If you have an interest in sports and enjoy helping people to feel and perform their best, you might thrive in a career as an athletic trainer.
Athletic Training 101: What Is an Athletic Trainer?
Athletic trainers are skilled healthcare professionals who provide preventative care and treatment, primarily but not exclusively to athletes.
Athletic trainers need to complete advanced health sciences education and receive professional licensure before they are qualified to practice. To enter the field, individuals must first attend an accredited higher education program where they develop an in-depth knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and related processes.
How Do You Become an Athletic Trainer?
The current minimum education level is a bachelor's degree, though more than 70 percent of athletic trainers currently working have master's degrees or higher. Because master's degrees indicate a more in-depth level of expertise, employers often prefer this credential. To become an AT, candidates must also pass the Board of Certification (BOC) Exam.
To serve the profession, the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education (CAATE) is in the process of moving the minimum education level to a master's degree. Full implementation will take several more years, but accredited professional programs are already required to provide students with masters' degrees.
A student's program of study must be accredited by the CAATE if the student intends to practice as an athletic trainer. Accreditation means that all accredited programs must abide by the CAATE's Standards for the Accreditation of Professional Athletic Training Programs, which specifies that graduates must be able to demonstrate mastery in eight content areas:
- Prevention and health promotion
- Clinical examination and diagnosis
- Acute care of injury and illness
- Evidence-based practice
- Therapeutic interventions
- Psycho-social strategies and referrals
- Healthcare administration
- Professional development and responsibility
When you attend an accredited school, you know that the program has proven that it provides foundational coursework in the following health sciences areas of study:
- • Human anatomy
- • Biomechanics
- • Pathomechanics
- • Exercise physiology
- • Nutrition
- • Pharmacology
- • Health care delivery and payer systems
- • Public health
- • Statistics
- • Research design
Accredited schools must also provide opportunities for clinical training so that students can develop skills in:
- • Patient and community advocacy
- • Development of health care delivery and patient education strategies
- • Professional communication
- • Evidence-based athletic training practice
- • Effective use of health informatics
- • Evaluation and management of patients
- • Development of patient care plans
- • Selection and application of appropriate interventions
- • Treatment of patients with concussions and other brain injuries
- • Collaboration with other professionals
Specific course names may vary by institution, but the target knowledge base is uniform. If you're interested in learning more, you can view these requirements in the CAATE's Curricular Content Table. The table is designed for schools that are conducting a self-study accreditation review, but is available for download by the general public.
Types of Programs
There are three types of accredited programs available for aspiring athletic trainers and athletic trainers seeking to advance their skills.
1. Professional Programs
A professional program is your entry-level credential. Accredited professional programs now have to culminate in master's degrees, but athletic trainers who graduated before 2015 may have studied in programs that offered bachelor's degrees only.
A professional program is the only program type currently available that qualifies a student to sit for the Board of Certification examination and become an athletic trainer. Students in professional programs include high school graduates receiving their first post-secondary degrees as well as graduates of bachelor's degree programs in related fields.
2. Post-Professional Degree Programs
A post-professional degree program serves students who have already graduated from a professional program and have taken or are eligible to take the Board certification exam. Students exit these programs with a master's or doctoral degree and participate in classroom learning, clinical work, and research.
3. Post-Professional Residency Program
The post-professional residency program is for athletic trainers who have graduated from one or more of the following: an accredited professional program, an accredited post-professional program, or even another advanced degree program attended after receiving an athletic training credential
A post-professional residency program may be hosted by a college, university, or health care facility. They include classroom and hands-on clinical work.
Board Certification and Licensure
Students who have completed a CAATE-approved program of study can apply for credentialing through the Board of Certification for the Athletic Trainer. This is the only credentialing organization for athletic trainers recognized by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies.
When a student passes the exam, they receive permission to use the ATC® credential, which qualifies them as a Certified Athletic Trainer. The credential can be listed after the individual's name, following on their terminal degree and licensed athletic trainer (LAT) credential.
In all states except California and the District of Columbia, you need to secure state licensure before you can practice as an athletic trainer. Receipt of the ATC® is part of the qualification process, but there are additional elements. Check with the credentialing body in your state to learn more.
Roles and Responsibilities of Athletic Trainers
Once an individual qualifies as an athletic trainer, they’ll have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of athletes and patients in a variety of settings. The most common being colleges, universities, high schools, hospitals, and clinics.
Professional sports teams may also have athletic trainers, but only 2 percent of athletic trainers work in this setting. A similar percentage work in settings that have only recently begun to host athletic training services. These include performing arts centers, military bases, and occupational health organizations.
An athletic trainer's professional duties vary depending on the job setting and population served, but all duties generally fall within five broad domains:
- Injury and illness prevention/wellness protection
- Clinical evaluation and diagnosis
- Immediate and emergency care
- Treatment and rehabilitation
- Organizational and professional wellness
In all five domains, the athletic trainer follows a medical model, beginning with an assessment of the patient or client's current condition and following up through recommendations.
Domain 1: Maintaining Wellness and Function
Athletic trainers are unique in the healthcare world for their ability to reduce the risk of all kinds of performance-related injuries and illnesses, from sprains and colds to severe head injuries and heat stroke.
