All In the Family

The long-held tradition among athletic trainers to put work before family is starting to be questioned. This article offers solutions for balancing personal life with career in the athletic training setting.

By David Hill

David Hill is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 13.7, October 2003,

Eric Day’s epiphany came at, of all places, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association’s 1999 Hall of Fame induction luncheon. Out of school only three years, Day noticed a theme as the inductees gave their acceptance speeches.

“Six out of 10 apologized to their families for not always being there,” says Day, MA, LAT, ATC. “They said that they were glad that their families supported their career choice but they were sorry they often couldn’t make their son or daughter’s own athletic event, or play, or something like that.”

For Day, the luncheon speeches hit a nerve. Engaged to a woman he’d met during his sophomore year in college, he became aware that he hardly saw her at all on weekends because of his schedule as an athletic trainer. “Basically, I received a message that in order to achieve the highest level in this profession, you’re going to have to make sacrifices, and in their cases, it was their family,” he says. “And that’s just not me.”

Now, Day is out of direct full-time athletic training. Instead, he runs a placement service linking athletic trainers with jobs, primarily at summer sports camps, and works at home—during hours he sets.

Day might have figured it out a bit earlier than many, but the idea of sacrificing personal life for career is familiar in athletic training. Long hours, early-morning and late-night work, weekend after weekend on the job, little downtime through the year—these are standard operating procedures, many say. But do they need to be? Some athletic trainers are starting to question the long hours. They see the conflict driving good people out of the profession and keeping many others away.

Why is it this way? Are there alternatives? What are some ways to cope? How can you better balance on the work-personal life tightrope?

In the view of many athletic trainers, much of the problem stems from the mentality that long hours are something to be proud of. “If you look back 50, 60, 70 years ago to the old-time guys who started the profession, that was their work ethic,” says Mike Matheny, MS, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer and Clinical Associate Professor at Ithaca College. “They really had to prove their worth to the administrators, and one of the ways of doing that was to always be there and always be available.”

Another part of the problem is the nature of the job, particularly in the college setting. Travel piles up working hours, and weekend contests eat up time that would otherwise be spent at home. Work has to be done around student-athletes’ class schedules, which requires early starts, late finishes, and being on duty most weekends. New NCAA rules requiring the presence of qualified medical staff at off-season voluntary workouts eat into the historically mellow summer.

In addition, the qualities that make them good professionals can make athletic trainers inseparable from their work, says Leroy Mullins, ATC, Director of Sports Medicine at the University of Mississippi. “Most athletic trainers I know who have been in the business more than 10 years are ‘get-it-done’ people,” he says. “They get things done because there’s a need. Years ago, if administrators or coaches wanted something done, they’d give it to the athletic trainer. You will never see a full-time coach standing outside a bus seeing who gets on and who doesn’t. Things like that get passed down to the athletic trainers at a lot of schools.

“Take drug testing,” Mullins continues. “That got dumped into athletic trainers’ laps because it was part of their health management duties. Getting the athletes’ urine samples, putting the samples in cups, and sending them off to be tested became part of the job.”

Day knows of a head athletic trainer at a college who, when an equipment manager was fired, stepped in to launder the uniforms—only to be immediately made the de facto equipment manager on top of his sports medicine duties. “We’re so used to catering to the athlete, and our profession is basically to take care of people,” Day says. “We get so focused on that, that we don’t take care of ourselves.”

When Bernie DePalma, MEd, ATC, PT, took the job of Head Athletic Trainer at Cornell University, he was single and unattached. But he encountered a few staff members who attributed their divorces to the time spent at work. “I had to figure out a better way to do it,” DePalma says.

Now married with two children, he did figure out a better way, and makes sure his staff understands that the traditional mentality is not healthy for the long run. “Starting out in the profession, if you’re single, you really don’t have any boundaries,” he says. “You can go ahead and work 12- or 14-hour days, seven days a week, and love it. The problem arises when you meet someone and decide to get married or commit to that person. If you’re used to working long hours, and if you don’t put any thought into it, your relationship might be on a disaster course right away.

