The super versatile, super vital role of athletic trainers

An athletic trainer wrapping a football player's foot

Posted 3/10/2022

Sports medicine’s health care specialists on and off the field

You’ve seen them hustling across the football field or crouching beside a player on the sideline whose face is twisted in pain.

They don’t wear the black and white stripes of the referee, but their breed is just as easy to spot. And their presence on the field can be just as critical as a game-changing field goal, free throw or hat trick.

Enter the athletic trainer, or AT.

Often sporting khaki pants, a fanny pack and a polo or sports shirt in team colors, ATs are recognizable in how they look and, more importantly, for what they do.

But if in your mind’s eye you picture an NFL or NBA game, it might surprise you to know the diverse places where ATs work.

With March being National Athletic Training Month, we want to recognize ATs as vital practitioners of health care. This year, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) is celebrating the theme “Providing Health Care Everywhere.”

The theme broadly promotes ATs whose profession centers on injury prevention, treatment and ongoing wellness management. And while most often associated with sports, ATs work as health care professionals in many settings beyond the playing field.

Beyond just athletics

There’s high regard for the public work that athletic trainers do in helping individuals avoid injury and recover from injury.

Not surprising, then, are the national standards that trainers are held to.

ATs must graduate with a bachelors or master’s degree and pass the Board of Certification Exam (BOC) to work with professional athletes. There’s also regular renewals on that certification to demonstrate continued learning and competence.

All this is to ensure that athletes are healthy and performing at their peak potential.

But think about the word “athlete.” You may think of athletics in a traditional sense – youth and high school programs to college and professional divisions – on the playing field, ice rink, basketball court, you name it.

But ATs do their work in many job settings and treat a range of individuals beyond those traditional venues, such as:

  • Doctors’ offices
  • Hospitals and emergency rooms
  • Urgent Care centers
  • Rehabilitation clinics

Outside of clinical settings, there are emerging job settings where ATs are finding new opportunities in public safety, military schools and the armed forces, performing arts and aeronautics. These industries employ individuals who need certain levels of athletic fitness to do their jobs.

Add to those, various commercial settings like airlines, warehouses, hotel/resort and theme parks, and an athletic trainer’s scope of practice broadens even more.

For each of these sectors ATs are required to have specific training to provide medical care based on the unique activities, physical demands and requirements of the patients they treat.
No matter the type of athlete or athletic patient or the job environment, ATs work as an extension of and overall medical team.

Let’s break it down by key areas of an athletic trainer’s role.

Injury prevention

Injuries are a part of life.

But if you’re an athlete or a weekend warrior, or you have a very active or physical job, you likely have more instances of injury than someone who’s not as active.

If you’ve been sidelined from work, missed out hanging with friends or playing your sport because of injury – or a repeated injury – there’s good news.
Working with an AT now can help avoid injury later. Put another way, you don’t have to wait until you’re injured to address the issue. 
Your AT can identify any weaknesses or conditions that may be leading to your injuries and plan preventive measures to correct them.

Called prehab, preventive tactics are designed to decrease your risk of future injury.

  • Functional movement screen. Done by an athletic trainer to identify dysfunctional or painful movement patterns. Exercises are prescribed to correct movement and any imbalances you may have acquired in compensating for pain. Exercises can be done on their own or as part of your warm-up before activity. For example, a proper warm-up using dynamic stretching can help increase blood flow to loosen your muscles prior to your activity, whether it’s working out or warming up before performing a concert or dance routine.
  • Recovery planning. Proper nutrition, hydration and sleep are all needed to keep the body in the right state for exercise. But it takes planning and adaptation to adopt the right approach for your body and your activity level. Your AT can advise on the right balance for your wellness. This advanced planning helps produce optimal performance through brain to body communication. So get good sleep, stay nourished and hydrated and warm-up!

Post-injury. Return to play. Return to work.

The moment has finally come.

You sustained an injury (ouch!).

You completed the recovery process (hooray!)

What comes next?

The next stage in post-injury progression is your return – return to play (RTP) or return to work.

This happens after your medical care provider is satisfied with your progress and clears you to get back to sports and physical activities. Working with an athletic trainer is essential in getting to this stage.

Your AT has done functional tests and collected performance stats to gauge your readiness for activity, at what level and at what pace.

For athletes, and depending on the injury, tests can include sprints, cutting drills and jumps for lower body injuries, or lifting movements such as throwing and push-pulling for upper body injuries. 

ATs use the stats to pinpoint any deficits remaining post-injury recovery, like limping or weakness, which could hinder you from safely retuning to play.

If testing is clear of any concerns, you’ll get the green light to return to full activity.

If there are areas of concerns, your trainer may plan additional exercises, or modify your activity level to help you improve on the deficits and continue toward full clearance.

Return to play is unique to each athlete and injury. The goal of functional testing and injury recovery is to ensure your safety and the safety of others on the playing field when returning from an injury.

Onsite emergency care

Although it’s not something we like to think about, medical emergencies can happen at any moment, in any environment.

Athletic trainers are skilled medical providers who are trained in first aid, CPR and automated external defibrillator use (AED) in the case of sudden cardiac arrest.

With their advanced medical education, ATs are prepared to handle emergency situations that may arise, especially on the playing field.

Whether its keeping up-to-date with the most current first aid and CPR standards, revising emergency action plans or drilling emergency situations with members of the sports medicine team, athletic trainers are usually first responders and initiate emergency medical care when injuries happen.

There’s a tactical side to AT work, too – critical need-to-knows in the face of emergency:

  • Emergency phone numbers
  • Ambulance access points at venues
  • The integrity and working condition of onsite emergency equipment

Partner to parents, coaches and clinical team

If you’re an athlete, a parent, relative or friend of one, you may have crossed paths with a sports medicine team member at some point.

This team is a group of trained individuals who care for an athlete’s health in variety of ways.

At the center of this team is the athletic trainer.

The athletic trainer is generally the first on the scene and tends to the immediate and long-term needs of the athlete – injury evaluation through treatment and rehabilitation. But they also rely on the support of other experts.

Surrounding the athletic trainer are other talented individuals, often including:

  • physician
  • physical/occupational therapist
  • nutritionist
  • strength and conditioning coach
  • massage therapist
  • sports psychologist, among others.

The athletic trainer coordinates care between each of these individuals. They also handle all communication with coaches and family members to keep everyone in the loop with the care of the athlete. This open communication is key to managing medical care and the expectations surrounding care.

Around the world, ATs are looked to as trusted professionals playing a crucial part in health management and health care.

Multi-skilled and holding advanced certification to help athletes, performers and patients across many job settings, athletic trainers truly do provide health care everywhere.

By: Joshua Cramer, DAT, LAT, ATC, CSCS, CES, area sports medicine director for southeastern PA, and Katie Olenek, M.S., LAT, ATC, PES, area director of sports medicine for central PA.