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ADs and ATCs: 4 Ways The Relationship Helps Bolster the Health of Student-Athletes

The role of certified athletic trainers (ATC) in high schools has steadily evolved. An awareness of legal liabilities for schools, the inherent risks of sport-participation, and a growing body of knowledge on student-athlete safety has created a three-prong tipping point for schools to hire an AT. The presence of these highly trained specialists has brought with it the need for athletic directors (AD) to provide support and leadership to a new position with a strong relationship. 

The role of an AT is much different than that of a coach, yet just as critical to the student-athlete experience. ATs hold a role that is mentally, emotionally, and physically demanding. A certified AT has demonstrated significant scientific knowledge and must put it on display during highly stressful experiences. Athletic trainers are there during injury, the worst moment of a student-athlete’s experience. They are also there for the successful return to playing the sport that a student-athlete loves. 

For many ATs, it is the opportunity to support and guide student-athletes during the ‘highs and the lows’ that is a source of joy. Another part of that joy is the collective effort of coaches, strength trainers, athletic trainers, and athletic directors to provide student-athletes the sport experience that can mold and shape them. ATs love to be part of that student-athlete centric community. The joy of the position, however, can be dried up by the relentless nature of it. ATs endure long nights standing on sidelines. They are the ones that break the bad news to student-athletes and their parents. They have large piles of paperwork as they must document every treatment and injury. It can be a lonely position. ADs should pay special attention to their ATs and the unique demands of their job. 

Here are four things to bolster the relationship between athletic administrators and athletic trainers. 

 

  • ATs Are Eyes & Ears

 

Athletic trainers are skilled observers of movement and behavior. Students learn in Sports Medicine courses that one of their goals is to train themselves to subconsciously analyze human movement, which carries over to behavior. Long-time athletic trainer instructor, Flecicia Heise at Palomar College (CA), teaches AT students they are metaphorical flies on the wall. ATs may very well be one of the first to suspect when student-athletes are hurting physically or emotionally. In considering a return to campus following the nationwide COVID-19 response, this characteristic is going to be more important in monitoring the wellbeing of our student-athletes.

ADs and coaches should tap into their ATs as sources of insight into their student-athletes. Simply asking an AT what they are observing about a student-athlete can yield perspective and information that can guide a coach’s interactions with that student-athlete. ADs should vouch and validate the insight of their ATs to coaches when questions arise about student-athlete well-being. This requires ADs to be well-versed in current best practices when it comes to student-athlete health and training. ADs do not need to be experts, that is what the AT has been hired for. ADs must be informed enough to carry on an authentic conversation about student-athlete safety matters and recognize when their ATs are operating in their expertise. 

relationship
Photo: Dr. Chris Hobbs

The difficult job of an AT can be made even harder if their AD does not vouch for and validate their expertise.

 

  • ATs Are on An Island

 

Secondary schools commonly have a single AT providing sports medicine services. 

Furthermore, ATs in schools that field hundreds of student-athletes every competitive season will be limited in how much individualized patient care they can provide. The natural personality and tendency of ATs is self-sacrifice. Ellis Mair, Vice President of Medicine at Go4Ellis, stated that ATs contracted through their on-demand platform accounted for over 5,500 personnel hours across the nation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. And that is just in the month of April!  Many, if not most, of those ATs traded treating student-athletes for coronavirus patients. ATs aim to please those whom they serve – and ATs do view their vocation as a service-oriented health care profession.  

One of the weaknesses of many ATs is to shy away from saying no. In some cases, one AT is responsible for many logistics and tasks that could easily be delegated to others (e.g. filling water coolers) This creates space in an ATs day so they can increase the quality of the care provided to student-athletes. Likewise, the AT may be expected to be on-site anytime a team is practicing, including weekends. Spread across three competitive seasons, this expectation will rapidly lead to burnout and/or family strain. ADs should empower ATs to assign out logistical tasks to coaches, or ADs should even take over the assignments themselves asking head coaches to utilize their assistants and student managers. When an AT senses their AD is protecting them and that coaches are supporting them, it will have a positive impact on the quality of care the AT will provide to student-athletes. ATs may be on an island, but it does not mean that ADs and coaches can’t join them on that island. 

