As new professional opportunities continue to arise for athletic trainers, there is no longer one career path to follow. In this article, three trailblazers explain the twists and turns that brought them to where they are today.
The growth of the athletic training profession has brought lots of changes. Upgraded educational requirements, new professional and legal standards, and changing insurance coverage are just a few of the issues. But what may be most dramatic are the evolving opportunities for nontraditional career paths.
The typical route of starting as an assistant athletic trainer at one college, then moving to another, and one day landing a head athletic training job is no longer the norm. The number of jobs in clinics, hospitals, high schools, and industry are increasing every year.
For some athletic trainers, the changing job market has meant veering off the traditional path and finding a new route. In this article, three athletic trainers offer their stories on their roads less taken.
From D-I to High School
By Maria Hutsick
Maria Hutsick, MS, LAT, ATC, CSCS, is the Head Athletic Trainer at Medfield High School in Massachusetts. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For 26 years, I was the Head Athletic Trainer at Boston University, an NCAA Division I institution. Last August, I turned in my resignation and took the same position at Medfield (Mass.) High School, 19 miles southwest of Boston.
Many of my colleagues in the profession were shocked at my sudden move. In some ways, I shocked myself. The first few weeks at Medfield, I asked myself several times a day, “What did I do?”
I loved my staff and the coaches and athletes at BU, and I had worked extremely hard to build the sports medicine program into something I was proud of. I had been very active on national committees and put a ton of effort into improving working conditions for college athletic trainers.
But I was tired. Not of treating athletes, or travel, or taking on new challenges. I was tired of fighting athletic administrators.
At Medfield, the administration is very supportive and has given me all the tools I need to do my job. I am respected and thanked by everyone from my principal to the athletes’ parents. One season ends before another one begins. There is little travel and the coaches are very professional.
After two weeks, I no longer questioned my decision, and I am thoroughly and wonderfully happy in my new position. I know I am making a huge impact on the school and its athletic programs.
My career began in 1978, when I took the position of Assistant Athletic Trainer at Yale University after earning a Master’s degree from Indiana University. I moved to BU in 1980, and two years later found myself in the position of Head Athletic Trainer, becoming one of very few females heading up an athletic training department at an NCAA Division I school.
Over the next 26 years at BU, I watched and participated in our profession’s amazing growth. When I took the position of head athletic trainer, it was a nine-month job with summers off. There were only 14 teams and sport seasons had very little overlap. HMO’s did not exist and drug testing was only done during the Olympic Games.
The decade of the 90’s brought a whirlwind of change. The growth of women’s sports, insurance issues, and the increasing length of seasons were only a few of the factors placing new demands on collegiate sports medicine staffs across the country. At the same time, our educational standards were brought to a new level—we became healthcare professionals with many legal and professional standards that needed to be met.
It all happened so fast that many athletic departments did not even realize all that was being asked of their athletic training staffs. And many have remained unwilling to recognize our vital and varied roles.
We are the athletic department’s first line of defense and prevent many litigation issues. We act as liaisons to parents, physicians, insurance companies, sport coaches, strength and conditioning coaches, and academic advisors. When there is a crisis, we are part of the response team.
We are often the first to arrive and the last to leave. We know every athlete in the department. We are their surrogate parents, healthcare providers, and counselors. We drive them to medical appointments and accompany them into the operating room when they undergo surgery. We answer their phone calls in the middle of the night when they are ill or in trouble. We meet with parents and initiate insurance claims. We may even offer a guest bedroom to an international student who has no place to go over vacation.
I enjoyed all of it. I loved the controlled chaos of Division I athletics and being there for young people who needed us. I loved working with the football program, especially, as well as many other teams that I was a part of during my tenure at BU.
But I was not completely happy. When the university dropped the football program in 1997—which I had worked with for 15 years—I looked for another job. I interviewed for the Head Athletic Trainer position at Princeton University. When I learned that a staff of seven (no students or graduate assistants) was supposed to cover 40 teams, four of them full-contact football, I asked if the administration was willing to commit to an increase in staff to meet the demands and needs of the department. They said no, and I remained at BU.
I took my Massachusetts teacher’s certification exam in 1998. I had obtained my real estate license in 1990 and became a certified strength and conditioning specialist in 1992. I worked part-time as both a realtor and personal strength coach. I sold a few houses and worked with several clients. I thought there must be a better way to make a living and have a few days off, but I did not leave athletic training because I could not leave the profession I was passionate about.
