Athletic trainers much more than fitness coaches

Kelly High School AT James Ashby treats a student athlete for a shoulder injury.

With baseball season well underway and the high school state championship basketball tournament tipping off this week, not to mention regional and state golf and tennis tournaments around the corner, one might get lost amidst all the hustle and bustle of high school sports. Many parents have a hard time keeping up with one teen enrolled in multiple sports and extracurricular activities, much less several. Multiply that number of children by 100 or more, and you have stepped into the world of the high school athletic trainer (AT).

March, designated as National Athletic Training Month, is perhaps a good time to quash the common misconception that ATs are merely glorified fitness trainers or coaches and recognize their importance.

“That’s one aspect of what we do, but I think it is very important to get out that fact that we are health professionals,” said Nederland High School AT Matt Lewis. “We’re not a coach that puts on Band-Aids. We’re better versed in some of our trauma care and fracture care than some orthopedics because we’ve seen it so much more on and off the field than they have. We work with that kid every day.”

ATs are responsible for taking care of more than just the athletes.

“We do a lot more here for community (members) – the regular student, the band member, the cheerleader, the drill team – than people realize,” Lewis said. “When you are in a community long enough, people tend to bring you their little brother who hurt his knee. … Because we are so generally educated in so many different areas, lots of people depend on us to do lots of different things.”

ATs are recognized by the American Medical Association and defined by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association as allied health care providers who specialize in the prevention, evaluation, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation of injuries and illnesses related to athletes and physically active individuals across the age continuum. They must possess a bachelor’s degree and be licensed at the state or national level. Some, like Lewis, are licensed at both levels. The state of Texas does not require licensing at the national level, but trainers cannot practice in Texas without a state license.

“As an athletic trainer, it is our responsibility to provide a balance of safety for the athlete while maintaining a peak level of performance. It also is our responsibility to emphasize the health and well-being of the student athletes by acting as an advocate between coaches, parents, administrators and physicians,” said Sheri Hoffpauir, president of the Athletic Trainers of the Golden Triangle. “We are all striving to do our best in keeping the athlete healthy, safe and performing at an optimal level.”

“Athletic trainers provide a vital health care role for our athletes,” added Kimberly Pitts, Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine and concussion specialist at Christus Health Southeast Texas. “They are onsite and provide immediate attention to an injured player. Their assessment on the sidelines is critical to the athlete’s care and recovery.”

Although ATs are often seen on the sidelines under the Friday night lights evaluating a football player that just got lit up by a big hit, most of their heavy work takes place in the training room.

“There are times at 7 o’clock in the morning when we’ll have 12-15 kids in here working rehab on different things or evaluating different injuries,” Lewis said. “We sometimes take care of the workplace injuries too. If the grounds crew person falls down and breaks his arm, we are the first person they see.”

Most public high schools average two trainers, said Monsignor Kelly High School AT James Ashby. Private schools such as Ashby’s average one trainer or a part-time trainer, he said.

ATs train student athletic trainers or SATs to assist them with their daily duties. SATs also get a bad wrap and are often thought of as just “waterboys” or equipment managers, Lewis said.

In 2008, Shawn Klinger, a local athletic trainer, was instrumental in helping to expand the Athletic Trainers of the Golden Triangle organization by developing a scholarship program for local student athletic trainers, and to bring awareness to what student trainers did and recognition for all the hard work and time they put in, Hoffpauir said.

“The same year, the first $500 scholarship was given out to a local student athletic trainer,” she said. “The first Student Athletic Trainer Clinic was held in 2010 where student trainers attended short lectures learning more about what it means to be a student athletic trainer, how to recognize and handle sports emergencies and participate in taping contests and Jeopardy-type games to test their knowledge and skills they have learned.”

For those that do decide to pursue the career of an AT, Ashby points out that job duties vary based on location. At Kelly, in addition to his AT duties, Ashby regularly performs maintenance and lawn care work as well.

“During football season, if it is 90 hours, it’s been a slow week,” he said.

It is not required by Texas law to have a high school trainer at all, however, Lewis said, and many rural high schools in the area do not have an athletic trainer on staff or have a coach that doubles up. For these schools, AT outreach programs become that much more important.

Kathryn Embersics, an AT for Beaumont Bone & Joint Institute and Christus Health, travels to Southeast Texas schools that do not have an AT on staff to treat and help prevent injuries, and to schools that are staffed to check on their needs as well.

“Shawn Klinger and I split all the schools in our area north to Pineland and down to Sabine Pass,” Embersics said, describing the outreach program’s vast area of coverage. “On the days that we do have athletic trainers in the schools, we check up on them to see if we can help them get an appointment with a doctor or get a doctor’s note for an athlete. For those schools who don’t have athletic trainers, we’re it.”

Lewis said out of 38 high schools in the area, around 16 have no athletic training coverage, and of that 16, five or six have a coach that functions as the AT.

Unfortunately, Embersics said there is a lack of medical knowledge at many schools that don’t have AT coverage.

“That’s the hard part,” she said. “We were talking about maybe getting the schools some kits … but some of these guys don’t even know how to tape a thumb or wrist.

“We are hopefully going to try to give them some training over the summer, but as soon as they get back from summer, it’s all football. They go to training, coaching school, and as soon as they get done with that, they are drawing Xs and Os everywhere. Once they get in that mindset, you can’t speak to them about other stuff because they are so focused.”

Embersics said she is currently busy rehabbing football injuries such as ACL sprains and tears.

“At one school, I had four ACLs in different phases of rehab,” she said. “That’s the challenging part.”

In addition to traveling to schools throughout the area, during football season Christus and Beaumont Bone & Joint offer sports medicine clinics, with orthopedic surgeons and concussion specialists on hand for assessment and evaluation of injuries on Saturdays.

So next time you run into your school’s athletic trainers, shake their hands and thank them for the many duties they perform to keep student athletes and others alike healthy and safe.

For more information on how to become an athletic trainer, visit www.dshs.state.tx.us/at.

For more information on athletic trainer scholarships, e-mail Sheri Hoffpauir at shoffpauir [at] lcmcisd [dot] org.

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