What Makes an Athletic Trainer Great?
The year is 2010 and I’m lying on a table with my shirt off fighting off the urge to:
- cry like a little girl or
- unleash a torrent of expletives that would make even the most foul-mouth sailor blush.
What comes out is some combination of the two while some dude I just met a few days ago sits, cool as a Buddhist monk, digging his fingers in between my pec major and pec minor trying to tear my chest apart!
Robbie – the trainer in question instructs me to reach my arm overhead as far as I can.
It’s not very far…
The pressure of his fingers in my armpit area trying to force their way between my pec major and minor is immense.
Someone else grabs my arm and pulls it through a deeper range of motion. “Ah f—! For the love of God!” It feels like my skin is being ripped off my chest.
“Ok now relax and bring your arm back by your side.” He says, with a big grin on his face.
“Relax?” I think to myself. Easy for this dude to say, nobody is trying to rip the ligaments out of his armpit! I would smack him upside the head with my other arm if I wasn’t laying on it at the moment.
He adjusts his grip briefly, doubles down on the pressure, and then tells me to reach my arm back over my head again. Our little routine continues. I’m sweating profusely by this point and trying to catch my breath in between shouts of agony. I can only assume this is what women in labor feel like.
After about 3-5 minutes, the sadist finally relents. “Are we done?” I ask. We are done… for today. See you same time tomorrow for some more fun!” He replies. “great” I groan as I slide off the table and retire to the showers for the day.
This was the 1st of many treatments with my soon-to-be favorite trainer. I had recently arrived at a multi-million-dollar facility in Chicago to train with some of the top athletes in the country in preparation for the NBA draft. An initial movement assessment upon arrival showed that my shoulder needed some work (I had injured it two years earlier and hadn’t fully recovered my strength and mobility). Over the next week through a combination of treatment types, Robbie would completely fix my shoulder issues. To this day I have no problems with it. You would never believe there was a point in time I couldn’t lift that arm above my head! Robbie was a great trainer and a good friend. And although the relationship between athlete and trainer is a bit of a love-hate one at times, a great trainer can make all the difference when it comes to an athlete’s ability to perform.
Traits of a Good Athletic Trainer
So, from an athlete’s perspective, what characteristics make a great trainer?
Having played basketball most of my life from Highschool to College; to training with some of the top athletes in the NBA at Attack Athletics in Chicago; to Playing professionally in Europe in Places like Germany, Eastern Europe, and the NBA G-League in the States, I have been around my fair share of Athletic Trainers. In my experience here are the 3 things that make for a great Athletic Trainer:
- A great trainer has a diverse knowledge base and skill set to offer
- A great trainer knows how to communicate
- Is flexible/ adaptable.
Allow me to expand on these a bit.
Knowing Multiple Athletic Training Treatment Options
Good trainers are knowledgeable in a variety of treatment options. This means, that they have more than one way to skin the proverbial cat as opposed to a trainer at one of my pro teams in Bulgaria whose only two treatment options were ice and massage. Athletes will work with whatever is available to them, but the more versatile and effective the options, the better. Let’s take my shoulder for example.
My junior year of college I most likely injured my rotator cuff while trying to be a tough guy in the weight room. I say most likely because I never went to see the doctor I just continued to play until, at the end of the season, I couldn’t lift my arm over my head. I did numerous rehab exercises to strengthen the stabilizer muscles around the shoulder. I did treatments on the stim machine. I did an ultrasound and massage. What ended up having the largest impact however was a combination of dry needling and scraping/what the Chinese call ‘Gua Sha.’ This, combined with the chest ripping bit (described earlier), really seemed to get me over the hump and, more than anything else, helped me regain full functional mobility and strength.
I use this example because not all trainers (or athletes for that matter) at the time of my treatment were familiar with or trained in dry needling. The other treatments are somewhat common, but each is a tool in the trainer’s tool belt. Some different skillsets that a trainer can have in their repertoire include different types of massage techniques, KT Taping, cupping, dry needling, fascia work, Gua Sha, physical therapy and more.