“Then, if you decide to have children, trying to balance the professional and the personal life with your wife and children becomes very difficult. That’s when you’ve go to step back and look at your staff. You’ve got to look at the responsibilities you have and delegate. You need to become a better manager to balance the aspects of your life at that point.”

For Nelson Jones, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer at Presbyterian College, the turning point came several years ago when he realized that, though he was single and had no problem with long hours, as the school’s only athletic trainer, neither he nor the athletes benefited from his being stretched too thin. “There was nothing in my life that stood up and slapped me in the face,” he says. “It was a gradual process where I started saying to myself, ‘Hey, you can’t keep this up. It’s not fair to you, it’s not fair to the kids.’”

The first step to achieving a better work-personal life balance is simply establishing a more efficient schedule. Many sports-medicine programs are abandoning the idea that every staff member has to be in the training room first thing each morning in favor of rotating the duty or designating certain people to open and others to close. Other programs are setting office hours for individual staff members and taking a fresh look at what it means to have the responsibility for a particular team of athletes.

Matheny’s department, for instance, builds in downtime during morning hours, based on a weekly schedule. In the fall, he has primary responsibility for Ithaca’s varsity football team, teaches in the school’s athletic training curriculum program, and has administrative duties. His weekly schedule requires him to open the athletic training room on Mondays, and he teaches class Tuesday and Thursday mornings, but on Wednesdays and Fridays, he won’t come in until lunchtime, instead spending mornings with daughter Megan, 3, or taking Carlyn, 6, to kindergarten, while his wife, Shelly, a former athletic trainer herself, works as a part-time youth sports coach.

When DePalma arrived at Cornell, he immediately lightened the load by limiting each ATC to primary responsibility for two teams instead of three. For the third team, the ATC would have a liaison—a graduate assistant or experienced student in the athletic training department—and then have two in-season periods and an off-season, DePalma says. “In that off-season, they would still be working, but they would be covering the home base and not traveling. That freed up a good chunk of the year—a couple of months, at least—to get a little more balance in their life.”

DePalma also gives staff members free rein to schedule themselves. “They let me know when they’re working,” he says. “It works out great. Because they have ownership in it, they do the right thing.”

The key is to invest a little upfront time in planning and scheduling. Steve Gruenewald, LAT, ATC, one of three athletic trainers at Americas High School in El Paso, Texas, admits that having no teaching duties and two colleagues to share his work is a great situation. But scheduling the staff takes some effort each month, he says. The three rotate early and late duty through each week, and he tries to arrange event coverage to minimize problems, such as avoiding early-morning shifts after late nights.

He also gives each staff member one Saturday off every month. Volleyball, basketball, and baseball have games at some level on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturday mornings in their respective seasons. But Gruenewald arranges things so that if someone works a Friday afternoon, someone else will work Saturday morning.

“The first Saturday this September we have a Friday night football game in Midland, a five-hour drive, and they’ll get back around 3 a.m. Then we’ve got j.v. and freshman football Saturday morning and a varsity volleyball tournament going Friday night and Saturday. Instead of the three of us covering the varsity football game as we normally do, my two partners will go to Midland with football, and I’ll stay here and cover the volleyball tournament and sub-varsity football.”

The scheduling allows each of the three to plan their month and count on some away-from-work time. In Gruenewald’s case, it’s enough to raise four children, hold a leadership position in his church, pursue a doctorate, and serve as commander of his Army Reserve unit.

Daily schedules can also be restructured with room for downtime. “If you figure it out, you realize there are ways to get away,” DePalma says. “In day-to-day coverage, can a student or a grad assistant cover the practice while you run errands or see your family and then check back? Can you leave for two hours while the team is on the field and then come back for the post-practice treatments to wrap things up? There are ways to work around things.”

