We interviewed an athletic trainer who works at a New England highschool about being an athletic trainer and what their experience in the field is. Here are her collected responses.
First off, what is an athletic trainer?
Athletic trainers are a kind of “allied healthcare professional” in the branch of sports medicine. They work on the “prevention, evaluation, management, and rehabilitation of injuries and other conditions”. Athletic trainers work not only with athletes, but with a wide variety of people, depending on where they’re located. There are athletic trainers who work in college and highschool sports, of course, but there are also athletic trainers in many hospitals, orthopedic clinics, physical therapy centers, the military, and even circuses like Cirque du Soleil! All athletic trainers have a Bachelors of Science in Athletic Training and have completed the board of certification, but more recently they are also required to get a Masters in the field as well. Jenkins suspects that the new requirement was added to keep the certification competitive with other degrees like Physician’s Assistant.
How do you become one?
Jenkins followed up by mentioning that athletic trainers often don’t get enough credit or respect, as if the degree isn’t as difficult to obtain, which she strongly disagrees with! She says one of the most difficult parts of obtaining the degree is the number of “field” hours you have to put in; all prospective ATs work on the field (usually with a college sports team) at the same time as they learn in-class material, meaning they get lots of practice in by graduation. Jenkins had put in more than 1600 hours by the time she got her degree. She says that though the hours were rough (sports teams often play very early or very late), on the bright side the actual practice was satisfying. ATs do the sports medicine equivalent of “clinical rotations” during training, and she says that the experience of working independently was a major confidence (and skill) booster.
What’s it like being an athletic trainer?
Jenkins works at a highschool without ultra-competitive teams, so she can’t speak for every AT, but most athletics have a few universal “most common” injuries. Overuse injuries like tendonitis and hamstring sprains, the inescapable ankle sprains, and concussions are the most common where she works. Of the injuries she sees, concussions are generally the “worst”, not because they’re incredibly dangerous, but because they have a difficult recovery process, and can be hard to judge the severity of because they’re poorly understood. No sport (within the family of contact sports) is much worse than the others, “they all have their own unique flavors of injuries”, but she does say that women’s highschool soccer does cause a noticeably higher number of concussions. Her least favorite part of the job is the same as it was during training: the weird hours, with late away games and early practices. However, she says it's worth it for her favorite part: seeing players make a full recovery. “It’s a great feeling when you see that kid who tore their ACL twice run across the field pain free and score a goal”.
How has your work changed during the pandemic?
“It’s been so sad”, she says. Much more of her time is spent doing administrative work about safety and keeping things sanitized, instead of working with the athletes (many of the competitive team sports have been cancelled). She still works with the coaches in much the same way, however. Athletic trainers work closely with coaches, to diagnose athletes’ problems and tell them to sit down or give the go-ahead to keep playing. “Coaches are always pushing, which is their job”, and athletic trainers balance the scales by making sure the kids don’t get pushed too hard or dangerously. “I once saw a coach making the boys lacrosse team all run full speed into a circle at the same time to get the ball. It was concussion central”, and the athletic trainer has the authority to step in and suggest a different course of action. Studies show that the presence of an AT ensures safer participation and increases injury prevention, so Jenkins thinks it’s important that as many schools as possible have an athletic trainer to catch problems early and make referrals. Now however, with the pandemic, instead of briefing the coach on who’s not good to play, instead she briefs them on who’s sick or hasn’t filled out the right forms.
For her closing remarks, she reminds people that athletic trainers have put in a lot of work to be where they are, and to give them more credit and respect. They’ll probably be the one to catch and diagnose your early tendinitis, or evaluate your concussion!
Thank you to Colleen Jenkins for agreeing to this interview!