To this day, I am a huge proponent of dry-needling and think that every trainer should learn or become certified to use this as one of the many ways of helping their athletes. Fascia work is also a fairly new discipline and in my experience/opinion has tremendous benefits for performance and overall health. Any opportunity to learn about these should be jumped on with enthusiasm by trainers looking to improve their craft.
The interesting thing is many of these modalities come from alternative medicine practices/practitioners and (depending on who you talk to) may seem out of the scope of an athletic trainer’s necessary knowledge base. To that, I would argue that these modalities have tremendous carry-over into the training profession. At the end of the day, the goal isn’t to fit into the mold of an “athletic trainer,” the goal is to provide as much value as possible to your athletes and your program/team. So don’t be afraid to color outside the lines and think outside the box concerning your continued education; especially if your employer gives you the freedom to implement these things. Be willing to try and master any craft that sparks your interest or that you think your athletes might find valuable. Be open to different treatment modalities and be willing to learn from other professions. This is what makes for a great trainer.
Communication: Great trainers know when and how and how much to communicate.
As a trainer, there are a few key areas of communication that matter. As a liaison between doctors and athletes and when treating athletic injuries, you are basically translating your wisdom and knowledge into something that the athlete can understand. Not all of us majored in biology and physiology, so we are going to need you to simplify complex medical terminology when needed. Some athletes (like myself) like to understand what is going on in more detail. The key thing is that you’re able to help them understand their body’s treatment needs/protocol so that they can follow through with their role in the process.
Besides communication with Athletes, often the most difficult part of your job will be communicating with coaches and other program staff. The majority of your interactions with these parties will be benign. However, unless you are blessed with a flawless career, there will come a day when your responsibility to your athletes conflicts with the coach’s (or your boss’) desire for them to perform. In essence, you will be forced to choose between advocating for your athlete’s wellbeing, which will potentially upset some people, or giving in to the demands of others, against your better judgment.
If the thought of this situation makes you uncomfortable, take heart by knowing that this is not a common task to be undertaken. It depends on the coach and most coaches are pretty good at listening to their training staff, but there may be rare occasions where this is not the case. When this happens, a great trainer will speak the truth with grace.
Good Athletic Trainers are Adaptable
Lastly, a great trainer needs to be adaptable.
The schedule of an athlete is far from a 9 to 5 and by extension, your schedule will be too. Nights, weekends, and travel are common in this profession. Late-night bus rides to different states or countries after spending 4+ hours in an arena were by far my least favorite part of the job. Living out of a suitcase from hotel to hotel, 2-3 days per week, 2-3 times a month can be exciting to some. To others, it can range from a slight inconvenience to a huge pain in the ass. Just know that the travel and practice schedules differ from sport to sport so choose your sport accordingly. That being said, if you prefer the 9-5 workweek, this may not be the best fit for you.
All in all, trainers are a valuable asset to every athletic team. They occupy a key support role for every athlete and their friendship, knowledge, and assistance throughout the season is a literal game-changer. If the idea excites you and you have a passion for learning about performance and treatment modalities, then I would encourage you to pursue it. If you have apprehensions about anything I wrote above, don’t dismiss it just yet. Remember every job has its ups and downs. Learn to look at the downs as healthy challenges that push you to grow as a person. For example, if you are uncertain about your ability to handle tough conversations, remember that communication is a skill that can be learned and practiced just like dry needling or taping. Pick up a couple of books* in addition to your physiology textbooks. Like anything else in life, Athletic training can be as fun or as pleasant as you make it. So check out some more of our resources available here and if you do decide to become a trainer, be a great one!
Best of luck.
*A couple of books that I’ve found helpful are “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie (good for learning general people skills) and “Crucial Conversations” (great for learning how to navigate conflict well).