While fans are accustomed to seeing what professional basketball players do on the court, they aren't always aware of the off the court, behind the scenes [work] that goes into maintaining a career. A big part of that is having proper nutrition and a working meal plan on a daily basis. You can't always just eat whatever you want when you're in the WNBA. For Sophie Cunningham of the Phoenix Mercury, she's been able to find a good balance through her partnership with Quest Nutrition.

Sophie Cunningham's partnership with Quest began through a friend and what initially drew her to the company was their family-oriented background and how their care towards her as a professional athlete. It's something not always easy to find when to comes to company sponsorships.

What she's been able to find though is a reliable partner whom she can trust to help her take care of her body and eat properly to maintain her WNBA career. Before Cunningham was drafted by the Mercury with the No. 13 overall pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft, she wasn't always aware of what she ate. As many can relate, she often consisted on a steady diet of McDonalds, Taco Bell and a whole bunch of sweets. But as her pro career began to take off, she realized that she needed a change.

“Your body is a machine and you have to treat it like that at an elite level. For me that's a lot of protein and this is why this relationship works out so great is because I still like my sweets. I still kind of like my junk food. . .you have to have a great balance and Quest allowed you have those products but in a healthier way,” Cunningham told ClutchPoints. “What you put in your body is very important, so my message is I've been there. I've kind of grown and matured. . .I still like to have my cheat days and what not but making sure you put your body in a good position, what you're putting into it is just as important as working out and the mental side of everything as well.”

Proper nutrition is especially important for WNBA players considering the fact that they're always on the move. Extended road trips across the country can be grueling. Being able to stop and get a proper meal is something that can be fleeting and tough to do. Even when players are at home, there's always practices and workouts and whatnot throughout the grind of the regular season.

What's been incredibly beneficial for Sophie Cunningham is the types of products she's been able to consume through Quest. The company has expanded their menu to include other products such as bags of chips and crackers to go alongside their standard nutrition bars. When she's on the move with the Mercury, Cunningham has been able to pop in a quick protein bar or a bag of hot and spicy chips to hold her over until she can grab a proper meal.

“Just being prepared, just having a little protein bar in your bag, have it in your car, have it really wherever you're going to be the majority of the time where if you get hungry, you need to eat something,” Cunningham said. “I want to stay away from the fast food. I want to stay away from just going into the gas station and getting chips or a bag of candy. So for me, just specifically having these bars in my bag and in my care have been absolutely changing because I'm able to just kind of get that meal replacement or just a quick snack until I can get to my next meal.”

One of the unfortunate sides of professional sports is injuries. Injuries happen and it's often times out of one's control. What is controllable is the rehab and part of what goes into proper rehab is proper nutrition. Sophie Cunningham missed nine games for the Mercury this season with various injury concerns including her back, her jaw and being placed in league concussion protocols.

The jaw injury caused Cunningham to miss the final weeks of the regular season. But prior to that, she had been feeling the healthiest she's ever felt in her career and it showed on the court. She finished in double figures in five of the last six games she played in with games of 25, 14, 18 and 16 points respectively. It was one of the best stretches she had this season.

She gives a lot of credit to her nutrition playing a big role in feeling good on the court.

“I think it really is because I changed my diet and I was in the weight room. I was doing a different type of recovery and mobility this year. . .when you are going through the rehab process or you're going through physical therapy and unable to play, it can be very frustrating because you just want to be out there with the team helping them try to get the W,” Cunningham said. “It's really easy to just kind of take a step back and be like, ‘oh well I'm not going to be out there for a couple of weeks, I can be a little bit relaxed and do what I want,' and honestly it's the opposite. When you're hurt you got to focus more on your diet and you got to focus more on your physical therapy or your rehab getting in the weight room. . .it does give you a better perspective, when you're able to play you're just more grateful that your body is able to be healthy and out there with your team.”

Overall though, Sophie Cunningham had one of her best seasons for the Mercury this year. She moved into a full-time starting role. She came off the bench for the majority of her first four seasons in the league but this year she cemented herself as the Mercury's starting small forward. Her overall numbers were slightly down from the 2022 season but they were still very solid.

Cunningham suited up in 31 games and played 29.0 minutes per game. She averaged 11.3 points per game, 2.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists while shooting 41.3 percent form the field, 33.7 percent from the three-point line and 87.5 percent from the free-throw line. She re-signed with the Mercury last offseason on a two-year deal and she knows this offseason will be a critical one not just for her but for the organization as well.

“I'm not satisfied, and so this offseason I really am tightening up everything. The past couple of seasons clearly have not been the best for the Phoenix Mercury. It has been a lot of stuff going on off the court, not the best performances on the floor, there's been a lot of turnover in our program,” Cunningham said. “We got to tighten up our stuff, we got to cross our T's, dot our I's. For me, my two focus points are definitely my nutrition, cleaning up my diet even more, and just getting better on the court. I'm super excited, I'm super motivated for this offseason.”

Although the Phoenix Mercury missed the playoffs for the first time since they drafted Brittney Griner back in 2013, this season was an interesting one for Sophie Cunningham in that she marveled at the way the team stayed close and stayed together. The Mercury hit a ton of adversity this season in terms of injury with both Griner and Diana Taurasi being sidelined for a significant amount of time among others.

The Mercury also saw the organization fire head coach Vanessa Nygaard and replace her with interim head coach Nikki Blue. As Cunningham put it, the Mercury had almost $700,000 of their salary cap on the bench in street clothes. But despite that, despite all the turmoil, the locker had never been brighter.

“In history, if you look at the teams who have our type of record, it's because people don't get along or the coaches and them don't get along, the culture is bad. And for us it was just the complete opposite. This was the closest and nicest team that I've ever been a part of which I absolutely love,” Cunningham said. “I think the culture is definitely changing. . .From top to bottom from our coaches to people who never really got in the game, we came in with a positive attitude every single day. We still tired to get better. We executed the game plan. . .Our focus and our willingness to fight has not always been that way. And so I hate our record but I applaud our attitudes and our effort to still show up every single day.”

But perhaps the biggest area of growth that Sophie Cunningham thrived in with the Mercury this season was her leadership. The 2024 season will be her sixth season in the WNBA. She wants to continue to grow in that role and be a leader for the team and she has two excellent role models in Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi to follow.

“Just to have those types of people on your team to kind of bounce ideas off of, especially DT, just soaking in so much of her knowledge and how she does things. . .if she's in the gym this offseason, I'm in the gym. If she's getting her weights in, I'm getting my weights in and so she's leading me in that direction,” Cunningham said. “I think it's time to step up even more and show the younger kids how to do things. . .If I'm able to do it with Diana Taurasi, who is the greatest of all time in our league, then I'm definitely going to take on the things she does well and take it and bring it to other people so that our team can become great in Phoenix.”