Building top medical skills is name of the game for athletic training students
Nov. 23, 2009
If you're trying to get into The University of Texas at Austin's athletic training program so you can chat up Colt McCoy or lounge by the pool with NFL players … don't even bother.
Probably seems crazy to some, but students in the program don't choose it because they get to go to Bowl games, travel with Longhorns sports teams and intern with the NFL and NBA. The star struck and celebrity-smitten get weeded out quickly and what's left is a small, first-class group with almost monastic self-discipline, high academic achievement and a marathoner's endurance.
The program in the College of Education's Department of Kinesiology and Health Education is considered one of the top in the nation. The students do better on their licensure and certification exams than most, get more of the plum internships, have more clinical experience, can avail themselves of the first-class athletics program at The University of Texas at Austin and pretty much write their own ticket when they graduate and head out into the working world.
"Most students don't even know this area of study exists," says director Brian Farr, who set up the four-year-old program and took it through the accreditation process, "but when they do hear about it, it can sound too cool to pass up. The ones who think it's a glamour job won't last, though. We have an introductory semester, called directed observation, when students, mostly freshmen, get a taste of what's involved. Our more senior students mentor them and by the time that semester's over the majority of new students have elected not to continue or haven't met the criteria for entry into the program.
"It's very demanding and some find they just don't have the interest they thought they would in a health care profession or realize they can't meet our standards. After that first semester, if they're accepted to the program and advance, they're full-time students who have to perform well academically as well as put in at least 20—unpaid, mind you—hours a week in clinical rotations with the athletic teams, and they attend both home and road games. At games they may get started a couple of hours before the team and stop a couple of hours after everybody else is done. Attending the games actually is optional, but it's considered a privilege and most students are upset if they don't get to. Attending and 'working' the game is something open to the excellent students who are on track, so of course you want to be included in that group."
Many students also take advantage of internships, which are optional and could be anywhere in the world. Some students even manage to squeeze in part-time jobs.
Each year 50 to 75 students apply and go through the program's initial, directed observation semester. During that semester they spend about five hours a week in the Athletics Department's athletic training room and on the field watching clinical instructors and athletic training students work with the athletes. They're under the supervision of a senior-level student in the program and are given basic tasks to do.
This is what Farr calls the "feeling out period." Farr and students already in the program are watching the "newbies" closely to see who has what it takes and who's likely to be happier elsewhere.
"The ones who catch your attention, in a good way, are the ones who show some motivation, are proactive, ask questions and are here for the right reasons," says Kristina Creinin, a senior who will be graduating in May and who's working with the women's soccer team this semester. "They're not just killing time in the athletic training room and out on the field, staring off into space and doing as little as possible. They should be watching what we're doing very closely, actually interested, and coming up and offering to help, even when you haven't asked anything of them.
"They need to be where they're supposed to be when they're supposed to be there—which is about being mature—and not be focused on getting players' autographs or simply having fun. The most difficult thing, whether you're a senior or a sophomore in this program, is time management and getting everything done and done well. There's a tremendous time commitment. Even though they're just freshmen, we need to see that they're handling all parts of the college experience well and not doing poorly academically."
When directed observation ends about 25 or 30 of the "newbies" remain and are accepted into the program.
Students who stick with it and make it through the four-year program get more clinical experience than most other health-related preparatory programs provide, beginning with the first semester and continuing through each semester thereafter. For someone who's serious about athletic training with the NBA or in being a doctor or physical therapist, for example, this direct experience is pure gold.
"We work under the supervision of a clinical instructor," says Brad Endres, who is a pre-med junior going into sports medicine and who's working with the football team this semester. "We learn therapeutic modalities like the use of ultrasounds and electric muscle stimulators, and manual therapy techniques like joint manipulation and flexibility, strength and conditioning exercises. From the very beginning, you're learning techniques like bracing and taping—that intensive hands-on work is what sets this program apart. And the best thing is that you get to actually use these techniques after you've proven your proficiency.
"Even though you're under the supervision of a clinical instructor, you have so much autonomy and by the time you're a senior you have plenty of opportunities to use your clinical skills. By then, you're performing evaluations, setting up rehab exercises and giving rehab yourself. No one's there automatically giving you answers but there definitely is a safety net to fall back upon if you need it. It's truly great training and is the ideal preparation for a real job. I had started out in biology, but when I heard about this program and tried it I knew this was the route I wanted to take to medical school to become an orthopedic surgeon. This certainly isn't for everyone, but from the very beginning I knew I loved the people, the duties and the structure."
Athletic trainers are recognized by the American Medical Association as allied health professionals and must pass a rigorous exam to gain national board certification, as well as meet any licensure requirements of the state in which they want to practice.
Once on the job, athletic trainers work under the general supervision of a physician and specialize in the prevention, assessment, treatment and rehabilitation of musculoskeletal injuries. As Farr stresses, we're not talking about people whose purpose in life is to hand out Gatorade and water bottles on the sidelines—they're medical professionals.
If they work in a sports setting, athletic trainers are usually the first on the field when a player is injured and must be able to perform a quick and accurate triage, identifying, evaluating and assessing injuries, and providing immediate care if necessary. They also are heavily involved in the rehabilitation and reconditioning of injuries.
Although about a third of University of Texas at Austin program graduates are employed in one of the "traditional settings"—high school, college or professional sports—and about a third go on to graduate school the rest have been able to choose from some rather surprising job options.
They can be physicians' assistants, become part of a hospital's medical team or join the growing number of companies that offer in-house wellness services to employees. In recent years, celebrities like rapper Eminem and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have hired athletic trainers. The Navy SEALS, Army, World Wrestling Entertainment and NASCAR have added them to the staff. They've become part of professional dance troupes and theatre companies.
One thing's certain—if you're coming from The University of Texas at Austin, put in the work and were here for the right reasons, getting a good athletic training job is the last thing you need to lose sleep over.
"We have kind of a unique situation here," says Farr, "in that we're part of an incredible, well-funded, superior athletics program that's a powerhouse on a national level, a top tier academic institution and also have an exceptional sports medicine program. Our athletic training students are exposed to quality resources that most other schools just don't have and they see the full range of experiences and possibilities for an athletic trainer. When they go intern with the Dallas Cowboys or the Patriots, they take it in stride—they're coming from a very large, sophisticated operation here.
"As far as jobs, we place students where they want to go. If a good student who makes it through the program wants to work with the NFL, he'll work with the NFL. If one wants to get into medical school, we'll see that she gets into medical school. Being a part of UT athletics and sports medicine, the connections that you make and the infinite network of people who are in a position to help you if you've proven yourself is mind-boggling. You meet physicians and surgeons, athletic trainers with professional sports teams, professional athletes, coaches, sit in on surgeries, know sports medicine professors at top universities. When it comes to your career, you can go just about as high as you want to go. The sky's the limit."
When Endres interned for over a month with the New England Patriots last summer, he was able to make several professional contacts and learn how athletic training looks and feels at the professional sports level. This year, The University of Texas Austin sent the most interns to NFL teams of any school in the nation, and Farr almost weekly receives calls and e-mails from major national teams requesting interns from what they consider the cream of the crop.
Creinin interned in Australia over the summer, studying athletic trainers with the rugby and football teams, and now has professional contacts in Australia who are enthusiastically offering their assistance and support when she applies to graduate schools.
"We're excellent right now," says Farr, "but I'd like to see the program become just a little more competitive, have more students apply and be able to pick the absolute best 15 or 20. I want it to continue to be the case that employers know University of Texas at Austin athletic training program graduates can get the job done better than anyone else, period. There's no doubt our students can. They're set, ready for anything and when they move in, they can take over."