Athletic Trainer Career Guide – Become an Athletic Trainer

What is an Athletic Trainer?

An athletic trainer is a mid-level professional member of a sports medicine team. They often take direction from and work directly with and under a physician. Many tasks that athletic trainers perform are similar to those carried out by occupational therapists and physical therapists, however they are often the first to assess an injury when it occurs.

While some athletic trainers have specialized training to assist in sports-related injuries, many provide services to individuals with injuries gained from non-sports accidents or to those in need of preventative care. For instance, they may work with individuals who are obese, elderly, or have diabetes.

Additionally, the word “trainer” does not often mean an athletic trainer will actually train athletes or those in the sports field. Other job titles include wellness health manager or a physician extender. In some countries, the possibly misleading title “athletic trainer” has been changed to “physiotherapist”.

What is a Certified Athletic Trainer?

A certified athletic trainer is the same as an athletic trainer, specifically because all practicing athletic trainers must be certified in the United States except in one state. California is currently the only state that does not regulate the practice or certification of Athletic Trainers, which means anyone can assume the title regardless of education or experience.

In the rest of the country, the National Athletic Trainer’s Association (NATA) oversees the certification process to ensure athletic trainers do not perform their job duties without proper education and practice.

In collaboration with NATA, the Board of Certification (BOC) ensures programs are certified, athletic trainers are certified, and that the trainers continually maintain their certification with extra training or education. For example, certified athletic trainers must continually demonstrate proper emergency cardiac care techniques by retaking CPR courses.

What Does an Athletic Trainer Do?

Athletic trainers perform a variety of tasks on a day-to-day basis, making their job duties numerous and diverse. Depending on where the athletic trainer works, most of their responsibilities may be in preventative care, diagnosis, and/or rehabilitation.

Athletic trainers focus mainly on the muscles and bones in a patient, which is where many sports-related injuries occur. While there is some on the job training, the majority of skills athletic trainers will utilize are learned from educational programs and internships.

As mentioned previously, athletic trainers work with physicians in helping patients. This may mean the athletic trainer first examines a patient for injuries, but refers them to a physician when the diagnosis is inconclusive or difficult to determine. They can also update a physician on a patient’s status of recovery, which reduces the need for a physician to see every patient.

Athletic trainers that work for a sports team or physically active traveling group can provide services before, during, or after a game or activity, like inspecting fields for potentially harmful turf or accompanying an injured patient to the hospital. This may include traveling with a children’s sports team, a professional sports team, or a mountaineering group.

Daily tasks may include clearing a patient for participation in sports or physical activities, or providing the patient with guides and strategies on how to recover or prepare for physical tasks. They may massage patients to relieve soreness or tape up injuries.

More hands-off duties will sometimes include keeping patient records or updating records for the physician, making sure sports and recovery equipment inventory is up to date, and communicating with parents about the status of their student-athlete.

Why Do We Need Athletic Trainers?

Athletic trainers are integral members of sports medicine teams and physical therapist teams in numerous settings. As fluid members of these teams, they provide immediate care to members of sports teams or other active groups while reducing the amount of travel physicians are required to take.

Athletic trainers are able to assess injuries shortly after they occur in order to strategize a treatment plan and reduce the amount of recovery time needed. Additionally, they can be present numerous days in a row to assess progress rather than having the injured individual see multiple healthcare professionals. This is important when ensuring the injured individual is appropriately recovering from a concussion, for instance, or engaging in at-home exercises.

From a financial standpoint, many businesses that can utilize athletic trainers save money on healthcare costs. Oftentimes having a knowledgeable individual who is an expert in physical injuries and preventative care is a cheaper option than sending employees to a hospital for treatment. These businesses can also include hospitals and fire departments, which means important staff like nurses, emergency medical technicians, and firefighters can return to work earlier than anticipated.

What are the Requirements to Become an Athletic Trainer?

With the exception of California, athletic trainers must undergo specific education training and pass an exam to become certified. Currently, the minimum educational requirement necessary is to have a Bachelor’s degree, however this is set to change to a Master’s degree within the next few years. Once the change occurs, universities may not offer a specific undergraduate athletic training degree, but rather a general degree and a specific Masters.