To develop preventive strategies and recommendations, athletic trainers evaluate all aspects of a patient or client's anatomy and kinesiology, including musculoskeletal flexibility, muscular strength, cardiovascular wellness, postural correctness, and nutritional habits.
The athletic trainer considers these findings in combination with information about the performance environment, including ambient temperature, heat index, and potential hazards.
Using this information, the athletic trainer then develops a conditioning program and/or a strategy to maintain the patient's or client's safety. Strategies often involve the use of wearable devices, training equipment, and nutritional plans. The trainer may also choose to refer the patient to another medical professional if the need arises.
Domain 2: Evaluation and Diagnosis
Athletic trainers are qualified to assess patients with musculoskeletal complaints and determine their most likely causes. The athletic trainer can then determine the functional impairments, both short-term and long-term, that are likely to arise from the presenting injury or illness.
To effectively diagnose and manage performance-related and orthopedic illnesses and injuries, the athletic trainer must be able to gather a complete medical history and conduct a functional assessment and physical exam, the latter of which may include watching the client or patient perform tasks like walking, running, and reaching.
The athletic trainer will also assess for the potential influence of tissue, organ, and neurological abnormalities and account for any medication or nutritional elements that may be contributing to the issue. The results of the evaluation will inform the athletic trainer's development of a treatment plan and follow-up strategy.
Domain 3: Immediate and Emergency Care
Athletic trainers are trained and experienced in treating a broad range of urgent and emergent conditions. They are also trained to know when to refer a patient to other providers, including hospital care if necessary.
Urgent conditions that the athletic trainer treats may include:
- • Head trauma
- • Spinal cord and nerve injuries
- • Acute musculoskeletal injuries, including fractures
- • Respiratory injury or illnesses
- • Diabetic emergencies
- • Allergic reactions or asthma attacks
The athletic trainer must be able to determine the severity of the issue and implement management strategies as appropriate. When a referral is involved, the athletic trainer needs to communicate discreetly with other providers.
Domain 4: Treatment and Rehabilitation
A significant amount of an athletic trainer's time is spent selecting therapeutic interventions and treatments to reduce or eliminate a patient's or client's level of impairment. Commonly used interventions include:
- • Joint mobilization
- • Proprioceptive training to improve balance, coordination, and control
- • Exercises geared toward developing strength, power, endurance, and cardiorespiratory ability
The athletic trainer may choose to use supportive devices and/or extrinsic modalities like therapeutic ultrasound, biofeedback, and electrical stimulation.
The treatment process involves initial and ongoing assessment of the patient or client. The athletic trainer must continuously evaluate the progress being made and use that knowledge to adjust the course of treatment as necessary. Similarly, the athletic trainer has to understand how medication can assist in recovery and arrange for its use if necessary.
It often falls to the athletic trainer to determine if and when the patient or client may return to a particular physical activity. This often involves an activity-specific ability evaluation and a targeted work conditioning program.
Domain 5: Organizational and Professional Well-Being
Many athletic trainers use their knowledge of functional rehabilitation and treatment to develop and lead healthcare facilities. To do so requires a broad application of evidence-based practice as well as an in-depth understanding of regulatory matters such as:
- • The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)
- • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandates
- • Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) requirements for facility credentialing
The athletic trainer who is involved in administrative functions should be skilled in developing and/or implementing employee policy that supports a healthy and productive workplace. They may also be involved in supervising other practitioners who have similar areas of expertise.
Athletic Trainers Provide Value
Athletic trainers play essential roles in the safety and well-being of children and adults who engage in intense physical activity. In the late 2000s, researchers reviewed sports injury data from girls' high school basketball and soccer programs. They found that at schools without athletic trainers on staff, injury rates were 1.22 times higher among basketball players and 1.73 times higher on soccer teams.
The same study revealed that students were up to 8.05 times as likely to be diagnosed with a concussion if their schools had athletic trainers on staff. Researchers believe that the increase is attributable not to an increased incidence of concussion but to a greater likelihood that the concussion is diagnosed and treated.
In these situations, as in many others, an athletic trainer serves as the athlete's advocate. Athletic trainers not only prevent, evaluate, and treat injuries but also monitor recovery and ensure that athletes do not resume full participation too soon. They provide the medical expertise that coaches typically lack, which also means that they can serve as knowledgeable liaisons to athletes' families and/or physicians.
Even workplaces are seeing the benefits of athletic training as part of comprehensive employee health programs. Because athletic trainers prioritize patient and client education, they reduce the risk of injury or re-injury due to physically demanding tasks.
The advantages are already proven. Independent studies have shown that having an athletic trainer on staff can save an employer up to $7 per $1 invested in prevention. They have also found that when athletic trainers serve as in-house staff members for employee health programs, employers lose more than 50 percent fewer work days due to staff injuries.
Becoming an Athletic Trainer
Athletic training is a profession in which you can make a real difference, and the employment outlook is positive as well. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of athletic training jobs available is expected to increase by 19 percent through 2028, a much faster rate of increase than average.
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