Food. That's the easy answer. However, in the grand scheme of things the correct response is not nearly that simple. While the NCAA governs how often you can feed your players, they do not have much say in what you feed them. To that end, if the school has the money, and the will, then they have the ability to really step up the dining experience for their ballplayers.
Back in the days of yore, the all-athlete or football-players-only dining hall was a method to keep tabs on the players. Much like the often attached all-athlete dormitory, these cafeterias were places where coaches and assistants could keep close watch over their athletes and control the situation.
Today, it is still about control.
However, it is less about separating them from the student body, or keeping tabs on them, and more about controlling what they put into their bodies. Coaches' jobs are to maximize their players' output; as the athletes get better through strength and conditioning, film work and reps, it only makes sense that diet is the next frontier.
The collegiate football player, hell, the collegiate athlete today is better than they have ever been. Their bodies are better trained. They are putting up better numbers than ever before. Thus, it stands to reason that as everyone gets better, coaches are looking for an edge.
Enter the training table.
We talked about schools trying to grab an edge in recruiting by showing off, back in February. They are doing the same thing when it comes to the training table. If the school can afford it, they are going to buy it. Spare no expense, because that little bit of ground that your athletes gain, could be the difference between 8-4 and 10-2.
It is a two-pronged attack where the training table is concerned. The first thing you see are the aesthetics. The training table has evolved into grand cafe-style eateries with great seating and different areas for kids to dine while they watch television. Aesthetics also encompasses the actual spread itself. Cold food, hot bar, produce, Asian, Italian, steak, chicken. We talk a lot about the spread on the field, in the last decade or so, the training table spread has grown at an equally rapid rate.
The second prong of the training table is the variety of food itself. Not because it is exotic, but because, as coaches are want to do, everything at training table is controlled and placed for a reason. Kids think they are getting variety, certainly, they have a fair amount of options. However, everything out for them to eat, from the sushi to the salad or the ice cream is there for a reason.
A training table's recipe is simple: get your players the calories they need in a way that does not bore them and helps further process the building of an elite athlete. That first part, getting calories, is where you start to see the strength and conditioning mesh with coaches' goals and the nutrition aspect of the game.
Teams split their players into three main categories, gainers, losers and maintainers. As Washington's nutritionist Monica Van Winkle points out in the Wall Street Journal, a linemen needs over 5,000 calories while skill guys need more than 4,000; just to maintain weight. That's more than twice as much as the average recommended daily caloric intake of most people just to keep their weight where it is.
When you get into gainers and losers, where training table is concerned, you will see the calorie game get truly advanced. Teams are hiring nutritionists, having players meet with dietitians and crafting plans to help them put on or take off weight. Between lifting, running and varying metabolic rates, players looking to gain weight have to go above and beyond in terms of calories put into their bodies.
It is not just about shoveling plates of food; hence the training table having a variety of vegetables, fruits, starches, grains and different lean proteins to help players make healthy gains.
On the opposite side of that coin, the players looking to cut weight need just as much attention. The old thought process of merely cutting calories to take in less than they put out does not just work for an active ballplayer; at least not in the general sense. Yes, they cut calories, but the players still have to eat high-energy foods, lean proteins and be able to go through the rigors of the football life.
Thus, even though players are only allowed one truly engineered training table meal per day, schools are investing heavily in creating an environment where smart meal choices are readily available. Breakfast is not usually the engineered meal, but, thanks to working with the support staff, players are able to further their nutrition development by making good decisions.
In other words, while it does not seem that the coach and staff are controlling the bulk of the players' meals, they are certainly controlling the players' meals.
The training table is the new arms race in the college football. Coaches at elite programs are trying to squeeze every drop of production out of their big-time players, and using food to unlock untapped potential is a must. As smaller schools try to play catch-up with facilities, strength and conditioning, film tech and the like, bigger schools are pushing further out in front with nutrition.
Building bigger, more extravagant dining spaces with choices specifically designed to help their athletes gain, maintain and lose weight. There's a reason Jimbo Fisher was begging for a training table when he took over at Florida State.
Seeing training table grow from the same food every week, into the massive production that it has become has been intriguing. Kids are not just getting food slopped at them in troughs anymore, these guys, in the football cafeteria, are getting big-time boosts from their programs through the training table.
Just another instance where college football's elite are making the system work for them, and it is all well within the rules. Athletes get 10 meals a week with their scholarships, not including the team meals for traveling to and from games. Five of those meals are the truly engineered training table meals. The others are also largely eaten at the football or athlete cafeteria.
To supplement the other meals necessary, players are given meal checks. Essentially a per diem to grab lunch, weekend and off-day meals when the football cafe is not serving food. That per diem number varies from school to school, but as you can imagine, the more a school can give, the more they will.
As Alabama points out, non-athletes are welcome to dine at the training table as well, you just have to pay. In the case of Bryant Sports Grill, it is an additional $9.75 atop your normal meal plan dinner rate. So, while it is not an extra benefit because everyone has access, it is a reminder that the quality costs.
Athletes dining is big business, especially in the world of football where improvements to players, means improvements on the field which translates to big bucks for the school. Whether your school does all athletes together, or specialized football cafe, the point is to make sure you are at the top of your game.
The days of football players going through the normal student line, grabbing what they can and getting it down have passed. Football, and the futures of the players, has become too important to leave the responsibility of proper nutrition up to 17-to-23-year-olds.