a spiritual growth piece and a career planning and placement piece. Everything that we do, like I said, can be classified into one of those categories.
Throughout a semester, there are six or seven or so presentations or trainings or workshops or events that the student-athletes participate in.
Technique: Are those mandatory?
Thomas: Once a semester, we have an all-required event, which is actually tonight, but usually we require by class. All freshmen, for example, go through our sexual violence prevention training back at the beginning of the school year. There was a financial 101 presentation we did a couple weeks ago that was for all freshmen and sophomores. The juniors and seniors will get a similar but more advanced one in the spring. We just did a student-athlete-only career fair that’s required for juniors and seniors, open to anybody, so freshmen and sophomores can come for a learning experience for sure, but we require it of our juniors and seniors.
Tonight’s presentation is into that personal growth category. It’s very much an inspirational speaker, Kyle Maynard, who was born without any arms or legs and has done a lot of amazing things. So he’s coming to speak tonight, and they’re all required to attend. Some population is required for each thing that we do, but only one is required for everybody. But by the time they leave here, they will have progressed through this Total Person Program.
Technique: Looking around the Nutrition Center, there is a lot of food and diet information. Is that something you take care of or something the SAs take care of for themselves?
Thomas: I was hired in 2003 as the sports dietician, so I look at my job as to educate and teach them on nutrition, certainly for long-term health. We want them to leave here and be healthy individuals, but it’s very performance-based while they’re here. We have our dining hall on the second floor, which is another Sodexo cafeteria just like any on campus. It’s open to any student, but their meal plans work up there, so a lot of them eat in this building for lunch and dinner. The rest of the time, this is meant to provide good snacks.
We know that their calorie needs are very high, and there’s a right way to get that many calories and a wrong way to get it. The right way would be to eat frequently and to snack, so we provide those snacks, good healthy snacks. So too, when they leave here, if they want meal ideas or snack ideas, they can think back to the things that we provided. … All of this is here to provide for them but is also meant to be educational. I wouldn’t give you a snack here that I would rather you not snack on.
Technique: Are the meals upstairs in the dining hall planned on your end, or is it just what Sodexo gives you?
Thomas: It is not planned on my end. It’s Sodexo run, and we have a food service manager who makes all the menus. But it’s part of our deal with Sodexo here that all the menus have to go through me. So they plan it, and we meet about it pretty regularly, especially at the beginning of each school year for me to OK or to make requests or suggestions or changes to it. I think it’s better than your average — I mean, it’s small; it’s not like North Ave where you have lots of choices, but the choices that you do have there are always very good, healthy choices.
Up there also, I do some educational posters as to how to build a good, healthy plate. That’s obviously not specific to any one sport or any one position on a sport as far as the carb, protein and fat makeup, but it’s just general guidelines on how to build a good, healthy plate. So that’s all up there to educate them as they go through.
Technique: To that point, do you have to work with athletes in the same sport differently?
Thomas: Yes. I’d say, sport-to-sport is different and athlete-to-athlete within a given sport is different. In almost any of our teams, not all, but even the track team has some power, strictly anaerobic, burst-of-energy type athletes like jumpers or even sprinters or hurdlers versus the 10k runners. The needs are very different. You can say the same for the football team: an offensive lineman is very different than a wide receiver as far as the energy systems that they use.
So that dictates what makes up your plate, your meal and the percentages of carbs, proteins and fat that go into each of those athletes. It’s very individual. Even within a given sport, there are a lot of differences.
Technique: What are the main takeaways you want student-athletes to get out of the whole four-year progression — or however long they’re here?
Thomas: We want them to feel like they’ve been prepared for life, assuming they’re not going to go pro in their sport, which I know most do not. We want them to feel like they grew as individuals and personally and really in all of those areas — that they were exposed to leadership development, that they were exposed to giving back to the community, provided with chances to focus on their career goals and fine-tune their resumes and make business cards and participate at a very small-scale career fair that wasn’t intimidating as practice, if nothing else. All of these things are good preparation for life.
I want someone who graduates as a student-athlete to feel like we provided them with a lot of opportunities. A lot of them will leave here not necessarily feeling that way, but a lot of them who chose to not just be a part of it but to actually engage, participate and get something out of it will leave here feeling like we did a lot for them, gave them a lot of chances and opportunities and things that many other students across campus long to participate in. … We just want them to leave here prepared for anything and feel supported.