Such a schedule does require extra communication, DePalma says. For instance, athletic trainers need to tell the teams they’re working with what their schedules are—that they may need to make an appointment for treatments, or possibly see another athletic trainer at times. This, adds DePalma, is where technology comes in. Injury-reporting software is invaluable in allowing members of a staff to instantly know the status of a particular athlete’s case, while e-mail and cell phones allow questions to be answered and new concerns shared.

“If you communicate with your head coach, you may not need to be there all the time,” DePalma says. “Call the coach and say, ‘I’m at home with my family and I have my cell phone. If my assistant in the training room can’t help, feel free to call me at home.’ Quite frankly, I don’t remember a time when I’ve been called.

“And when you really press an athlete,” DePalma adds, “ask him or her, ‘Why can’t you be here at noon?’ You may find there is not a conflict with a class. The athlete can come for treatments on your time.”

Cheryl Cundy, MS, ATC, Assistant Athletic Trainer at the University of Missouri, has also found that coaches and athletes can be flexible if you simply ask them. Her teams expect her to be available for most treatments as well as practices and events. But they also understand that she’s working hard to balance time with husband, Tim, a golf professional at the university course, and their son, Ty, 2.

“There are times when I have to take Ty to an appointment,” she says. “I tell the softball team, ‘I’ll be here at this time, and other than that you’ll have to get somebody else to help you.’ Or I try to write treatments for them that are a little more independent for that day, and I can do more hands-on things the next day. They’re pretty accommodating to that. Nothing is really skipped because I’m not here.”

Mary Meier, MS, LAT, ATC, Athletic Training Program Director and Assistant Athletic Trainer at Iowa State University, juggles work with raising three small children and has a strategy similar to Cundy’s. “I tell athletes I’ll be here during specifically scheduled office hours if they want to see me,” Meier says. “Otherwise, they’ll see someone else.”

Being able to delegate, share responsibility, and sometimes say “no” depends on trust—in oneself and one’s colleagues. For many athletic trainers, the first step is gaining perspective on the situation—trusting your own beliefs on what’s realistic and what isn’t—then communicating the problem to others.

In Jones’ case, at Presbyterian, the first move was to talk with his athletic director about his workload. After some discussion, the athletic director agreed to hire an assistant. Jones gently raised two factors: liability, particularly in light of then-developing NATA staffing standards; and equity, as he generally did not travel with women’s teams. “When you start talking in legal terms, those ears that need to listen all of a sudden perk up,” Jones says.

Now, the assistant travels with the women’s basketball team—Jones hadn’t regularly gone on the road with the Lady Blue Hose—and sees most female athletes for treatment and rehab. The college also has a certified graduate assistant. The result is that Jones has more time for administrative work, and, perhaps most importantly, someone with whom he can share athletic training room hours and home-event coverage. “Taking some of that away from one person and putting it in other capable hands definitely helped alleviate burnout,” Jones says.

Trusting colleagues is also key, which is why Mike Roberts, MS, ATC, Director of Sports Medicine at Auburn University, schedules regular in-service sessions and weekly staff meetings, even during the grueling fall term. These get-togethers help ensure everyone is on the same page, be it on emergency protocols or NCAA rules, Roberts says. The department also has a “journal club,” through which members update one another on the latest sports-medicine research.

“We try to make a oneness of our whole department, if you will, whether it’s one individual team or one group of things,” Roberts says. “We can buy all kinds of tools, but it still comes down to a people issue.”

Those outside sports medicine need to be involved, too. This is especially true when there are few if any colleagues with whom to share the work. At Southern Utah University, Head Athletic Trainer Ricky Mendini, MEd, ATC, says that when he explains the unique schedules of athletic trainers to coaches and administrators, they almost always understand.

“There have been instances that people wanted to practice at odd times,” Mendini says. “I’ve gone to the head coach and said, ‘That’s really difficult for us. You can practice from 8 until 10 at night, but you don’t have to come back to school until 2 in the afternoon. We can’t come in at 2 p.m.; we have to be here in the morning.’ And they’ve pretty much understood the situation and made it work for all of us.”