Along the way, I strived to improve working conditions for not only myself and my staff, but for all athletic trainers. I was a founding member and served as President of the College Athletic Trainers Society (CATS), which was formed to address salaries, staffing issues, length of seasons, nontraditional seasons, and quality-of-life issues in our profession. I wanted athletic departments to recognize the athletic trainer as an integral professional in the department.
Being involved with this group inspired me to dig in at BU and fight to improve the sports medicine department. I began compiling information on staff needs and salaries, and I was able to make progress. My staff went from four to 11, salaries improved, and I was able to allow my staff some time off through the use of per diem athletic trainers.
With the help of my staff and the athletic training education program staff at BU, we lobbied for improvements every year and continually upgraded all aspects of our operations. We developed a common injury database for insurance, PPEs, and medical records. We compiled statistics on our needs and were able to purchase capital items each budget cycle.
But when it came to asking for salary upgrades for my staff, I hit many roadblocks. I was continually losing assistants to better pay and less hours offered elsewhere. It seemed as if I was training three to five new athletic trainers every year, and the strain of hiring and trying to keep experienced staff members happy was difficult.
I began to look for another position at the college level. But after many discussions with colleagues across a wide spectrum of schools, I learned we were all fighting the same battle. I knew I did not want to leave BU just to have the same struggles elsewhere.
In 2003, our athletic director hired a consultant to evaluate my department. He interviewed my staff, coaches, athletes, administrators, our curriculum staff, our physicians, and the Dean of our Allied Health School. All supported an increase in our salaries along with improvements in facilities.
I proposed a raise for myself and my top assistant, and administrators told me they agreed and would work it into the budget soon. Nine months later, they changed their minds. That was the last straw for me. A friend told me about the job at Medfield, and I interviewed for it and accepted the position inside a week. I gave BU my two-week notice.
Yes, I took a slight decrease in my salary. And, certainly, the types of injuries and the rate of injury are not as challenging. But I am treated with respect. I have been given gifts, bonuses, support, and praise. My athletic director tries to provide me with anything that I request, within reason. I have seen many positive results from my work ethic and dedication.
I was able to negotiate for the top step in salary and to have my years of teaching at BU count toward my salary level at Medfield. I have an annual review, and the more I do to stay current and on the cutting edge of the profession, the more salary I can earn—I know specifically what I have to do to increase my earning power. And I can actually reach my final salary at BU by taking a few classes this summer.
I have also greatly improved my quality of life. I have many more days off, including weekends. In my first semester at Medfield, I attended more family functions than I had over the previous three years. I celebrated Christmas with family in Florida. My paradigm has shifted from living to work to working to live.
Making a change after nearly 30 years was hard—no doubt about it. And if anyone had asked me just a few years ago if I would ever leave the Division I level for high school, I would have answered no. I was not ready to leave the excitement of that level and all that goes with it.
I also needed all that I saw on the road to Medfield. I needed the experience I gained at the Division I level, where I was exposed to a wide variety of injury scenarios, overcame many challenges, and learned how to maneuver politically and be a leader.
If you are a college athletic trainer looking for a change, I encourage you to look at high school positions. But do your homework first. Find out what the hiring norms are where you live. For example, many high schools require you to fill dual roles as a teacher and athletic trainer, so you may need to get your teaching license.
And carefully research any school before you accept a position. Public high schools everywhere are experiencing severe budget cuts and that can mean you are walking into a stressful atmosphere as well as a position that is not stable. You also don’t want to work at a school with a lot of parent problems and staff turnover.
At Medfield, the community is very committed to keeping an athletic trainer on staff, and the parents are good advocates. The superintendent, principal, athletic director, and nurse are professional and great to work with. The coaches are teachers and very committed to the kids. The Massachusetts Teachers Association is an extremely powerful bargaining unit. Retirement and work hours are closely monitored.
I loved working at Boston University, and I intend to stay active in the NATA and CATS. But I now love working at the high school level and am excited about becoming involved in its organizations. I am glad for all the experiences I had at BU, and I now look forward to where this road will lead me.
Working with Elite Athletes
By Brian Goodstein
Brian Goodstein, MS, ATC, CSCS, is Head Athletic Trainer and Strength and Conditioning Coach for Major League Soccer’s D.C. United. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
At the age of seven, I fell out of a tree and broke the head of my femur. I was put in traction for a week, placed in a body cast for eight weeks, and needed to go to physical therapy to learn to walk again. After that experience, I knew I wanted to help people return to health and physical activity.
I also loved participating in athletics as a kid. I played many sports, excelling in wrestling. Those two experiences pushed me toward the path of athletic training. But I ended up on a different road than the one my peers were taking.
In our undergraduate athletic training program, the goal of most students was to work with the football team. But I found that taught me more about being a hydration specialist than it prepared me to be a certified athletic trainer.