 

  • Too Tough, Too Soft

 

A significant yet enjoyable challenge in a secondary school setting is in working with younger student-athletes. A pediatric population presents the tripartite challenge of understanding injuries that are developmentally influenced (such as Osgood-Schlatter Disease), ensuring appropriate conditioning and workload parameters, and discerning pain perception in these young student-athletes. Especially in middle school-aged children, or those who are very new to organized athletics, interpreting, and describing pain can be difficult. They often do not have the history or context to understand the pain they are experiencing, and whether it means that they are injured or not. This means that the AT walks a fine line of underappreciating an injury or being too soft on these young student-athletes and having to communicate this to parents and coaches. It is a tricky and sometimes stressful proposition. 

ADs need to demonstrate trust in the professional opinion of ATs in very public ways. Strong statements such as affirmation for their expertise or unyielding commitment to the expertise of the AT in front of the coaching staff can alleviate the stress that ATs feel when diagnosing student-athletes in discomfort. Highlighting the ATs expertise in board meetings or presenting the AT in parent meetings as the expert on campus regarding student-athlete safety are small steps that bring big returns for the AD-AT relationship. 

 

  • Appreciation is Feedback

 

Providing patient care to student-athletes, communicating with various stakeholders, and maintaining a professional and hygienic athletic training facility is a continuous process. With so many people to serve, it is important to allow ATs to develop efficient and best practices. Guard their time and attention to ultimately provide a safe and successful student-athlete experience.  And find ways to highlight the aspects of their work and role that are appreciated.  

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Gratitude unspoken is ingratitude. ADs depend on a wide variety of people to successfully operate an athletic department and the position of AT may be the most pressurized of them all. Giving an AT feedback and expressing gratitude for their efforts should go together. ADs can express their gratitude for the servant’s heart and expertise of their AT in ways such as 1) identifying them as experts in board reports and parents meeting 2) celebrating them on social media and through emails during the National Athletic Trainer’s Association ‘ATC Appreciation Month’ in March. 3) Giving their ATC permission to hire a certified hourly replacement for an evening of activities so they can have a rare night off. 4) Conducting regular reviews and scheduling regular meetings as a platform for professional discussions with an AT is a great way to validate their role in the school and athletic department. 

Conclusion

It is important for athletic departments to feverishly maintain a perspective that it exists to contribute to the development of the holistic maturity of its student-athletes. ATs are an important player in a school’s effort to nurture the health and performance of its student-athletes. Oftentimes, patient care is an ongoing process rather than a one-and-done office visit. ATs evaluate, treat, re-evaluate, re-treat, re-evaluate, and so on. Protect the ATs’ time and effort toward patient care and administration of a sports medicine facility. And keep in mind that ATs really do want the student-athletes and the school to wildly succeed.

About the Authors

Mr. Tyler Hamilton, MS, LAC, ATC is the Director of Sports Medicine at The King’s Academy in Florida. He was formerly the Program Director for Athletic Training at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Hamilton is also a member of the NATA Committee on Professional Ethics. He holds an MS in Exercise Science from UNC Greensboro and multiple certifications in his field. You can reach Mr. Hamilton at [email protected] 

Dr. Chris Hobbs, CMAA is the Director of Athletics at The King’s Academy in Florida. He was named the Varsity Brands National Athletic Director of the Year in 2019 and a Top 40 Under 40 Sport Leader by Coach and AD magazine in 2018. He holds an MS in Sport Coaching from the United States Sports Academy and a Doctor of Education from Liberty University. He can be followed on Twitter @Dr_ChrisHobbs.