Women are rising up the ranks throughout professional football, earning positions of power in a space that for too long was ruled almost exclusively by men. We’re seeing more and more women breaking barriers in the sport, but what are the stories beyond the headlines? Who are the women shaping and influencing the NFL today? Answering those questions is the aim of the Next Woman Up series. While the conversational Q&As are edited and condensed for clarity, this is a forum for impactful women to share experiences in their own words. Without further ado, we introduce:
Mindy Black, Jacksonville Jaguars
Position: Director of Performance Nutrition
How did you get your start in a career in the NFL?
I started my career in sports nutrition about 20 years ago. I graduated with a nutrition degree and went straight into hospital work. Within six months, I realized that wasn’t for me and that I wanted to work with healthy people. The University of Florida had an internship in its sports nutrition department. It was a lot of hours and not nearly enough money, but it was a foot in the door, so I applied. I got the job, and within six months, they hired me full time. For the first five years of my career, I was at the university level.
I come from a long line of entrepreneurs and knew I wanted to have my own private practice. I opened it and was working with anyone from high school athletes to Olympic athletes, PGA tour guys — anyone who was working independently. Then Tom Myslinski, then the Jaguars’ head strength and conditioning coach, contacted me and said they had been looking for a nutritionist and that my name kept popping up. He asked, “Would you mind coming in to chat with me?”
I went to the facility thinking it was going to be a 30-minute chat, and five hours later, I had talked to him, the general manager, head coach — pretty much everyone in the building — and I had a job. I came in once a week to do consulting. Within two years, I was hired full time. So since starting in April 2014, I went from being a consultant to having an entire department with an assistant, and we’re growing each year a little bit more. It’s been great.
When you first signed on full time with the Jaguars, what did your role look like?
Let’s say you have 100 players — about 30 are super into nutrition, 30 are in the middle of the road who need a little bit of guidance but have a handle on it, and the remaining third are the genetic freaks who have eaten burgers and chicken wings their entire lives and don’t see the point in changing. You pick your battles. When I first started, I knew how to approach the job because I had worked with 500 athletes at once at the University of Florida. So instead of making meal plans for every single player, we would identify red-flag players — guys who are always cramping or continually pulling their hamstrings or suffering injuries — with the strength and athletic training staffs, and I would seek those guys out, gain their trust and help them figure out a plan in terms of their nutrition.
The other part of the time, I would help the kitchen with meals that are actually advantageous for our players. Instead of having chili cheese dogs before practice, trying to find healthier options. Then on game days, there are a lot of players who deal with gastrointestinal issues. Although many of them don’t want to admit it’s nerves, a lot of them will have GI, upset that they think it’s from what they ate the night before. So there is a lot of educating and helping them find what alleviates the issue if they know this is happening every week.
You mentioned expanding your department. What is your daily schedule now that you have more help?
A third of my day is meetings with the coaching staff, strength coach and trainers, and with that comes lot of administrative duties now. Another third is being around during mealtimes and seeing where guys are at. If I go up to breakfast and see a player eating just two pieces of bacon, I’ll check in with him and see what’s going on. Then the last part is popping out to practice and doing research about new hydration or other nutrition products or testing.
What changes, if any, occur when a new coaching staff comes in?
The first month is feeling out where the new staff is in terms of nutrition knowledge. At this point, most coaches have worked with dieticians, but there are still some who think we just make a lot of smoothies. Then we figure out what they are comfortable with. There are some coaches who want all healthy options and others who are old school who say, “Well, we used to eat fried chicken.” You have to pick your wins and losses and find a balance of what works best.
I can see how that would be difficult at times. Is there a time of year when you are busiest?
There are two key times during the year when I try to educate players. For the rookie class, I try to take advantage when they first get here after the draft because the process of the NFL is all brand new to them. If you can earn their trust early on, then nutrition will be a regular part of the process. During the first few months and through the season, not only will I talk to them, but we do a cooking competition and grocery store tour, so they can learn real-world strategies on how to be successful when it comes to their nutrition. Building those relationships is important because they are used to it by season.
The other time I’m busiest is as soon as the season ends, which is opposite of what you’d think. We ramp up then because our players are going home to train, so I’m working with them on their goals. Are they leaning out or gaining muscle? Do I need to find a chef for them? A meal-prep company? I help them with whatever they need during those few months so they can come back ready to play.
What would you say is the most challenging part of your position?
Early on, before every team had a dietician on their staff, it was all about educating not only the players but the coaching staffs and GMs on everything that we do. Now most know we are around and do a variety of things. For me, as a perfectionist, I strive to have the best nutrition program in the country. So it’s a challenge to balance perfect and what’s best for the moment. If our plane is delayed for four hours, our only option to feed 150 people in an hour might be chicken wings. It’s not always ideal, but at some point, a calorie is a calorie. Sometimes I have to find what’s optimal for the time and not judge myself too hard.
Do you have any mentors who’ve helped you along the way?
I have had several mentors throughout my career, but the ones who have been most influential are my parents. I’ve never been told there are certain jobs for certain genders. I was always told I can do whatever I want to do, but whatever I chose to do, I better do it to the best of my ability. Whether you’re taking the trash out or doing a project for school, you better give it 100 percent because your name is attached to it. Especially in this type of career, the only way to move up is to give 110 percent and do it better than anybody else.
I’ve had others throughout my career who have been outside of the football world, and it’s been helpful to see their perspectives. When you work in football, it’s sort of this bubble and you forget that there’s this whole world out there.
Do you have any advice for women who want to pursue a career in the NFL?
If you love it, go for it, but know you have to have a thick shell and be willing to grind. It’s a lot of long hours and you might struggle if you have FOMO because you will miss birthday parties and holidays and certain things. It’s worth it if you love it.
What’s next for you?
I’m really happy where I’m at, honestly. I love the Jaguars. I will say that we’ve had a number of women come through our program. In 10 years, if I can see women in other roles around the league who have come through the Jaguars, I think that would be really rewarding for me.
And lastly, what are you most proud of?
This program is my baby, so I’m most proud of taking it from nothing to a full-on department. It’s a department that not only is helping the players but other departments in our club, as well.