My program prepared me very well academically, but I wanted to find an additional way to challenge my practical learning experience. I reached out to a local semipro basketball team called the Delaware Blue Bombers to see if I could land an internship.
The Blue Bombers responded positively to my request, and I did a two-season internship with the team. This may have been the best decision of my young career. I found that working with elite athletes was what I wanted to do.
I knew this was a high aspiration for someone still in school, and I realized I would need to do some things differently to achieve this goal. I would need to look for nontraditional opportunities. And I would need to look behind doors that others walked by.
But another huge piece of the puzzle for me has been to network. The maxim, “life is who you know,” has proven true for me in my career. During that first internship with the Blue Bombers, I met Jeff Konin, PT, ATC, who has been my mentor and a friend ever since.
At the completion of graduate school in 1996, I started looking for a way to work with elite athletes again. I knew Jeff and his wife Gina had worked with the Olympic Committee, so I inquired if they knew of any opportunities to volunteer at the Atlanta Summer Games. Nothing was available, but they told me about a new program the Olympic Committee had created where it would hire athletic trainers just out of school at each of its training centers. The position was titled “research assistant,” and it entailed serving as the on-site athletic trainer for all the athletes at the center. It was a one-year position, similar to that of a graduate assistantship, and it paid like one. But I knew it would get me closer to where I wanted to be.
I had decent grades, a strong interview, and a good referral. I was offered the position at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Chula Vista, Calif., and I was ecstatic about the opportunity. I would like to think I was offered the position on my own merits, but having Jeff as a referral was probably very important.
The experience I had at the OTC was invaluable. I learned the newest techniques in therapeutic exercise, modalities, and manual therapy. The OTC in Chula Vista hosts National Governing Bodies (NGB) like soccer, field hockey, track and field, rowing, and archery, so my eyes were opened to some sports I had never competed in or covered. I was even privileged to work at an international track and field competition for lower leg amputees (flex-foot). While I was responsible for the care of all athletes training at the OTC, I primarily covered teams with the United States Field Hockey Association (USFHA) and the United States Soccer Federation (USSF).
After my one-year position ended, I kept in touch with the contacts I had made with these NGBs. And that paid off, as I was offered the Head Athletic Trainer position for the Women’s National Field Hockey team for the 1998 World Cup, in Utrecht, Holland. It is an amazing feeling to be part of a team representing your country, wearing the colors, and hearing your national anthem on a world stage. Although the team finished a disappointing eighth, I found international travel and competition very exciting.
I knew I was on the right path, so I kept in contact with everyone I could who worked with national team athletes. In 1999, I was contacted by the USSF, inquiring if I would be interested in being the head athletic trainer with the under-17 (U17) men’s national team. The USSF initiated a residency program at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., with a goal of preparing the team for the U17 World Championships held every two years. The initiative was considered a success as the 1999 team finished in fourth place, the United States’ best showing in a world competition since 1930.
Along with serving as the team’s athletic trainer, I expanded my role as a strength and conditioning specialist. I was responsible for all the team’s warmups, speed and agility training, weight training, prehab, and reconditioning. I was very fortunate to learn many of the newest methods in conditioning from the International Performance Institute, also located at IMG.
Even though the pay for this position was low, there were many perks. In the four years I held the position, I was able to visit 12 countries, provided three meals a day, and given a small Nike allotment. At a young age, these things go a long way.
Many of the players from the U-17 teams turned professional, and in 2001, I joined them, becoming the Head Athletic Trainer and Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Tampa Bay Mutiny in Major League Soccer (MLS). Unfortunately for me, and the Mutiny, the team folded because it could not find an owner.
But with all the contacts I had made over the past seven years, I quickly landed on my feet. A coach who worked with the U17’s had taken an assistant position with D.C. United. He heard about my situation and recommended me for the Head Athletic Trainer position. It came back to “who you know” again.
I have been the Head Athletic Trainer for D.C. United for six seasons now. During the past four years, I have also held the responsibilities of strength and conditioning coach. I feel that by filling both roles it helps reduce the number of injuries our players incur. I take great pride in preventing injuries, and have been asked to write and present on this topic.
Being an athletic trainer with a professional sports team means you are on call 24 hours a day. There is an increased pressure to return injured players to the field as soon as possible, and the season is 10 months long from the beginning of preseason to the final games. Our preseason is spent traveling domestically and abroad for weeks at a time.
There are a number of positives to the job. In my second season with the team, we won the MLS Cup, and my peers voted me MLS Athletic Trainer of the Year. My friends and family have gotten to see me tend to a player on the field, both in person and on national television. And I can’t forget to mention all the cool athletic gear I have accumulated.