And sometimes, an athletic trainer simply has to learn to say “no,” especially at one-person sports-medicine departments. Christina Emrich, ATC, Athletic Trainer at Red Bank (N.J.) Regional High School, says she works six days a week most of the year and accepts it. She’s the school’s only athletic trainer. About the only time she’s missed a game in her eight years there was when she had an important personal evening commitment and called on a fellow athletic trainer who worked elsewhere. But when coaches try to schedule a Sunday practice, she puts her foot down, and they respect it. “I tell them, no, that’s my day off,” Emrich says.

As important as it is to trust and communicate with colleagues, coaches, and athletes, there’s another group of people who figure into the balancing act. “If you’ve got a family at home, remember them, and somewhere in the morning call them,” says Mullins. “If you live close enough, go home for lunch, even if it’s nothing but a peanut butter sandwich, and then call before you go home at night to see if your spouse needs anything. And set a time every night to turn the TV off, put down the newspaper, and look at each other and talk.”

For Meier, the only way to manage career and family is to carefully plan everything with her husband, Jamie, an Iowa State athletic equipment manager who travels with the football team. They have a corps of baby sitters, and Meier’s parents or 17-year-old niece can come from Nebraska to take the kids for a weekend. But the logistics can be daunting.

“Jamie and I huddle once a week,” she says. “So, on a Monday morning, I’ll say, ‘I have a volleyball tournament Sept. 27. What does football have that weekend?’ But you also have to foresee what might come up. What if a game goes into overtime? Looking ahead is vital.”

Another tactic is to bring the family along for some face time. Admittedly, this isn’t for everyone, and some settings just aren’t safe, proper, or fun for kids, especially if they are young and need constant attention. “Spending the weekend in a hotel room with a couple of kids is no vacation for your spouse,” DePalma offers.

But a hidden perk of athletic training is that most settings are safe and pleasant enough to occasionally include the family, and that many children relish the chance to be around athletes. Mendini’s daughters regularly attend football practices, helping carry supplies to the field and chatting with the players. “They usually just hang out with me on the sidelines during practice and help get water out to the athletes or with small chores around the training room.”

For Mullins, the family-work blend has gone even farther. His son, Tim, started coming to campus at age 10. By his high school sophomore year, he was there most afternoons. Today, Tim Mullins, MS, ATC, is Ole Miss’s Head Athletic Trainer. Father and son work together. What’s more, three generations are present when Tim brings his son, Hayden, 3, along. The elder Mullins says Tim has already figured out how to find a work-home balance.

“I must say that he is learning to go home quicker than his dad did,” Leroy Mullins says. “He keeps saying, ‘I don’t want to be like you, the way that you had to work all the time.’”

Sidebar: Smart Delegating
When talk arises of maintaining career-personal balance, the first word that usually comes up is “delegate.” But the hardest thing to delegate can be covering the sports you love.

Bernie DePalma, MEd, ATC, PT, Head Athletic Trainer at Cornell University, still travels with the football team, but other squads are covered by staff ATCs. That proved tough last winter, when the Big Red men’s ice hockey squad, arguably the school’s highest-profile team, went to the Frozen Four. DePalma knows, though, that he and the department are better served if he is free to concentrate on administrative duties.

Mike Roberts, MS, ATC, Director of Sports Medicine at Auburn University, doesn’t cover any team, not even Tigers football. “My energies need to be spent mainly on what we need to do to make it better for all of us, not just help with what we have today,” he says. “If I spend all of my time working on and thinking about and doing just what’s in front of me, how do I ever plan for the future? How do I ever get better?”

Roberts says he also tries to instill the same thinking in his staff of six full-time certified athletic trainers. These ATCs have primarily on-field, everyday responsibility for only one team. But they also oversee a graduate assistant or intern who has that duty for other teams. That way, he says, they’re learning to manage and set priorities, too.