Delegate, Congregate, Educate

These three activities should constitute your fall gameplan for a sound staff development strategy.

By Guillermo Metz

Guillermo Metz is a former Associate Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 14.6, September 2004,

If you’re like most veteran head athletic trainers, you learned by observing. When you began your career, you followed other athletic trainers around and asked a lot of questions. You went to conferences and networked like crazy.

Today, however, it takes a bit more to develop one’s professional skills. Athletic training staffs are bigger, they are given greater responsibility, and research in sports medicine is rapidly evolving. As the profession of athletic training has grown, the mentoring process has become increasingly complex.

In response, many athletic training departments have set up more formal strategies for staff development, ranging from delegating duties to ongoing educational forums. In this article, we talk to head athletic trainers who make the professional development of their staff a big part of their jobs.

The "D" Word
Developing your staff starts with doing something that is often difficult for athletic trainers: delegating. In the busy world of most sports-medicine departments, it usually seems easier to do a task yourself than to teach someone else how to do it.

"Yes, it may take you an hour to teach somebody how to do a five-minute task, but you have to believe that over time you’re going to get that hour back tenfold," says Steven Cole, ATC, Director of Sports Medicine at the College of William and Mary. "There also may be the old mentality of, ‘If I’m going to be held responsible for it, then I might as well do it myself.’"

"It’s been hard for me to give up doing a lot of things," admits Danny Poole, MS, ATC, SCAT, Head Athletic Trainer and Director of Sports Medicine at Clemson University. "But it’s something that I’ve had to learn to do. With the whole athletic realm having gotten so big, you can’t do it all. One person could do this job 30 years ago, but there’s no way that can happen now. You have to trust the people working for you to do a good job."

Other athletic trainers are wary of giving more duties to already overworked assistants. "A lot of head athletic trainers, especially if they’re used to working with small staffs, feel like they don’t want to put too much on their staff," says Ruemruk Malasarn, MA, ATC, CSCS, Head Athletic Trainer at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona. "But giving their assistants exposure to things is important for their development as athletic trainers."

When you’re truly aiming for staff development, the idea is not to dole out the meaningless tasks, but to carefully consign areas of importance, such as budgeting, inventory, or reviewing procedures, to each staff member. "I assign each of my assistants an administrative area," Cole explains. "One has purchasing, one has insurance, one has education, one has scheduling, one has medical clearance, and one has facilities. We go over each of those at our staff meetings and get everyone’s input. So, we’re interdependent upon each other, and we cross-train in each other’s areas."

Sharing information is the key component. "Take budgeting, for example," Cole explains. "I get a budget report every month from our business office, and we go over it at our staff meeting. As the director, I could just look at that report and put it in a drawer. But I share it with everybody so they get a feel for where we’re spending money and have a regular opportunity to provide input."

Delegating tasks effectively requires a balance of offering guidance and letting the staff member find his or her own way. "You have to make sure you’re giving them enough direction and oversight so they’re not out on an island trying to do something without a clue of how to do it," says Steve Willard, MESS, ATC, Director of Sports Medicine at the University of Colorado.

"For example, two years ago I assigned one of our staff members to overhaul our emergency action plan," he continues. "I met with her every couple of weeks and she would show me what she had done and why she did it. I would look over it and say, ‘That looks good,’ or ‘Let’s consult with our legal counsel,’ or ‘Let’s look on the NATA Web site to see what its position statement says.’"

Willard also thinks it’s important to include everyone in department-wide projects, even though one person may be in charge. "I may assign a project to one person, but everyone has some responsibility for it," he says. "The athletic trainers who work with soccer get involved by providing information on the best access to their practice field or their thoughts on the emergency equipment they’d like to have with them on the field."

That process not only helps distribute the work and responsibility but also the glory, says Jeff Monroe, MS, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer and Assistant Athletics Director for Strength and Conditioning, Athletic Training, and Sports Medicine at Michigan State University. "Because they’re involved in making decisions that affect all of us in the department, they have some ownership of the program. At the same time, they’re learning different skills and interacting with people outside of the department."

"At our weekly staff meetings, our assistants have a chance to bring up what they’re doing in front of everyone," Monroe adds. "That way, they get feedback and have it critiqued by the group as well as by me. And they get peer recognition for their contributions."

Even seemingly small or routine tasks can provide chances for your staff to grow. For example, early in his career, Ed Crowley, LAT, ATC, Director of Athletic Training Services at the University of Iowa, worked under the legendary William "Pinky" Newell at Purdue University. "Pinky was very good at developing proposals and working through the upper echelons of administrators to get what he wanted," Crowley says. "I think I learned a great deal from him in that area. He would allow me to read through some of his letters to see if there was anything I thought would be appropriate to add or delete. So, that’s something I now regularly do with my associate directors."

Program Assessment
Another chance to provide professional development opportunities comes when it’s time to assess program needs and changes of direction. As with administrative duties, it works well to implement a team approach.

For example, at the U.S. Naval Academy, Jeff Fair, EdD, ATC, Director of Athletic Training Services, and his staff set aside dates each fall and spring for reviewing the entire sports medicine program. "We look over the data we picked up over the year and at injury trends," he says. "Then we talk about plans for the following semester—things we could do differently in terms of prevention and rehab."

At William and Mary, Cole arranges staff retreats to review the year as a whole. "At the end of the year, I like to do two of them, a week apart," he says. "For the first one, I’ll have a list of topics to get folks thinking and talking. It’s like a brainstorming session—everything’s open, and you don’t make any judgements on things. It’s casual, informal, and out of our building. It’s a chance to look back on the year, reflect, and identify what our issues were.