While I am happy with the path I have taken in my career, it did require some sacrifices. Between stints with national teams, I often had to take jobs that were not ideal for me. I worked as a high school athletic trainer in Tennessee before I joined the USFHA. And, while with the USSF, I worked for a physical therapy clinic in Florida for a while to supplement my salary.
As for my future goals, I would like to work as an athletic trainer for the US wrestling team at a future Olympics. And I’d love to work at the World Cup, covering soccer on the largest stage.
I’m also thinking about how to combine my professional aspirations with my personal life. I’d like to start a family, and I know that means less travel. So I’m researching the idea of opening a sport performance institute, which will allow me to work with elite athletes, but at more regular hours.
When starting in this profession, I can’t say it was my dream to work with a professional soccer team. But after working with soccer and seeing it played internationally, I have grown to love the game. There is a lot more contact involved than people give it credit for. It is the world’s most popular game and is growing here in the U.S. It has been exciting to see how MLS and the players I have worked with have evolved.
Making A Difference
By Brian FitzGerald
Brian FitzGerald, BSN, LAT, ATC, is Community Outreach and Projects Coordinator in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery’s Division of Sports Medicine at Children’s Hospital Boston. He was recently inducted into Athletic Trainers of Massachusetts (ATOM), University of Massachusetts-Boston Athletics, and Massachusetts Amateur Sports Foundation/Bay State Games Halls of Fame.
I grew up in inner-city Boston, one of seven children, and by the time I was 15 years old, I knew I wanted to be an athletic trainer. I have been involved in the profession some 40 years now since becoming a student athletic trainer as a freshman at Marquette University in 1968. Back in those days, the athletic training profession was only 16 years old, there was no state regulation or licensure, and very few good job opportunities were available. So I decided to get a bachelor’s degree in nursing and become a school nurse/athletic trainer so I would have a license to practice and be able to work with young athletes.
Three years after receiving my degree in nursing from Fitchburg State College and completing my internship in athletic training at Boston State College, I was offered the Head Athletic Trainer position at Boston State. Three years later we merged with the University of Massachusetts-Boston. We had a 19-sport NCAA Division III intercollegiate athletics program, and I spent the next two decades in the traditional setting, working as an athletic trainer, lecturer, and clinical instructor.
Working at the NCAA Division III level was a perfect setting for me. We had a competitive sports program, I enjoyed teaching, and I loved working with our student-athletes and my athletic training students.
Being at an urban commuter college, I was able to get involved in the community, working with some inner city schools and supporting them with their sports medicine health care needs. I also felt it was very important to get involved in my state and national professional organizations to advance our profession both publicly and politically. I have served for over 20 years now as Legislative Committee Chair for the Athletic Trainers of Massachusetts. I was appointed to our state’s regulatory commission and served as Chair of the Board of Registration in Allied Health Professionals, which oversees athletic trainers, physical therapists, and occupational therapists. I also served on the national board of directors for the NATA Research & Education Foundation.
After 18 years of working 60 or 70 hours a week, being on the road with teams many weekends, and having only one full time assistant, I felt it was time for a change and a new challenge. I also wanted to spend more time with my family as well as watch my nephews and nieces participate in their high school and collegiate sports.
Over those same years, while volunteering as an athletic trainer for the Boston Marathon, Bay State Games, and Boston Shoot-Out Basketball Tournaments, I came to know Lyle Micheli, MD, Director of the Division of Sports Medicine here at Children’s Hospital Boston. Dr. Micheli is widely considered to be the father of pediatric sports medicine, having founded the first clinic of its kind in this country. In addition, he has always been a strong and active supporter of the athletic training profession.
A mutual friend suggested that Dr. Micheli hire a full-time athletic trainer in his sports medicine clinic, and I was very interested in the job. This was a tremendous opportunity for me to work for a world renowned pediatric sports medicine orthopaedic surgeon whose vision and research was on the cutting edge.
The hiring process was very interesting because the hospital did not know what an athletic trainer does, nor did it have a job description for one. Therefore, Dr. Micheli created a position through Human Resources and hired me as his Research and Projects Coordinator.
At first, the transition was a challenge because my position was not well-defined and we were developing it as we went along. I generally assisted Dr. Micheli, his two sports medicine fellows, and our sports podiatrist in the clinical setting. I would sometimes observe in surgery and also consult with patients, parents, and athletic trainers pre-operatively and post-operatively to prescribe programs and protocols. I helped monitor ongoing research, submitting reports for IRB approval and reviewing projects on an annual basis. I also coordinated medical coverage for sports and performing arts events as well as for symposiums sponsored by the Division. I served with Dr. Micheli on the Massachusetts Governor’s Committee on Physical Fitness and Sports.
