Abigail O’Connor has accumulated on her cell phone during these last two-plus months of the COVID-19 pandemic about 10,000 photos featuring homemade plates of food.
She’s not, however, compiling a cookbook.
As Michigan football’s performance dietitian, O’Connor had set the foundation during winter conditioning, teaching the players how to achieve what she calls “the perfect performance plate,” what it should look like, what it should consist of, and why it is important nutritionally.
But when the University of Michigan suspended everything on campus in mid-March, just as football was about to begin spring practice, O’Connor had to find a creative way to keeps the players, now on their own or back at home with their families, engaged in terms of eating properly. They immediately found ways to stay in shape, using home gyms or things like backpacks full of rocks for strength workouts, but away from a structured training table, how would they maintain their nutrition?
O’Connor initially sent the players a how-to grocery shop and cook video.
“I was doing, ‘Look, I'm making chicken noodle soup,’ and I walked through a couple grocery stores or gas stations to show them, ‘This is what's available to you, let's grocery shop together,’ and I'd put it on Instagram or I'd send it to the group chats we had,” O’Connor told The Detroit News. “And crickets. They did not care.
“But one of the things I told them, we had set this foundation in the winter as to what a performance plate looks like, and I said, ‘You're at home, and you're fending for yourself. Send me a good performance plate, and the best one of the day, I'll put on Instagram.’ They're all for the (social media) clout if I tagged them in a post. Great, right?”
This didn’t catch on immediately. The first few days, O’Connor received about 30 pictures.
“Some of the guys were showing off like, ‘I made this breakfast for myself,’ or ‘Look, I made ramen into a performance plate. I added egg.’ This became an entirely athlete-driven thing. Someone would send something in, and I'd respond and say, ‘More greens,’ and then the guys in the group would get on each other, ‘Where are your greens?’ or ‘There's no oranges on your plate.’
“And it changed from 30 plates a day to 300 plates a day. It’s just me in this group chat with these athletes, and if I get behind, if I'm on a telephone call or a Zoom call, or I'm doing a virtual conference, and I'm not on my phone for an hour, they'll start liking each other's plates, and say something like, ‘I see you, good job.’ I can't pick a plate of the day anymore. It’s impossible.”
O’Connor gives a certain number of points for the most vegetables on the plate, the most proteins, the most water consumed, and it’s branched out from there, to best presentation, and best meal made for their moms on Mother’s Day.
“At this point, my vibration on my phone for text messages is turned off because it just doesn't stop,” O’Connor said, laughing. “I could say I came up with this, but they created it to what it is. It's nice to have that. It is a daily interaction with them, and I can see their faces. They'll show me their face, and then they'll show them cooking. It's nice to create almost the semblance of what our interactions would be normally, which is informal and chatty and joking. They're very pleased with themselves, which is why they all think they're winning every day.”
Some of the players have taken food presentation to a new high. Defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, for instance, has become very artful when taking photos of his "smoothie bowls."
"He'll go outside to get good lighting, like like you can tell he thinks, 'It's a masterpiece, and I know it, and I want to show it off,'" O'Connor said laughing.
O’Connor did share with parents a general outline of the types of things that should be on grocery lists, but the players have done most of their own food preparation. For players who remained on their own in Ann Arbor, she helped them devise shopping plans based on their budgets. She has been impressed with their cooking creativity — she has seen a lot seafood boils — and also that they don't hide if they've had some ice cream.
During winter conditioning, O’Connor said the focus was on attention to detail and holding each other accountable.
“Cleaning up the locker room, making sure your shoes are lined up perfectly in the weight room, having the weights all turned the right way — you're finishing your rep turn the weight so that the ‘M’ is facing up,” she said. “Athlete-driven leadership is a huge emphasis, so as we led into this, I don't think we could have planned it better to set us up for this kind of circumstance.
“They're the ones pushing each other. They're the ones who created this (food challenge) by egging each other on, like, ‘Hey, so and so I haven't seen a plate, send something in’ and ‘boop’ here comes a picture of a water bottle and ‘I'm drinking something.’ I think each group is seeing what they're doing within their group and I think they're proud of that work and that's why they all think they're winning. As a whole, the team is winning because everyone's pushing each other.”
For her part, O’Connor said in these unusual times she hasn’t been the “food police” and doesn’t harp too much because she knows this is all new for them. Still, they’re taking their new skills and adding to their menus.
The one food she has seen a lot of that has surprised her is avocado. Trendy avocado toast with red pepper flakes and a poached egg is a big thing among the players.
“I'm looking at it now and saying, ‘I'm going to add avocado to the training table,’” O’Connor said.
When the players might return to campus to prepare for the season is unclear, but O’Connor is saving the photos so when she meets with each one individually upon their returns, they can go over where they are in terms of nutrition and where they need to be.
“The photos are going to inform me a lot about what is going on with them,” she said.
O’Connor is even considering some new ways to add some fun to training table now that they have these cooking skills, like a team version of the Food Network show “Chopped,” where contestants are given ingredients and they have to prepare a meal. Until then, the photos will keep coming in, the competition is in full force, and O’Connor will continue to be amazed how the players have found a way to grocery shop and cook for themselves.
“We had a team meeting a couple weeks back and Coach (Jim) Harbaugh's line that kind of resonated was, ‘I could complain about this for minutes, but it would take days for me to show my gratitude for everything I have.’ I've talked with my athletes, and pre-COVID, cooking and grocery shopping were conversations but never a necessity.
“And now that they're a necessity, it is them flexing a muscle they haven't had to before, and I think it's for the betterment of who they'll be later when they leave Michigan.”