All March 17, 2023

The super versatile, super vital role of athletic trainers

Sports medicine’s health care specialists on and off the field

You’ve seen them hustling across the football field or crouching beside a player on the sideline whose face is twisted in pain.

They don’t wear the black and white stripes of the referee, but their breed is just as easy to spot. And their presence on the field can be just as critical as a game-changing field goal, free throw or hat trick.

Enter the athletic trainer.

Often sporting khaki pants, a fanny pack and a polo or sports shirt in team colors, athletic trainers are recognizable in how they look and, more importantly, for what they do.

But if in your mind’s eye you picture an NFL or NBA game, it might surprise you to know the diverse places where athletic trainers work and the scope of work.

While most often associated with sports, athletic trainers are vital practitioners of medical care in many settings on and off the playing field, including the workplace and a few places that might surprise you.

Let’s dive in for a deeper look at these health care specialists.

Partners in injury and injury prevention

No matter the type of athletics, athletic trainers are at the center of a sports medical team – individuals trained in athletic health care.

The athletic trainer is generally first on the playing surface when a player goes down. They have precious little time to do an initial assessment to determine the type and severity of injury or medical emergency. In an emergency, they are the ones to signal for the team physicians and medics to come on the playing area.

For those on the sidelines or in the bleachers, whether game time or practice, athletic trainers provide reassurance in times of injury.

After all, injuries happen.

And if you’re an athlete, a weekend warrior or you have a physically demanding job, you may have more chance of injury than someone who’s not as active.

From athletic injury to onsite emergency care

Though it’s not something we like to think about when suiting up for a game or packing the SUV for a tailgate, medical emergencies can and do happen in any setting.

As part of a sports medicine team, an athletic trainer will know first aid, CPR and automated external defibrillator use (AED).

When NFL safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest and collapsed on the field, CPR and AED were administered on the spot.

Emergency treatment lasted 20 minutes before Hamlin could be moved. The quick medical treatment put a spotlight on just how valuable athletic trainers are because of their skills in emergency medicine.

As first on the playing surface to assess the situation, athletic trainers inform the medical team of any life-threatening injury to initiate emergency medical care.

While the on-site response is critical, there’s also a tactical side to athletic training work that’s just as important in times of crisis.

We can put them in a short list of critical need-to-knows that in the face of emergency help the medical response teams stay calm, organized and effective:

  • Emergency Action Plan to handle crisis situations
  • Emergency phone numbers
  • Ambulance access points at venues
  • The working condition of onsite emergency equipment, like AEDs

Another thing that’s a must for all athletic trainers: great communication skills.

Athletic trainers are the source of communication between coaches and family when a player is injured. Their job includes reporting on the injury and expectations from the point of injury to next steps toward recovery.

Post-injury. Return to play. Return to work.

Okay, you’ve had an injury (ouch!).

You completed recovery and rehab (hooray!).

What comes next?

The next stage in post-injury progression is your return – return to play (RTP) or return to work.

This happens after your medical care provider is satisfied with your progress and clears you to get back to sports and physical activities. Working with an athletic trainer is essential in getting to this stage.

While an athletic trainer is first on the scene to assess injury, they’ll be in your corner to guide your recovery.

Your athletic trainer will do functional tests and look at your performance stats to gauge your readiness for activity, at what level and at what pace. There may be others in your corner that your trainer will coordinate to help with your full rehabilitation:

  • Doctor
  • Physical therapist
  • Occupational therapist
  • Nutritionist
  • Strength and conditioning coach
  • Massage therapist
  • Sports psychologist

man doing push-upsFor you as an athlete, and depending on your injury, functional tests can include:

  • Sprints
  • Cutting drills (lower body injuries)
  • Jumps
  • Lifting and push-pull exercises (upper body injuries)

Athletic trainers use the stats to pinpoint any deficits remaining post-injury recovery, like limping or weakness, which could hinder you from safely retuning to play.

If testing is clear of any concerns, you’ll get the green light to return to full activity.

If there are areas of concerns, your trainer may plan additional exercises, or modify your activity level to help you improve on the deficits and continue toward full clearance.

Return to play is unique to each athlete and injury. The goal of functional testing and injury recovery is to ensure your safety on the playing field when returning from an injury.

Around the world, athletic trainers are looked to as trusted professionals playing a crucial part in health management and health care.

Multi-skilled and holding advanced certification to help athletes, performers and people across many job settings, athletic trainers bring benefits to health care. If you’ve been sidelined from work, missed out hanging with friends or playing your sport because of injury – or a repeated injury – there’s good news.

Working with an athletic trainer now can help avoid injury later. Put another way, you don’t have to wait until you’re injured to address the issue.

An athletic trainer can identify weaknesses or conditions that may be leading to your injuries and help correct them.

This approach is called prehab – preventive activity to decrease risk of future injury. Two important areas include:

Functional movement screens

Done by an athletic trainer to identify dysfunctional or painful movement patterns.

Exercises are taught to correct movement and any bad habits you may have acquired in compensating for pain. These can be done on their own or as part of a warm-up before activity.

For example, a proper warm-up using dynamic stretching can help increase blood flow to loosen muscles prior to activity, whether it’s working out or warming up before performing a concert or dance routine.

Recovery planning

Proper nutrition, hydration and sleep are all needed to keep the body in the right state for exercise. But it takes planning and discipline to adopt the right approach for your body and your activity level.

Your athletic trainer is your partner in injury prevention and can advise you on the right balance of all these things.

Athletic training: beyond the playing field

There’s high regard for the public work that athletic trainers do in helping individuals avoid injury and recover from injury.

Not surprising, then, are the standards that trainers are held to.

Athletic trainers must graduate with a bachelor's or master’s degree and pass the Board of Certification Exam (BOC) to work with professional athletes. There’s also regular renewals on the certification to demonstrate continued learning and competence.

All this is to ensure that athletes are healthy and performing at their peak potential.

But think about the word “athlete.”

In a traditional sense – youth and high school programs to college and professional divisions – it conjures a playing field, ice rink, basketball court, you name it.

So this nugget may surprise you:

“Only 2% of all athletic trainers work in professional sports.”


Athletic trainers work in all sorts of job settings and treat a host of individuals beyond traditional sporting venues, such as:

  • Doctors’ offices
  • Hospitals and emergency rooms
  • Urgent Care centers
  • Rehabilitation centers

Outside of clinical settings, there are many emerging job settings where athletic trainers are finding new opportunities in public safety, military schools and the armed forces, and in performing arts and aeronautics. There’s a whole program at Boeing called the Industrial Athlete program designed to keep employees who work in physically demanding jobs healthy.

worker swinging sledge hammerSuch specialty industries employ individuals who need certain levels of fitness to do their jobs. They also need training to reduce risk on the job and stay fit for duty.

Add to those, various commercial settings like airlines, warehouses, hotel/resort and theme parks, and an athletic trainer’s scope of practice broadens even more.

For each of these sectors athletic trainers will have specific training to provide medical care based on the unique activities, physical demands and requirements of the employees.

This article shares a small window into the immense discipline of athletic training. It’s a discipline that’s grown from its origins of sport athleticism to stretch beyond the sidelines and into patient and employee health care.

Around the world, athletic trainers are looked to as trusted professionals playing a crucial part in health management and health care.

No matter where you encounter them, athletic trainers share the goal of keeping active people safe, well and moving forward.

Click to request an appointment to work with our Athletic Training Services team. If you are am employer interested in worksite safety training, check out our WorkStrategies® Program.