Over the past 11 years, the Division of Sports Medicine has grown considerably and now boasts four orthopaedic surgeons, seven primary care sports medicine specialists, two podiatrists, two physician assistants, three athletic trainers, two radiology techs, a sports nutritionist, a sports psychologist, and a research assistant, as well as 28 administrative and ancillary staff. The next major phase for Dr. Micheli, which is underway, is to build a world-class pediatric-adolescent sports and fitness research facility.
One of the most meaningful aspects of my work at Children’s Hospital Boston has been our outreach to local athletes. In 2001, understanding that there were no athletic trainers in any of the Boston Public Schools (BPS), we helped negotiate to allow any BPS athlete to seek direct access to sports medicine healthcare by going to the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center (RLTAC), where Dr. Micheli is the supervising physician. We solicited funds to support physician coverage by our Harvard trained orthopaedic residents and assigned them to provide sideline coverage at BPS varsity football contests along with a city assigned ATC or EMT. We then expanded further by offering free pre-participation physical evaluations at the RLTAC so no inner-city athletes would lose the opportunity to participate in sports because of an inability to get a physical in time. Many of the coaches in the BPS are former athletes or students from my Boston State College and UMass-Boston days, which reinforces our trust and relationship to their programs.
As our practice expanded, so have my duties and responsibilities. We have established administrative and clinical athletic trainer job descriptions here at the hospital, and my role has changed to Community Outreach and Projects Coordinator.
Along with our expansion, I have helped establish our Affiliated Group Program, which serves 35 schools, colleges, and performing arts organizations. Our physicians are team physicians for many of these schools or groups, and their athletes or performing artists have direct clinical access for appointments through our Affiliated Group Liaison.
We have provided medical coverage for the Boston Ballet, Radio City Rockettes, Cirque du Soleil, USA Track & Field, USA Rugby, US Figure Skating, Bay State Games, and many Broadway shows that come to town.
Since our practice also specializes in figure skating injuries, I have become heavily involved with U. Figure Skating and have been recruited as Assistant Medical Director for five National and two Synchronized Skating National Championships. I’ve also been fortunate to travel to Europe and Asia as US Figure Skating’s Team Athletic Trainer.
Our practice performs over 2,100 hours of community service each year, providing medical coverage, in-service programs, lectures, and free ACL injury prevention programs in middle schools for parents, coaches, physical educators, and athletic trainers. I currently sit on the Board of Directors for our Children’s Sports Medicine Foundation, and serve on the Children’s Hospital Boston Community Health Team and Fitness and Nutrition Task Force.
My dream is to incorporate athletic trainers into community health centers to help educate those practitioners who admittedly have little musculoskeletal knowledge and understanding of sports medicine. I also hope these athletic trainers would help bridge the gap between the community and the health centers by working with local schools and sports organizations, providing quality sports medicine healthcare, and promoting the tools for injury prevention. They can work with these groups to establish emergency action plans and proper referral of athletic injuries, along with advancing other programs related to healthcare such as nutrition and drug and alcohol prevention.
I highly recommend working in a setting like this, but it’s still a new frontier. You can’t just walk into a hospital and say, “I’d like to work here.” I suggest starting at the grassroots level by establishing yourself in your community and finding physicians who understand the value of athletic training. Then, ask a lot of questions of any potential employer. What’s included in the job description? What is the potential for an athletic trainer working at the particular setting? Who’s working there now? Are there specialists in primary care, sports medicine, and orthopedics?
Our clinical athletic trainers act as physician extenders, performing initial evaluations on patients and presenting them to the physicians, thereby saving time and allowing physicians to see many more patients each day. They also respond to patients’ calls and prepare requisitions for patient diagnostic testing and follow-up appointments.
Sure, I dreamt of becoming the athletic trainer for the Boston Celtics in my younger days and came very close one time. But right now I would not change a thing because I love what I do and in a small way have been able to give back to the community I grew up in. I try to make a difference in the sports health care available to our young athletes.
I’m 57 now, and I count myself very blessed for all the opportunities I’ve had. The career move I made 11 years ago has allowed me to accomplish a lot more than I would have if I’d stayed in the traditional setting. It has given me the chance to spend more time with my family as well as develop professionally in so many ways. I had a great opportunity, and I’m glad I took it.We welcome your feedback on this article. Please e-mail us at: firstname.lastname@example.org