Athletic trainers play a critical role on sports teams. You’ll often see them on the sidelines and when someone is injured during a sporting event. This is only a portion of their work.
Athletic trainers are multi-skilled health care professionals. They work with athletes in prevention, examination, assessment, treatment and rehabilitation of injuries and medical conditions assuring the fastest and safest return to play. Certification and licensing in athletic training requires a minimum of master’s degree. Many athletic trainers are dual-credentialed as teachers, physical therapists, physician assistants or EMTs. They impact sports at all levels from youth, recreational, high school, college and professional sports.
Athletic trainers in action
The athletic trainers’ work starts before the season, with preseason conditioning and injury prevention programs. They review emergency action plans with administration, coaches and emergency medical providers. Athletic trainers inspect equipment and the field for safety issues and help coaches prepare medical kits and safe practice plans.
During the season, athletic trainers attend practice and games. They prepare the emergency equipment, observe and evaluate players and care for injuries. In a game situation, athletes and coaches focus on the game. An athletic trainer’s priority is the athletes’ health and welfare. “Instead of watching the play, we are watching for situations that cause injuries and observe for mechanisms of injury,” said Sam Voight, LAT, Marshfield Clinic Health System licensed athletic trainer.
Impact isn’t the only important factor identifying a potential injury. Some athletes want to hide their injuries so they can keep playing. “We watch the athletes get up after hitting the ground and how they return to the huddle or the bench,” he said. “We watch their faces and pay attention to their body language for signs of injury.”
Responding to injuries
When an injury happens, the athletic trainer responds within seconds, stays calm and evaluates the situation. They identify the safest way to help the athlete back to the bench and then evaluate to determine treatment options. “They are the first to provide care in emergency situations,” Voight said. “Athletic trainers facilitate a team approach to medical care. We refer to emergency medical providers and team physicians and involve coaches, administrators and all other medical providers as needed.”
Athletes and coaches are focused on returning to play. It’s the athletic trainer’s job to maintain a focus on the big picture of the athlete’s health and welfare within the context of sports. They are a part of the medical team that determines if it is safe to return. Sometimes there’s an unpopular decision to keep athletes out of the game to prevent an injury from becoming worse. After medical clearance of an injury, athletic trainers evaluate the athletes’ flexibility, including range of motion, strength and function and psychology to help determine their ability to play. They then progress the athlete through a sport-specific program until they are ready to return safely.
Athletic trainers also follow up regularly to make sure the athlete is following doctor’s or therapist’s recommendations and home programs for recovery. “If they are any deficits we work with athletes to determine what they need to do, help to motivate them to do it and observe to make sure they get it right,” he said.
Beyond the game
Since athletes trust their athletic trainers with sports injuries, they are often the first provider for other medical conditions that affect athletic performance. These conditions can include managing nutrition, weight control and eating disorders, illness, diabetes, asthma, severe allergies, skin conditions, anxiety and stress, post-surgical concerns and more.
Athletic trainers help athletes by caring for minor injuries and making referrals when needed before a problem becomes serious. “Unfortunately, some more severe conditions can first present themselves as mysteries in the training room first,” Voight said. “We definitely need to be on-our-toes and make sure these problems get to the appropriate provider as soon as possible.”
Athletic trainers work closely to assure proper communication between the athlete, parents, coaches and medical staff while maintaining medical confidentiality.
“We help to minimize pain and maximize the return to quality of life activities that athletes and their parents, coaches and fans so appreciate,” he said.