"Then we have a week in between and come back and have an informal afternoon together," Cole continues. "That allows us to digest what we talked about, clear our thoughts, and come back to some things we feel are important. At that point we ask ourselves, ‘What are the concerns or issues, and what do we propose as solutions?’"

Willard also has a staff retreat every May, and he says there are two equally important aspects to these getaways. "It’s a time to be away from the training room, without any athletes or phones diverting our attention—to review our program and go over concerns," he says. "But I like the fellowship concept of it, too, where we can get away and have some time as a group to just get to know each other better in a relaxed environment. I think that’s as important as anything.

"But we also have an agenda," he continues. "We meet for six or seven hours and go over every facet of our program and ideas for changing things. The agenda will say something like ‘position coverage’ and we talk about each of our positions, if we have any issues with them, good things, bad things, and anything we’d like to see changed for next year.

"I have someone taking minutes, and when we get back, I assign people to look more into each idea, usually over the summer. Then, by August, we look at how much of what we discussed we have actually put in place."

The assessment process can also include student-athlete feedback. "Part of our athletic department’s senior athlete exit interviews deal with sports medicine," says Mike Sims, MS, LAT, ATC, Director of Sports Medicine at Baylor University. "I get the feedback from that, and we discuss it as a staff. That alerts us to problems or potential problems that could come up. It’s been a good source of information for us to see how we’re doing as a department and makes us take a look at ways we could improve."

Some head athletic trainers conduct their own surveys even more frequently and use discussions about the results to help their staffs get better at their jobs. "Every four to six weeks we survey our student-athletes to find out from them how we’re doing," says Cole. "We ask things like, ‘Do we explain treatment goals to you?’ ‘Are you happy with the level of service you’re receiving?’ We then look at the results as a staff."

Formal Education
Conferences, meetings, conventions, and in-services provide important opportunities for your staff. Most colleges and universities have some budget set aside for sending staff to conferences and meetings, but this is an area that is often subject to cuts in tight financial times.

At the University of Iowa, Crowley made it a condition of his taking the job that the athletic department budget include money for each of his staff members to attend professional meetings each year. With a staff of 10, that’s now $20,000 in the budget for registration and travel expenses. Crowley also makes sure he gets a return from the money by having attendees give an in-service when they return.

Willard rotates who attends which meetings. "I don’t send everyone to our national meeting because I feel that wastes our money," he says. "If all eight of us went to the same meeting, we’re not diversifying our education. So I let two assistants go to the national meeting each year, and I rotate that. And we have a conference meeting and district meeting, which I also rotate. The idea is that people take notes they can share with the rest of the staff when they return." He also encourages people to look for events beyond annual meetings and conferences. "If someone comes to me and says, ‘I’d like to go to this meeting on stress fractures,’ I can usually accommodate those requests," Willard says.

Some head athletic trainers, however, send as many staff members as possible to the annual NATA Convention because of the diverse wealth of information. "Before going, we look at what we want to get out of it as a group," says Cole. "We identify things like, ‘What presentations are each of us most interested in?’ and ‘What are the issues we want to talk to other people about?’ If there are overlapping topics, we divide and conquer and bring that material back to everyone in the group. The idea is to have a coordinated approach to going to presentations."

Back on campus, there are many ways to ensure continuing education happens on a regular basis. At Iowa, Crowley partners with the school’s athletic training education program. "Once a week, we have a meeting from 7 to 8 in the morning where people present on a topic," Crowley says. "That’s usually put on by the athletic training education program, and it could include anybody from one of our doctors to a graduate assistant presenting some research they’re working on. And when one of my assistants goes to a seminar or course, they’ll present at those morning meetings so everyone can learn some of the important things that went on."

At William and Mary, Cole has in-services every other week. "We’re a continuing education provider through the NATA-BOC, so we tend to do our clinical continuing education within the staff," says Cole. "About twice a month we have our physician or someone from the outside come in and do a hands-on workshop or presentation for us on some topic we have a curiosity about. Things you don’t get in the normal run-of-the-mill coverage, such as diabetes, asthma, fungal infections. We’ve had people come in and talk about ear exams, eye exams, and listening to cardiac and bowel sounds.

"We all get the same thing at the same time from the same source," he says. "And then we can develop our expertise from there. That’s been very beneficial."

Some head athletic trainers take hands-on learning a step further every now and then. When Fair recently wanted to do a workshop on backboarding at the Naval Academy, he worked with campus fire department EMTs who took him and his staff through some drills.

"We brought in an evacuation helicopter and we practiced boarding an individual and putting them on the aircraft," he says. "We arranged for the state police to land the Life Flight helicopter right on the practice field next to our building. And we had a meeting beforehand about how to go through the whole process including making the call to the emergency number. There’s no substitute for getting into a situation like that and walking through it."

Nothing Like Networking
As a final step to developing your staff, let them know that you are not their only mentor. Veteran athletic trainers at different schools lean on each other for support, and assistant athletic trainers should be encouraged to develop as many relationships as they can.

"Athletic training was founded on networking, and a lot of our professional development comes from networking with other people," says Poole. "That’s how our profession has developed over time and that’s still an important way we all keep up with new trends and new things people are trying."

Monroe enjoys the evolution of mentoring he has seen. "I used to go to meetings every year that were held at or near ski resorts and we’d be sitting on the chair lift talking shop," he says. "Now, we get high school athletic trainers or new head athletic trainers at a college someplace and they’re asking us these questions. The networking continues. It’s the how-to’s, and the what-do-you-do-about’s, and the best referral sources that you really come away with. That gives you more confidence in being able to make decisions."