Tale of the Tape Athletic Training Profession Grows in Terms of Popularity, Responsibilities

Susan Guyer says that many of those who enroll in Springfield College’s four-year Athletic Training program do so with visions of working for the Boston Red Sox some day.

That’s why she gives her students — and those thinking about becoming her students — what she calls a reality check. It comes in the form of hard statistics, and specifically the one about how fewer than 1{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of the athletic trainers currently employed across the country are on the payrolls of top-level professional sports teams.

This doesn’t seem to faze many of these individuals, nor should it, said Guyer, assistant professor of Athletic Training at SC. For starters, some of those who enroll in this program may very well become part of that small percentage; several of its graduates are now with major league teams, including Jim Rowe, head trainer with the Red Sox, and Barry Weinberg, head athletic trainer with the St. Louis Cardinals, among others. But more to the point, those who choose this program are drawn by an intriguing mix of medicine and sports, she explained, and most of them of them would be content no matter where they landed.

And there are many possible destinations, from those aforementioned pro sports teams to colleges and high schools; from clinical settings such as physical therapy centers to military units. There are now more than 32,000 people making a living as athletic trainers, and that number grows every year, said Tracey Dexter Matthews, associate professor of Research & Statistics at SC.

That’s because the need is escalating, she told The Healthcare News, continuing a pattern that started more than 50 years ago. Indeed, there were only a few hundred athletic trainers in the late ’50s, and just a few thousand when Springfield College created its program — one of the first in the country and still one of the largest — in 1975.

The profession, and programs to train those who want to enter it, have come a long way over the past 34 years, said Guyer, but progress has been slow to come in some areas, starting with the matter of identity.

“Sometimes our name doesn’t clearly depict what we do; I was on a plane the other day, and when I told the person sitting next me I was an athletic trainer, she said, ‘can you help me get fit?’” said Guyer, citing the confusion between this profession and that of fitness, or personal, trainer. “It’s been a problem for a long time, but whenever we discuss a possible new name, no one can come up with one that works.”

Meanwhile, salaries remain at levels below what those inside and outside the profession think they are or should be, although some improvement has been recorded. Those working at high schools usually earn in the mid-40s, said Dexter Matthews, while those with small, private colleges actually make considerably less, and the average salary for those working in professional baseball (all levels included) is still in the low 30s.

At the top rung, however, the salary, benefits, perks, and other rewards can be substantial, Guyer continued, noting that trainers can earn bonuses, royalties, and even World Series and league championship shares and rings, as Rowe and Weinberg have.

“Salary has been a battle — they’re not where we want them yet,” said Guyer. “But the numbers are improving; every time I look at the statistics, I get a little more encouraged.”

And there remain some glass ceilings, Guyer continued, noting that there are hardly any women working at the top rung of professional sports — the NFL boasts one female assistant athletic trainer, with the Pittsburgh Steelers, for example — although she believes there will be a break-through, and soon.

“Someone’s going to bust through the barrier; things are improving on many different levels,” she said, adding that interest in the program and the profession has remained steady and strong over the years. As for the salaries … “it’s not about money for these individuals; it’s a passion for being involved with athletes.”

Field of Dreams

When asked if there was a standard profile for students who enroll in SC’s program, Guyer said there’s nothing, really, beyond that aforementioned attraction to both sports and medicine, although the number of women getting involved is climbing. Indeed, for the first time last year, more than half of those enrolled in programs nationwide (51{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}) were women.

But there are some personality traits shared by most students, she added quickly, noting that anyone who doesn’t like the sight of blood should look in another direction, career-wise. And, overall, a strong stomach is a prerequisite.

“These are people who will look at the YouTube video of [former Washington Redskins quarterback] Joe Theismann getting his leg broken [the gruesome injury suffered in a 1985 game against the New York Giants] and watch it over and over and over again,” she said. “They’ll look at the tape, watch and learn, and say, ‘that’s a good knee injury,’ if you should be calling it that.”

Dissecting such video is a small part of the process of learning the athletic trainer’s main duties — to “treat, rehabilitate, and diagnose injuries and illnesses,” Guyer continued, adding that, while the place of employment may vary from a local high school to a pro hockey team, the basic job description is essentially the same.

But it’s a role that has evolved over the years, she said, adding that new responsibilities have been added as medicine, society, and attitudes about fitness and exercise have changed.

To help explain it, Guyer used her own work as a trainer for SC’s women’s basketball team, and a season in that life, as an example. She said her work starts long before the first jump ball of the season, with thorough evaluations of each player.

“I will check each one of them in a preventative strategy before the season starts, so we play a huge role in prevention,” she told The Healthcare News. “We do height, weight, blood pressure, pulse; we do orthopedic screening, and we do overhead-squat screenings to see if they have any weaknesses or any limitations in motion. We do a full health history screeing and go through it to see if there are any red flags — do they have a history of concussion? do they have diabetes? Are they an individual that’s asthmatic? What medications are they on?

“So we know a lot about this individual before they even step onto the court,” she continued, adding that, once the practice or a game begins, she’s also the first one on the scene if there’s an injury, such as a sprained ankle.

In such a scenario, the athletic trainer will check out said ankle, diagnose the problem, treat it, and monitor the situation. “I’m going to choose whatever modality I want,” she explained, “whether it’s ice and ultrasound progressing to heat and laser-light therapy. I’m going to be doing all the rehabilitation, so I’m going to get the range of motion back, and the strength back, and the balance back.”

And he or she also makes the decision about if and when the player is ready to return to the court (except in matters involving head injuries).

“It’s the trainer’s decision,” she said, noting quickly that this responsibility will sometimes, and perhaps often, lead to disagreements with coaches and the injured players in question. This explains another of the skill sets expected, if not required, of graduates — the ability to effectively communicate with a host of constituencies, even the parents of players.

And there’s more, Guyer continued, noting what she called a “psychosocial” element of the equation. Indeed, the athletic trainer is expected to help individuals cope with personal problems, common colds, and even eating disorders.

The breadth and depth of the job description can be gathered from the list of foundational and professional courses students must take over their four years. The subject matter includes human anatomy, kinesiology/biomechanics, nutrition, ‘acute care of injury and illness,’ ‘risk management and injury/illness prevention,’ health care administration, therapeutic modalities, and ‘psychosocial intervention and referral.’

In addition to work in the classroom, students must also complete field work, or practicums, that provide hands-on experience. These are undertaken at a host of area high schools, including Central in Springfield, Agawam, Southwick, and many others, and several colleges, including SC and UMass Amherst.

This combination of classroom and field work has the graduate ready for many of the possible destinations for athletic trainers, said Dexter Matthews, noting that most all seniors who want to enter the field have jobs long before commencement, but many choose to go on to master’s degrees that could open more doors.

That’s a Wrap

Summing up the realm of the athletic trainer and its popularity, Guyer said simply, “we deal with healthy people who have had an injury.”

This helps explain why this profession is more popular than some in the broad field of health care, and why there is a steady stream of interest in programs like that at Springfield College, even though the odds are very long that graduates will ever trot of the Red Sox dugout to check on Jacoby Ellsbury’s status after he’s had an encounter with the center-field wall.

“If you have a student who’s looking at a college, and they like sport, and they like medicine, this is a perfect combination,” she explained. “If you go into another profession, you’re not guaranteed to work with a physically active population that has few, if any, outside problems, like stroke.”

In other words, it’s enjoyable, rewarding work, even if you never get to take home a World Series ring.