Many universities offer a Bachelor of Science in athletic training, requiring 120 credit hours and numerous hands-on courses. Bachelor’s programs need to be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education (CAATE).

While programs differ from school to school, many require core courses to be taken in kinesiology, anatomy, physiology, biology, and psychology. Internships outside the university may not be required, however many courses require that students engage in physical tasks to practice their skills.

Currently, the goal of Bachelor’s programs is to train students to be ready to take the Board of Certification (BOC) exam. Within two years of gaining the Bachelor’s degree, the BOC exam must be taken. The exam is a multiple choice, 175 question exam that will take 4 hours and costs $300. Results from the exam are given 2-4 weeks after exam completion.

After passing the BOC exam, students will need to receive 25 continuing education units (CEUs) in the year after the exam is taken, and 50 every two years after that. One CEU is defined as one “contact hour”, where the athletic trainer will spend time receiving additional training or updating their skills.

The types of CEUs undertaken depend on when the student graduated and what type of training they have already received. Once CEUs are taken in the first year after passing the exam, athletic trainers must register with their specific state to become licensed and practice. Most states follow the guidelines of NATA so additional requirements are rarely needed.

Although taking the BOC and receiving CEUs officially makes a student a certified athletic trainer, roughly 70% of athletic trainers choose to hold a Master’s degree in order to gain more skill.

Many Master’s degrees take 2 years to complete and require internships to be taken either throughout the program or in the final year. For instance, at Pacific University in Oregon, courses focusing on specific regions of the body are taken in the first year, and internships make up a larger fraction of required units as students progress through the degree. In a few years, the Master’s degree will be required before taking the BOC exam.

Some athletic trainers also undertake doctorate degrees, however programs are rare. Often, those who wish to teach in the field of athletic training or wish to move higher up in their field seek the degree.

What is an Online Athletic Trainer Degree Program?

Many universities are moving some or most of their courses and entire degrees online in order to accommodate remote or working individuals. However, given that the athletic training is a largely hands-on field, there are currently no accredited online programs for those wishing to seek a Bachelor’s degree in athletic training.

Some universities will likely allow some courses to be taken online, like general education courses and more related courses that only require rote memorization of topics.

For athletic trainers that wish to receive a Master’s degree, online programs are available. These programs help to accommodate athletic trainers that are already practicing but want to gain more skills. Many of the programs do require students to visit campus at some point for intensive training.

For example, the University of Southern Florida requires students to visit the campus for five days in summer. Internships can be coordinated in the programs with a hospital or physician’s office in order to gain hands-on practice.

Once the field transitions into requiring a Master’s degree prior to becoming certified, it is likely that Bachelor’s degrees will be able to be taken online and Master’s degrees will not. It will likely be the case that the majority of hands-on experience will be gained in the Master’s degree rather than in the earlier years.

Doctoral degrees may become more common in the field, in order to compete with other trainers for positions. However, there is currently no information if these types of programs will be available in an online setting.

What Does it Take to Become an Athletic Trainer?

  • Decision-Making: Athletic trainers in many fields must think on their feet in order to quickly address injuries. A fast and correct diagnosis and treatment is critical to minimize the duration of the injury. Athletic trainers who are able to think fast and are good decision-makers should find jobs in emergency rooms or with sports teams that need immediate attention. Physician offices and other hospital positions may require good decisions to be made, but some incoming injuries can be thought over prior to administering care.
  • Social Skills: While athletic trainers are treating a specific injury on a person, their primary focus should be on the individual’s well being as a whole. Being able to comfort an injured child, speak with parents/caregivers, and work with a patient on recovery are common tasks that need to be performed while on the job. Relatedly, active listening is very important, as a patient will communicate critical information that the athletic trainer will need to comprehend.
  • Teamwork: Athletic trainers rarely work independently. As a member of a larger team, they need to be able to both take direction and communicate with their teammates. This may mean updating a physician or athletic director on the condition of a patient, or communicating care goals to a team of other athletic trainers.
  • Drive to Learn: The National Athletic Trainer Association requires that athletic trainers continually learn new material in order to remain certified. Athletic trainers must continually have a desire to know what is new in the field, including new treatment techniques. During initial training and education, a desire to learn will make a well-rounded trainer, who can ultimately fit into a wide range of care settings.
  • Flexibility: This skill is very important for athletic trainers who travel, or who work seasonally. For instance, a traveling college basketball team may not know their exact schedule until a few months before the season. The athletic trainer will need to travel with the team and make sure their schedule fits around the schedule of their patients.

