March…It’s Athletic Training Month

Somehow it says March on the calendar again so that means it is time to celebrate the 2013 edition of National Athletic Training Month. Before we pop the champagne to celebrate with the 35,000 members of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA), I wanted to write an article in an attempt to promote my profession and to give the reader a glimpse into the skill sets and importance of athletic trainers.


This is making a big generalization, but based on my thirteen years around the athletic training profession I am sure 50-75% of the people reading this article are not exactly sure what an athletic trainer does or confuses an athletic trainer for a personal trainer. More times than not, when I meet somebody for the first time and introduce myself as an athletic trainer his or her immediate response is something along the lines of “I need to come see you to lose weight or I need to get back in shape.” I often politely reply that they have mistaken me for a personal trainer and that I deal more in the prevention, recognition and treatment of orthopedic injuries and sports illnesses. Athletic trainers do use therapeutic exercise as both a way of preventing and rehabilitating injuries, but providing exercise instruction might be one of the only skills we share in common. I have many good friends who are personal trainers and they are great at what they do. Although our names are similar we have different skill sets.


The name athletic trainer is a misnomer. If you are like me you may have asked what is a misnomer? According to one of the most reliable sources out there, Wikipedia defines a misnomer as a word or term that suggests a meaning that is known to be wrong. Misnomers often arise because the thing named received its name long before its true nature was known. We as a profession and a professional organization know that athletic trainer is an incorrect description of what we do, but the NATA was founded way back in 1950 when athletic trainers mostly worked with college and professional athletes and acted both as a first aid provider and presumably as something like a calisthenics coach. The profession has evolved since the early days, but the name has been stuck in the 1950’s for several reasons. It is not easy to change a professional name after sixty plus years. This has the potential to create even more confusion, not to mention having to rebrand businesses and start new education campaigns. There are also countless legal documents, both state and federal, referring to athletic trainers and this might be the stickiest issue of them all. So for now, we are a walking, talking misnomer.


Since we have the name thing cleared up, how does one become an athletic trainer? Since I couldn’t say it any more concisely I’m copying and pasting what is on the National Athletic Trainers’ Association website:


Students who want to become certified athletic trainers must earn a degree from an accredited athletic training curriculum. Accredited programs include formal instruction in areas such as injury/illness prevention, first aid and emergency care, assessment of injury/illness, human anatomy and physiology, therapeutic modalities, and nutrition. Classroom learning is enhanced through clinical education experiences. More than 70 percent of certified athletic trainers hold at least a master’s degree. 


As I was going through my athletic training program at Indiana University I spent approximately 2,000 hours outside of the classroom both shadowing and having hands-on experience under the supervision of licensed athletic trainers and team physicians. The classwork and the clinical experiences gave me the confidence and knowledge to pass the NATA Board of Certification National Exam.


Athletic trainers have been recognized by the American Medical Association as an allied health occupation since 1990. Athletic trainers are qualified to assess and treat injuries such as concussions, ACL injuries, heat stroke and high ankle sprains. Those are more of the head line making injuries, but we also see turf toe, tennis elbow, low back pain, runner’s knee, ankle sprains, stiff necks, and on and on. I often tell people if they have pain with movement they could benefit from an athletic trainer’s guidance.


One day an athletic trainer may be assessing a concussion, another day he or she may be rehabilitating a patient recently having a Tommy John surgery, other times they might be fitting and applying protecting braces or tapings. When you are watching a sporting event and you see an injured athlete, the person running out onto the field is going to be an athletic trainer, maybe accompanied by a team physician or an assistant athletic trainer. We are trained to recognize injury severity and take appropriate measures for protecting the injured athlete and helping to determine return to play decisions. Sometimes that injury will be a muscle cramp, other times it may be a potentially serious neck or head injury. Every injury is unique and it will be up to the athletic trainer and the physician to help determine when it is safe for the patient (athlete) to return to work or sport.


Most people are familiar with athletic trainers working at high schools, colleges and professional sports teams. You might be surprised to know that you can also run into athletic trainers working at the rodeo, at your physician’s office, with Cirque du Soleil, at a physical therapy clinic, at a hospital, at a workplace or on a military base.


I hope you made it this far and you now have a better understanding of the athletic training profession. Next time you meet an athletic trainer I want you to ask him or her one of the following questions: What do you think about all these new laws regarding concussions? Is it common for athletes to return to high-level sports nine months after having an ACL repair like Adrian Peterson? Not only will you impress them, but you will also be in for a good conversation!


There are many great resources to find out more about athletic trainers and the profession. The National Athletic Trainers’ Association website is a great place to start!


Nathan has been a certified athletic trainer since 2003. He is a licensed athletic trainer in the state of Wisconsin, a Corrective Exercise Specialist and he is co-owner at Mindful Motion Physical Therapy, LLC in Madison, Wisconsin.


These are the thoughts and opinions of the author and they do not constitute medical advice.  For advice on medical issues you should always consult your local medical practitioner.