This year as Number One Ticket Holder, I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to interview some of the key people around the Sydney Swans Football Club. As a former journalist, I am interested in people: their stories, their jobs, how they came to work at the Swans, what motivates, challenges, and inspires them. Over the course of the season I plan to do an occasional series of interviews and here is my first, with the Sydney Swans dietician, Elise Anderson.
Elise and I met for lunch at the Azure coffee shop at the Entertainment Quarter nearby the SCG. We sat outside, behind a white picket fence, opposite a gymnasium and spoke for over an hour. Elise was easy to talk to – bubbly, direct, with an infectious laugh.
Elise told me she has been in the role since 2014, having started as a dietician with the NEAFL. She grew up on Sydney’s northern beaches and studied sport science at Sydney University and nutrition at the University of Canberra. Sports, nutrition and food had always been her passions, but it was her personality, more than her previous work experience, that clinched her the job with the Swans.
Cynthia Banham: You Said you were always passionate about sport and nutrition: what sport did you play growing up?
Elise Anderson: I grew up as an only child and I competed in athletics. But my dad will watch just about any sport – which is a trait I have inherited – and my passion stemmed from there. We watched a lot of North American sport as he’s from Canada.
CB: Your journey to the Swans didn't start in sport, I saw in your background you worked with cancer patients?
EA: My last placement for university was at the Bendigo Hospital and it was organised late so the only place I could do my placement was in oncology.
It just so happened that my supervisor left when I finished my placement and then I took a locum position, also at the Bendigo hospital in oncology, so that’s where my career started.
CB: What is a lesson you took from that work that you've carried through to sports nutrition?
EA: Probably two things: not to devalue anyone’s pursuit of health, but at the same time try and educate them; the other would be to listen more to what I’m being told rather than push my point of view, which relates back to people knowing their own bodies.
CB: Where did you passion for cooking come from?
EA: Interestingly I did not spend any time in the kitchen with my mum as she dislikes cooking. Mum is very much meat, three veg and absolutely no sauce. Dad can get by, but everything is coated in butter.
CB: How did you learn to cook if you didn't see exotic dishes cooked at home?
EA: I started ripping out all the recipe books that my mum never used! My passion for food, cooking and nutrition probably started as a teenager as I was an overweight child and teen, and made all my own decisions to improve my health, which at the time were largely driven by bullying.
The passion for sport was always there but doing a sport like athletics, where I was forced to wear minimal clothing for racing, really brought attention to my weight and body composition, which was and always will be an insecurity of mine. However, it did drive me to where I am today in terms of the activity, passion for sport, nutrition, food and cooking.
That said, when I first started with the Swans as a 26-year-old, I was worried about being judged by the players and coaches for giving nutrition advice when my appearance may have suggested I shouldn’t be. I battled with this for a while, but as I’ve got older, I’ve focused on what I can control – and that is making the program as good as it can be.
CB: Tell me about working at the Swans, does the club have a chef?
EA: Courtney Roulston is the club chef. She comes in twice a week on the main training days to cook lunch for the players, so she's not full time, but it would be great is she was. The week is divided and there are two main sessions a week in-season on Tuesday and Thursday, which given the nature of these sessions, are the most important days for good recovery food.
CB: What does Courtney cook?
EA: We go through a menu plan about one month in advance. We try and take the players around the world in terms of food – a mix of Indian, Greek, Moroccan, Italian, Mexican, and modern Australian.
CB: Is it possible for a footballer to eat just as healthy with each of those influences?
EA: Yes, that’s the challenge, so Courtney and I will brainstorm. We need to increase the carbohydrate, but we want to give them different sources of protein as well, so it’s not just all about meat, meat, meat.
So, say we do Tandoori chicken, but rather than mix Tandoori paste with cream we will use something like Chobani yoghurt and then do a salad. Or, she might do a cucumber salad, and in the curry rather than use ghee, she will use olive oil. We just change up the types of fats that are in there and Courtney will also go heavier on the spices, so the flavour is still there.
CB: Do you worry about what players eat for dinner when they go home?
EA: All the time. Less so the ones that live with partners and more so the young players. I understand the motivations for why they may avoid cooking, so I try and go over once a month just to cook with them and encourage them.
CB: Are any foods banned?
EA: I don’t ban anything, and I try to lead by example. Courtney and I liaise often. We usually give the players dessert on one of the days, and it’s usually the heavier training day, but we try and make all the desserts healthy. For example, for a Banoffee Pie, instead of making the caramel with butter, caster sugar and cream, we will make it with dates and maple syrup.
We just try and show the players everything is OK in moderation, and if you want to have dessert there are better choices you can make.
CB: Are there any players who are fantastic cooks?
EA: The first-year players we have this year have been an excellent group in terms of enthusiasm, ability and interest.
One of the first questions I ask first-year players is how is the family dinner set up in your house? Does everyone go to their room and eat? Do people sit in front of the TV and don’t speak? Or do you all sit down as a family and talk about your day?
It can be quite a shock to the ones who have always been used to a real family dinner where they’ve sat down and conversed with each other, versus the families that might be bigger and run on different schedules and they eat at different times.
I try and get a feel for the house the players are now living in. If there are two players in the house that have come from family dinners, I try to encourage them all to cook together, so that there’s a continuation of what they are used to.
CB: Is it wasy to put weight on young players when they come to you at the start of their careers?
EA: The coaches don’t actually want some of them to be bigger, as speed or agility might be their real asset. It’s a balance. We don’t want to put loads of weight on a first-year player because their injury risk is going to increase.
CB: How often do you have to put players on diets to lose weight?
EA: In sports nutrition we don't necessarily talk about 'weight' per se, we might have miltiple players per season who need to alter their body composition. They get nutrition advice and in some cases an eating plan to assist.
CB: As you say goodbye at the end of the year do you sit down and talk to the players?
EA: I do – and each year I try to evolve my message and try to give them something simple to remember.
Last year I gave the players targets in terms of body composition, weight and skin folds. I don’t give them absolute numbers because I don’t fully accept that’s the way to get the best out of them. That’s me saying, ‘If you come back like this, that’s great, we will hit the ground running, but if you come back like this, that’s OK we can still work with that – just don’t come back any heavier than that, otherwise it will be a hard slog when you get back!’