Ask an Athletic Trainer: What Is an Athletic Trainer and Why It’s Vital That Your Athlete Has One On Their Team

From the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA.org)

You may have seen them on the sidelines of games or while watching sports on TV. They are often the first ones on the scene when a player is injured. Visions of water bottles or taping ankles may also come to mind. However, they are so much more than that and putting them in that box can be doing your athlete a grave disservice. 

What are athletic trainers?

Athletic trainers (ATs) are health care professionals who provide a safer approach to work, life and sport. They are especially unique as they are educated and trained in the prevention of injury and illness, but also have expertise in injuries, emergencies, rehabilitation, and every step in between. They are also trained on how to help players with chronic conditions such as asthma or diabetes play more safely.

Why is it critical for your student athlete’s health and safety to have one?

  1. Your Athlete’s Advocate. Athletic trainers are your child’s unbiased advocate. Their priority is the health and safety of your athlete – above winning or losing a game.
  2. Injury Prevention. ATs can help prevent injuries from occurring, prevent a minor injury from developing into a major injury, and reduce the risk of future injuries.
  3. Emergency Prevention. ATs can provide coaches with critical guidance on when, how long, and how often practices are. For example, when the temperature and humidity pose a health risk to the players for deadly, but preventable heat injury and heat stroke, ATs advise the coach on alternative times, length, and/or intensity of practice to keep the athletes safe.
  4. Emergencies. ATs can provide onsite emergency care in the event of a serious or life-threatening event such as sudden cardiac arrest, heat illness, or cervical spine injury.
  5. Communication and Coordination. In school-based sports, ATs play an important role in communication and coordination of care between the school nurse, teachers, coaches, and school administration.
  6. Mental Health. In addition to managing physical healthcare needs, ATs play an important role in supporting the mental health of student athletes. They are trained to identify red flags for mental health concerns and will work to refer your child to receive the care they need.
  7. Saving Time and Money for Your Family. If your school employs an AT, they can reduce school absenteeism and your time missed at work by providing rehabilitation and treatment of injuries on campus. Additionally, ATs can streamline the testing, diagnostics, and referral process to ensure your child is seen by the correct provider (doctor, dermatologist, dentist, etc.), and receiving only the tests needed.

How are athletic trainers different from personal trainers or strength and conditioning coaches?

Athletic trainers

Similar to other healthcare providers, ATs must receive (at minimum) a bachelor’s level education from an accredited program; however, starting next year, to become an athletic trainer, they will need to get a minimum of masters. Additionally, the profession is regulated by 49 states plus the District of Columbia. This means that ATs must be licensed and/or certified to practice within the state and are required to maintain their certification by completing continuing education, similar to other healthcare professionals.

ATs can assist in wellness and performance, they provide a full continuum of care – from the prevention of injuries to return to play, and every step in between.

Coaches

While coaches may receive training in terms of first aid or CPR, they are not trained healthcare professionals and have their own set of unique skills that are not solely focused on health and safety.

Personal Trainers

Personal trainers are those people that come to mind when you think about the gym or fitness classes. While they certainly don’t want anyone to get injured, they are not regulated and are not healthcare professionals.

What should you expect from your athletic trainer?

You should expect your athlete’s athletic trainer to be professional, provide clear and consistent communication, and proactive education and risk mitigation strategies. They should be certified or licensed as an athletic trainer and you have the right to ask for their credentials.

They should also provide unbiased and compassionate medical care. They are with your athlete almost every day and get to know your son or daughter, a privilege no other medical professional gets to have with their patients.

What to do if your school or team does not have an athletic trainer?

The reality is that not every school prioritizes health and safety of their athletes. If they have sports, there should be enough athletic trainers available to provide care to all sports disciplines.

If your school doesn’t have an athletic trainer, or not enough on their team to take care of your athlete’s sport, talk to the coach or athletic director. Determine the level of awareness and discuss the increased risk that both the athletes and school face (lawsuits) without an AT. If the staff is aware of the importance of the AT, determine what obstacles prevent the school from employing an AT and gather support from fellow parents and those in the community. Present to the school board or league administration and engage with leaders at your school or club to develop a plan for hiring an AT. We have resources to help you with this at https://www.atyourownrisk.org/.

One thing to keep in mind. Tournaments, travel clubs, and community sports usually do not have athletic trainers available. Before signing up, make there is an AT on-site to ensure player safety. If there is not one, programs such as “Go4Ellis” makes it easy to hire ATs for per diem work.

Athletic trainers are here for you and your athlete. For more information about the profession, to advocate for an athletic trainer on your team, or to learn more about athletic training as a potential profession for your athlete, please visit nata.org or atyourownrisk.org.

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