What Is a Certified Athletic Trainer

Leslie Rosenbloom, ATC
Cooper Bone and Joint Institute

Certified athletic trainers (ATCs) help athletes avoid or recover from sports related injuries. Whenever possible, they prevent injuries from occurring by aiding the athletes in their physical fitness levels with conditioning and strengthening, being sure that all safety equipment is fitted and used properly for each sport, and by maintaining safe playing conditions on the field or court in cases of inclement weather or poor conditions. Unfortunately, these tactics do not always prevent an injury from happening.

When an injury occurs, often, it is the ATC who is first to respond. The athletic trainer is well prepared to assess injuries and follow the appropriate protocols for initial treatment. Initial treatment can range from the ATC treating the athlete, such as cleaning and covering a wound; to the ATC treating the initial symptoms, for example, using the RICE method in treating sprains and strains, and then referring the athlete to their physician; to activating an emergency action plan so that the athlete gets immediate attention, for example, needing to backboard an athlete for a potential C-spine fracture.

ATCs are also well trained in therapeutic rehabilitation. If an athlete has an orthopaedic injury that causes a loss in range of motion, strength, proprioception, speed or agility, the ATC can progress them through the appropriate exercises and use the necessary modalities to get them back to the game.

To become an athletic trainer, a person must complete either an undergraduate or graduate program in athletic training that has been given its accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education (CAATE). The Board of Certification, Inc. (BOC) sets the standards for the practice of athletic training and is the only accredited certifying body for ATCs in the U.S. Once the program has been completed, the athletic trainer must sit for a National Certification exam given by the BOC to become certified to work.

Some states, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania, further require a license to work in that state. Each state determines what qualifies an ATC to work, but national certification is always required.

The coursework that needs to be completed to sit for the exam includes specific skills in athletic training, such as injury assessment, therapeutic exercise and therapeutic modalities, but also includes coursework in anatomy, exercise physiology, psychology and nutrition. The athletic trainer is further required to perform clinical work in the athletic training room of the college or university being attended and/or their specified sites off-campus. This allows practical, hands-on knowledge to be gained while still in the classroom.

Many ATCs continue their education after undergraduate school and earn their master’s degree and/or PhD in varying fields, or attend a professional school for physical therapy, physician assistant, or medicine.

The traditional work setting of ATCs has been high schools, colleges, universities and professional sports. Today, recognition of the skills of ATCs has presented many more opportunities, such as:

  • Sports medicine clinics to help with the rehabilitation of patients after injury or surgery.
  • Orthopaedic offices and hospitals to assist with the assessment, treatment and needs of athletic patients and other patients.
  • Industrial and commercial fields to treat work-related injuries, and to prevent injuries using ergonomic assessments.
  • Armed Forces to work on and off base in fitness and wellness centers, new recruit readiness programs, pre-enlistment readiness programs, initial entry training and advanced initial training.
  • Performing Arts to assess and rehabilitate dancers, musicians and vocalists.

For more information on the field of athletic training, please visit the National Athletic Trainers’ Association website at www.nata.org.

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