Where Does an Athletic Trainer Work?

Athletic trainers work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, schools and universities, in a physical therapist’s office, and recreational sports centers. Athletic trainers may also be found on military bases, in police and fire departments, or as independent workers.

Within these overarching groups of settings, athletic trainers can be found in specific areas and departments. Within hospitals, athletic trainers can be found in sports medicine or physical therapy departments, as well as in emergency rooms.

Schools and universities will employ athletic trainers to follow sports teams, but they may also work in the school’s health department, or as an educator. Independent workers may follow a ballet troupe, for example, but look elsewhere for work once a season has come to a close.

Many athletic trainers are required to travel if they work in certain settings. For instance, college or professional sports teams travel often and need the assistance of the athletic trainer at all times. Performing artists like those in circus-type shows will also require an athletic trainer to be present and assist with preventative care and injuries when necessary. Travel locations are dependent on the group needing assistance, but can sometimes include travel overseas.

How Much Does an Athletic Trainer Make?

The annual wage of an athletic trainer depends greatly on the location of where they are employed, as well as what type of work they do. In the United States as a whole, as of May 2021, the average salary is about $54,650, ranging from $36,000 to almost $76,000. According to NATA, raises and job advancement are common; athletic trainers with over 25 years of experience make over twice as much as those with less than one year of practice.

Regarding location, more athletic trainers are concentrated in Texas, making an average of $53,600 per year. The majority is located in Dallas and Houston, likely due to the high number of sports-focused schools, universities, and professional teams. The area with the highest paid athletic trainers is Washington D.C., with an average salary of $67,500.

What is the Job Outlook for Athletic Trainers?

The job outlook is very positive for athletic trainers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment is expected to increase by 17% in the next decade, compared to the projected job growth of 6% for all jobs and 12% of those in medical professions.

This growth is due to a number of reasons. As more information becomes available regarding the long-term damage of serious sport-related injuries, teams are turning to athletic trainers for their expertise on and off the field. In particular, new protocols are being developed for certain injuries, like concussions, which will require assistance from athletic trainers.

Because the training athletic trainers receive is highly specialized to musculoskeletal conditions, facilities in need of this type of expertise are eager to hire athletic trainers.

While many sports teams have a need for athletic trainers, the highly active aging population in the United States will also need their assistance through hospitals and physician’s offices. The military and businesses as a whole look to athletic trainers to keep their active employees healthy, reducing the time spent in recovery.

What are the Advancement Opportunities for Athletic Trainers?

Athletic trainers have multiple ways of advancing their career. Athletic trainers who have certain skills, like quick decision-making and knowledge of how the field is advancing, are often sought out for higher paying positions. Consistently demonstrating skills can lead to higher pay within an organization (e.g., hospital, or sports team). It can also lead to leadership positions, like managing a group of athletic trainers.

While Master’s degrees will soon be mandatory for athletic trainers, seeking higher education like a doctorate, may demonstrate to employers that an athletic trainer is ready for more advanced tasks. Additional education can be gained to become a physician, however an athletic trainer’s career will likely need to be put on pause.

Sports marketing or sales is another direction athletic trainers may take, which can increase ones salary and give them a variety of new skills.

What Professions are Similar to Athletic Trainer?

Chiropractors: These professionals receive similar musculoskeletal training as athletic trainers, but their focus is on manipulating tendons, muscles, and bones to improve health. They may work with those with sports injuries, but often work with the general population.

Exercise Physiologists: An exercise physiologist is responsible for developing exercise regimens to assist those recovering from injuries or chronic diseases. A patient may first be referred to a physician by an athletic trainer, and then to an exercise physiologist for assistance with recovery.

Physical Therapists: A physical therapist works with injured patients to develop and implement treatment plans, involving exercise and body manipulation. Their patients may include those injured from sports, but primarily are those in the general population.

Occupational Therapists: Occupational therapists help to treat and manage pain for individuals with chronic or long-term diseases. They often develop plans for families with children who have developmental disabilities, individuals who have had a stroke, or those with long-term mental heath problems.

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