By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — VirginiaSports.com regularly checks in with members of the UVa athletics department who play vital roles but generally operate outside of the public eye.
Rob Skinner, UVa’s director of sports nutrition, fits that description, and he stopped by 247-B in University Hall the other day to talk about his work with student-athletes in 25 sports.
Hometown: Born and raised in the Atlanta area. Growing up, Skinner says, “I was always pretty much the chubby kid,” though he played high school football and lifted weights.
Family: Skinner is married to the former Barbara Zomberg, who’s from Rockland, Maine. She’s an HR software consultant.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in education and recreation from the University of Georgia, 1991; bachelor’s in nutrition from Georgia State, 1997; master’s in exercise science, with a concentration in exercise physiology, from Georgia State, 2001.
Started at UVa: September 2007. The first football game he attended as a Wahoo, as fate would have it, was against Georgia Tech, his former employer. The ‘Hoos beat the Yellow Jackets 28-23 at Scott Stadium.
Professional experience: After tearing an ACL in the early ’90s, Skinner gained weight while rehabbing his knee. He researched ways to drop pounds, and his methods proved successful. “People started coming up to me and asking me how I was losing weight, and I really liked that,” says Skinner, a U.S. Army veteran. So he decided to become a registered dietician. Before coming to UVa, he spent 10 years in sports nutrition at Georgia Tech, including six as director of the school’s Homer Rice Center for Sports Performance. Skinner also has worked as a sports nutrition consultant for the NFL’s Falcons and a part-time nutrition instructor at Georgia State.
Northbound: Skinner wasn’t looking to leave Atlanta, but Jon Oliver, Virginia’s executive associate director of athletics, convinced him of the University’s commitment to sports nutrition. Skinner says he also was intrigued by “the opportunity to create a new program. There are less than two dozen schools with full-time dieticians working with the student-athletes.” In 1997, he says, there were only three: Penn State, Nebraska and Georgia Tech. He also wanted to work with a more varied group of student-athletes. “I’d never worked with lacrosse, wrestling, soccer or field hockey,” Skinner says.
Job description: Skinner meets with student-athletes individually and in groups to advise them on matters relating to diet and nutrition. This summer, for example, Mike Curtis, the strength-and-conditioning coach for men’s basketball, had him take the team’s players to the grocery store “and walk them around and show them how to buy food,” Skinner says. He also works with Tim Saul, executive chef at the John Paul Jones Arena dining room, to create the menus for the training table at which student-athletes can eat dinner five nights a week. “Attendance has tripled since I started,” Skinner says. “It was 125 to 150 [student-athletes] a night. We’re up to around 400 a night.”
On the clock: Skinner, 40, has two offices: one in the McCue Center weight room and the other off the JPJ dining room. He’s usually at the McCue Center from about 8:15 am. to 5 p.m. and at the arena from 5 to 8 p.m.
Practically speaking: “I believe in education, not deprivation,” Skinner says. “I’m not going to slap food off their plates. If they choose to go off my advice or just had a bad day and need some ice cream, that’s OK.
“It’s not about ignoring your hunger, it’s about managing your hunger. Instead of going with a cheeseburger late at night, I might recommend that smaller athletes have yogurt and fruit, or cottage cheese and fruit. For the bigger guys, maybe a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich or even a turkey sandwich.”
“The biggest challenge is you’re fighting 18 years — or more — of habits. We reach for things out of comfort level and habit, rather than nutritional value.
“The training table is my lab, and I have the opportunity to teach while they have the subject matter in front of them, which is dinner. I can suggest to them, ‘Why not add some fruit or a quality carbohydrate like sweet potatoes?
“Good nutrition may be common sense, but it’s not common practice, and this is something you have to practice. The training tables give us five opportunities a week to practice.”
Start early: Skinner works with student-athletes from 25 teams, and they come in all shapes and sizes. The most common mistake they make, no matter their sport? Skipping breakfast. “I think in general for all student-athletes, their schedules are the toughest thing to deal with,” Skinner says. “A student-athlete will choose sleep over breakfast 60 percent of the time. Doing that, you’re cutting a minimum of one-third of your energy out … To consistently get better, you have to practice consistently well, and if you’re not fueling properly, you can’t practice consistently well.” Skinner always eats breakfast, he says. Most mornings it consists of oatmeal with raisins and a scoop of peanut butter.
High job satisfaction: Skinner tells everyone who asks that he’s “living the dream” at UVa. “The support I’ve gotten not just from the administration — I expected that — but from the coaches, the strength coaches and athletic trainers, everybody, has been great. This was obviously a gap that needed to be filled, and it’s going very well. Obviously, we can do better, and we’re working on ways to make it better.”
Information about Skinner and his program can be found here.