What Does an Athletic Trainer Actually Do?

Unlike most people,  when people ask me what I do for a living, I am frequently at a loss for what I should say. It’s a common enough question; usually among the first introductory inquiries when you meet a new person. Now, it’s not that I don’t know what I do, it’s that I want the person asking to understand when I tell them. It’s more a question of depth. The problem is, a lot of people still don’t know what an athletic trainer is. And for those that do, they usually don’t know everything that goes into it behind-the-scenes.

It is a common misconception that our job is to “train athletes.” This is understandable, given our title. However, there is so much more to it than that. We are not personal trainers, we are not strength coaches. And since many people just refer to us simply as “trainer,” this further confuses our role (please, don’t do this). So, what I usually tell people is: athletic trainers are qualified, healthcare professionals in sports medicine. What I don’t always have the energy to explain is that, unlike personal trainers, we have undergraduate, and more often than not, graduate degrees in our field with several hundred hours of clinical experience under our belts before we even graduate. Following graduation, we have to pass a certification exam and become licensed to practice. Most ATs have NPI numbers. While we do sometimes train athletes in comprehensive, injury prevention-based strength and conditioning programs, we also respond to, assess, and treat injuries, illnesses, and ongoing medical conditions. We have unique expertise in the recognition and management of concussions. We help rehabilitate injuries from the moment they happen until the athlete steps back on the field days or months later. We refer patients to other members of our sports medicine team when necessary. We focus on preventing injury through education, hydration, strengthening, taping, and bracing. We work and collaborate with surgeons, physicians, physical therapists, physician assistants, chiropractors, family medicine doctors, parents, coaches and other athletic trainers. But that’s still not all.

Athletic trainers work in all kinds of environments; from physical therapy clinics, to doctors’ offices and operating rooms. From high schools to middle schools to colleges and universities. From performing arts to the military. Often most visible are the professional sports settings, as team ATs or injury spotters. We’re even branching out into the industrial setting, minimizing worker’s compensation claims through prevention and saving companies tens of thousands of dollars. There are those that work “PRN,” or “as needed.” And there are those that work to educate the next generation of athletic trainers in accredited athletic training programs. Athletic trainers are ready to wear many hats day to day; acting as a confidant one minute, then a nurse, coach, parent, or friend the next, and oftentimes all of these in one day. Due to our versatility and the variety of our knowledge and skill sets, athletic trainers continue to forge new paths into different fields, as new settings discover uses for these jacks-of-all-trades. I remember a professor describing athletic trainers like a multi-tool – because we’ve got a little something for everything we might encounter.

At any location, we are also prepared for the worst-case scenario. A lot of spectators at athletic events see us on the sidelines, sitting on a Gator or handing out water. What they don’t often recognize is that we are ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. That we are watching every snap, every play and every contact, hoping we aren’t needed. I’m sure it looks like an easy job; on a calm night with no obvious injuries, especially when the weather is cooperating. But we’re also there during late-night practices, scrimmages, tryouts, sometimes away games. During summer conditioning and the off-season, whether rain or shine, sleet or snow. When an athlete goes down, we wait for them to get back up. If they don’t, we are there. If they pop back up, I always breathe a sigh of relief. Most people won’t notice that I’ll still go and subtly check on them when they sub out, just to make sure. If they stay down, if there is a medical emergency, we have planned and practiced the situation in advance. We are calm under pressure and can save lives.

Injuries are a part of sports. They always have been and they always will be. It’s part of what makes them thrilling to watch. The crunch of helmet to helmet over the line of scrimmage. The smack of two bodies colliding as they struggle midair for a header. Even the skidding of knees on the unforgiving basketball court as opposing players dive for a loose ball. But athletic trainers watch with a different perspective. It’s what makes us so essential on the sidelines. Nobody wants to lose time because of an injury; but for some it is inevitable, and our job is to make it as safe and painless an experience as possible. And sometimes to enjoy a good game when we can.

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