Ready for the Real World

Advice from veteran athletic trainers on how to make the transition from student to certified athletic trainer as smooth as it can be.

By Jim Catalano

Jim Catalano is an Associate Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 12.9, December 2002,

For some athletic training students, graduation and real life are just around the corner. Others still have a couple more years before they’ll be looking for that first athletic training job. Regardless of which group you’re in, it’s never too early to start preparing for the real world.

But what are the hurdles you face in the transition to a full-time job? What makes the recently hired athletic trainer succeed in his or her first career stop? For this article, we asked some veteran athletic trainers what you should look out for during this transition.

Paul LaDuke, MSS, ATC, CSCS, Athletic Trainer in the Lower Dauphin School District in Hummelstown, Pa., feels many new hires are quickly overwhelmed by the amount of work required. “It has been my experience that new athletic trainers at the high school level lack the ability to multi-task,” he says. “Many of these new ATCs I have met come from large university programs where there is a big staff. They’ve graduated with great grades and passed the exam on the first try, and know what they are doing.

“But they go to the high school training room after school and get that ‘deer in the headlights’ look because they have 30 kids to tape, four athletes waiting to be evaluated, and no help,” LaDuke continues. “They have 30 minutes to do the work and then have to cover three to five games and even more practices.”

LaDuke advises new athletic trainers to hang in there, noting that it often takes two or three years before they feel comfortable working at a large high school. “The toughest thing to learn is the ability to say ‘No, I can’t do that’ or ‘I can’t cover that,’” he says. “You also have to learn that you can’t be in two places at once and that you can’t be perfect. Admit that you will make mistakes—relax, we all do.”

Another area new athletic trainers often need to work on is their self-confidence. “Many newcomers to the profession are not assertive enough,” says Michael Eddington, ATC/L, Head Athletic Trainer at Olentangy High School in Lewis Center, Ohio. “This uncertainty in themselves prevents one from delivering the highest quality healthcare that ATCs have been educated to provide.

“In the first couple of years when recent graduates are on their own in the field, it is crucial that they establish themselves as the person who is capable of making the decisions and able to handle the problems that are presented to them,” he continues. “Job satisfaction grows and the environment that one works in becomes more enjoyable if you are able to successfully assert yourself when the situation presents itself.”

Gai Clemmer, MS, ATC, Manager of Sports Medicine Operations at McLaren Regional Medical Center in Flint, Mich., agrees with Eddington. “It seems that what new graduates are most lacking is the ‘go-get-’em’ attitude,” Clemmer says. “What I am referring to is their inability to be aggressive as an athletic trainer and a tendency to look for a lot of direction from other colleagues before making a decision on certain situations.

“The other aspect is that they do not expect to work hard,” Clemmer continues. “When I graduated, I was drilled that this is what being an ATC is all about. Most want to work a 40-hour week, but this is usually not the case in many settings. Working to accomplish a goal, no matter the time commitment, makes me extremely proud to be an athletic trainer and is what my mentors taught me.”

New hires also often overlook the value and importance of communicating with their peers. “I have been an athletic trainer since 1984 and have worked in the high school setting the entire time,” says Michael Goldenberg, MS, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer at The Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, N.J. “And the one area that stands out with me is the lack of communication with coaches of visiting teams and with other athletic trainers at the schools they play.

“Every year, you should send a letter to the schools that you play introducing yourself and what you have for coverage at your school,” he continues. “This would include contact information, supplies available, etc. There have been many new athletic trainers that have come and gone at certain schools and not once did I get a letter from them telling me that they were new in the area, even after they received my letter.”

Goldenberg also stresses the importance of communication skills when following up on cases both from your school and visiting schools. “There also seems to be a lack of communication when someone is hurt from my school and is taken to the hospital,” he says. “Many of my older colleagues call whenever this type of situation occurs. I had an athlete that an athletic trainer sent to the ER with a possible fractured neck, and I never got a call. They did not even try to call the school athletic department—I found out the next day through a parent.

“Finally, my coaches tell me that when they go to other schools outside our league, the athletic trainers never introduce themselves. Many times they do not even know if there is one on site. The athletic trainers in my league are about my age and have been around for a while. They introduce themselves to our coaches just as I do to every visiting coach.”

It’s also important to realize that although you might be done with school, you’re not done learning. “The biggest quality that athletic training students lack is that many feel that they have obtained all the skills needed to be a good ATC as undergrads,” says Kyle Diamond, MAT, ATC, CSCS, Director of Sports Medicine at the University of New Haven. “Therefore, they do not process feedback appropriately. If you suggest that they try something different, something they did not learn in class, they either do not try it or try it briefly and then dismiss it as not being effective.

“Athletic training students need to understand that being a good ATC involves constant re-education and open-mindedness,” Diamond continues. “Our profession is always improving the way we treat and manage injuries and those new ways should be considered as valid and as important as the concepts learned in classes as an undergrad.”

“A good athletic trainer is always a student, always learning, always reading, always consulting peers,” agrees Jane Steinberg, ATC/L, Director of the Athletic Training Education Program at Carson-Newman College. “No one will ever take the place of your mentor, but you should be willing to gain another.”

Finally, it’s important for athletic training students to realize that as good as their education is, it cannot possible train them for every situation they will face on the job. In other words, expect to face the unexpected.

“Many new athletic trainers have a lack of adaptability and imagination,” says David Henze, MS ATC/L, Senior Athletic Training Administrator at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. “They seem to expect everything they encounter to fall into a ‘cookie-cutter’ mold. But it isn’t that way in the real world.”