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Career Profile: Athletic Trainer

An athletic trainer is a certified health care professional who practices in the field of sports medicine. Athletic trainers specialize in the prevention, assessment, treatment, and rehabilitation of musculoskeletal injuries, and are also involved in the rehabilitation and physical conditioning of injured athletes. The responsibilities of trainers also extend to educating athletes about how to avoid putting themselves at risk. Not only does every professional sports team within the U.S. have a need for athletic trainers, but a growing number of high school and college athletic departments require one on staff, as well.

What is Athletic Training?

For those unfamiliar with the profession of athletic training, it is not uncommon to assume the title is synonymous with fitness trainer or physical therapist. However, there are very significant differences between all of these careers. One major difference is that fitness trainers and physical therapists work with people of all ages and skill levels. Fitness trainers often lead, instruct, and motivate individuals in exercise activities, while physical therapists help those who suffer from injury or illness improve their movement and manage their pain, often in clinics, hospitals, and nursing homes. Athletic trainers, on the other hand, work almost exclusively with athletes, either at the university of high school level or in a professional athletic setting.

Since 1990, athletic training has been recognized by the American Medical Association (AMA) as an allied health care profession. The Strategic Implementation Team of the National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA) defines the field as "practiced by athletic trainers, health care professionals who collaborate with physicians to optimize activity and participation of patients and clients." The NATA went on to state that "athletic training encompasses the prevention, diagnosis and intervention of emergency, acute and chronic medical conditions involving impairment, functional limitations and disabilities."

On a typical day, an athletic trainer will develop and carry out rehabilitation programs for injured athletes, and implement comprehensive programs to prevent injury and illnesses that can occur due to athletic participation. On the day of a game or rigorous practice session, athletic trainers might be asked to apply protective or injury-preventive devices like tape, bandages, and braces to vulnerable areas on an athlete, as well as remain on hand to evaluate injuries and provide first aid or emergency care. Lastly, athletic trainers are not immune to administrative tasks like recordkeeping, or writing reports on athlete injuries and treatment programs.


To become an athletic trainer, one must earn a degree from an accredited professional level education program and pass the Board of Certification (BOC) exam. The Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education accredits most programs, most of which have both classroom and clinical components. Courses frequently include science and health-related courses such as anatomy, physiology, nutrition, anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics.

Each state has its own regulatory agency that controls the practice of athletic training. Thirty-nine states require an athletic trainer to obtain a license prior to practicing; Colorado, Hawaii, Minnesota, Oregon, and West Virginia require registration; Kentucky, Louisiana, New York, and South Carolina require certification; and two states, California and Alaska, have no state regulations on the practice of athletic training.

Those aspiring to train at the university level are often required to earn a master's degree. Common areas of study for those at the graduate level include athletic training, education, and exercise physiology.

Typical Injuries

Athletic trainers most commonly treat — and also prevent — the kinds of injuries that most commonly occur during sports or exercise. Although basically any part of your body can be injured during sports or exercise, the term "sports injury" is usually reserved for those that involve the musculoskeletal system; as a result, muscles, bones, and associated tissues, like cartilage, are usually the focus of most athletic trainer programs.

Athletic trainers are often among the first professionals to assess a patient's injury and decide if emergency care or a doctor referral is needed; they also evaluate whether or not athletes are ready to play or employees should return to work. On the job, these injuries could include fractured bones, concussions, torn ligaments, and sprains, among many others. Tendinitis in runners, herniated discs, inversion ankle sprain, and lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow) are among the most commonly treated sports-related injuries.

Though they are often relegated to the sidelines of major sporting events, athletic trainers recently made a rare public appearance in the recent NCAA game in which Louisville Cardinals guard Kevin Ware's right lower leg broke and shattered in front of a national audience. The 20-year-old sophomore landed awkwardly in the Midwest Final game, "perhaps exacerbating an undetected stress fracture," according to Dr. Frederick Azar, vice president of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. While the injury was gruesome by college athletics standards, it serves as a good example of the types of complicated, serious injuries that athletic trainer must be prepared to face.

A recent study called, "A Comparative Analysis of Injury Rates and Patterns Among Girls' Soccer and Basketball Players," found that high schools with athletic trainers have lower overall injury rates, while athletes at schools with trainers are more likely to be diagnosed with a concussion.

Career Outlook

Each year, the athletic trainer profession grows approximately 10%, which is about average for most professions. Between 2010 and 2020, employment of athletic trainers is expected to increase 30%, which is significantly faster than the average for all occupations. Since the profession is relatively small, however, this growth will only result in approximately 5,500 new jobs over the 10-year period.

Prospective athletic trainers should keep in mind that the official title can vary in different athletic, professional, or educational settings. Titles could include resident athletic trainer, athletic-instructor certified trainer, or clinical instructor. In professional or college sports, athletic trainers also frequently hold specialized positions, such as strength and conditioning coach or medical coordinator.

The median salary of athletic trainers is $41,600. However, the lowest 10% earned less than $25,750 and the top 10% earned more than $64,390. The benefits one receives as an athletic trainer often include paid vacation, health insurance, and a pension plan.

As the first people on scene for many sport-related injuries, athletic trainers hold a great deal of responsibility towards students and athletes whose livelihood depends on maintaining peak physical health conditions. For those who are interested in musculoskeletal medicine and sports performance, athletic training might be an ideal field—especially considering the flourishing job market. If you are a detail-oriented individual with strong interpersonal skills and an ability to retain a broad array of medical knowledge, you should make sure to explore the quickly growing field of athletic training.