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What Is An Athletic Trainer? What Do Athletic Trainers Do?

Athletic Trainers Don’t “Train Athletes”

When people ask me what I do for work, I tell them “I’m an athletic trainer”. Their response is usually, “Oh, cool! So do you like train athletes, then?” No, no, no, no, no. I do not train athletes. Coaches train athletes. I am not a coach. Certified Personal Trainers (CPT) train athletes (and the general public). I am not a personal trainer. I am a medical professional whose patients are athletes.

This profession is not a walk off the street and take a test kind of profession. Most athletic trainers have a Bachelors of Science in Athletic Training. That means they attended a 4-year college/university to become and athletic trainer. But the profession is getting better, it is growing. And with that growth, we understand that the expectations are for medical professionals to hold a graduate degree in the profession. That is why more and more athletic trainers are achieving a Masters of Science in Athletic Training. That is what I hold. I completed a 4-year bachelors degree and then attended a 2-year graduate program that gave me all the necessary information to take care of the athletic population.

But that is not all the information I need. Just like other medical professionals (physical therapists, MDs, DOs, etc.), I have to obtain a specific number of additional education credits every two years. The medical profession is about providing the best and most relevant care. We attend classes, lectures, seminars, and conferences to get these additional credits to make sure that we give you the best.

So lets get back to the main question, what is an athletic trainer? An athletic trainer is a sports medicine professional who, traditionally, is the first responder for athletic injury. Generally, we work in high schools, college/universities, and professional sport settings. However, athletic trainers are seen in industrial, military, and hospital/clinic settings as well. We help people overcome injuries, and are able to help a wide range of people throughout the entire recovery process.

What do I mean by the entire recovery process? Well, athletic trainers are skilled in injury prevention and injury evaluation. We do our best to identify potential risks and address them as early as possible to prevent an injury from occurring. If an injury were to occur, an athletic trainer would evaluate the injury to provide a diagnosis and develop a plan for your recovery. The next step is treatments. We have a variety of treatment options available to us as athletic trainers; things like therapeutic massage, therapeutic ultrasound, electrical stimulation, moist heat, ice, instrument assisted soft tissue mobilization, cupping techniques, etc. However, these are just tools in our therapeutic tool box. And we can’t rebuild a house using just a single tool.

Paired with treatments is your rehab plan. Yes, I said rehab and not physical therapy (more on that later). We understand how the body works, especially in the athletic world. We are sports mechanism experts. Meaning we know exactly how the injury happened, and what you need to do to prepare your body for when that motion happens again. We do that through your rehab. You get a progressive plan that gradually gets you stronger, more stable, and more confident.

But it doesn’t stop there. We can go farther. Athletic trainers can go past rehab and into strength training. Yes, your strength and conditioning coach (if you are at a college/university) can do that for you, but if you don’t have one (which is likely), athletic trainers can help. Strength training is a proven method for injury prevention. So after your rehab ends, you begin to strengthen the entire body to prevent re-injury and new injuries as well.

The final part of athletic training is the return to sport testing. When you are injured and you have completed the rehab process, the best way to see if you are ready to go back to your sport is to test you. We test the injured body part by performing movements and activities that mimic your sport or job. For lower leg injuries, this would be running, hopping, cutting, jumping, etc. All to make sure your body can handle the stress, and prevent another injury from occurring.

Okay, back to the physical therapy note. This is a little bit of a soap box for me, but physical therapy is not rehab, it is a profession. No one “does” physical therapy. Physical therapist do not give you physical therapy to do. They give you rehab exercises and perform hands on treatments. Just like athletic trainers don’t train athletes, physical therapists don’t give your physical therapy. Just remember, all rehab is physical therapy, but not all physical therapy is rehab.

To sum it up using the National Athletic Trainer’s Association definition, “athletic training encompasses the prevention, examination, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation of emergent, acute or chronic injuries and medical conditions.”