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Mar 17, 2021

Unique and versatile: Certified athletic trainers are the perfect tool in any program’s toolbox

Theirs is oftentimes an endless, glamour-less and thankless world, yet they are essential pieces to a successful athletic puzzle.

Certified Athletic Trainers guide, they treat and they protect. They truly are the first and last lines of defense, a wonderful blend of skilled clinician, sounding board, part-time psychologist and information specialist.

He or she is the one person an athlete — and an athlete’s parents and coaches — know has their son or daughter’s best interest at heart. The certified athletic trainer, though he or she does not shoot a jump shot, throw a pitch or complete a pass, are as important as anyone in charge of Xs and Os.

“For us here at Pleasant Valley, Jason Viel ( ATC/L)  has been and will continue to be a critical part of our program,’’ said Rusty VanWetzinga, the veteran head football coach at Bettendorf, Iowa-based Pleasant Valley High School.

 The Spartans, forever a successful program under VanWetzinga, were Iowa high school  football semifinalists in Class 4A for the 2020 prep season. The Spartans’ only loss of the campaign came in the 4A semifinals against state runner-up Southeast Polk.

One of life’s truly good souls, Viel is a 20-year veteran in the field. He serves as the Director of Athletic Training Services for Rock Valley Physical Therapy and as the President of the Iowa Athletic Trainers’ Society (IATS).

 Viel is a member of the MAATA District 5 Board of Directors and has served as Secretary and President-Elect of IATS. He completed his  undergraduate work at Central College (Pella, Iowa) and his Master’s degree from Indiana State University. Viel has worked at the high school level since 2002 and has led the training staff at Pleasant Valley since 2008.

Coaches, parents and athletes in schools in Iowa and Illinois, have come to rely on and trust the amazing work Viel does.

 “My staff and I work collectively with Jason, trusting his expertise and knowledge for the care of our players,’’ added VanWetzinga. “ Here at Pleasant Valley, the relationship the athletic department/coaches have with Jason and our training staff, has been a major component to our successes in all PV athletics.

“Jason has to put in countless hours and time away from his family to help our athletes prepare for practice, games and recover from injury. Without the dedication and services of the quality athletic trainers that we possess throughout the Quad-Cities’ region, high school sports would be much more challenging for coaches, players and parents.’’

The value of a medical professional on site is a tremendous asset for any school and its athletic programs. Most high schools employ a full-time trainer, who covers multiple sports. College and professional teams carry a bevy of certified athletic trainers along with a team of orthopedic specialists. The role of athletic trainer at the prep or collegiate level is to manage the physical well-being of the student-athlete, and to a certain extent, the athlete’s mental well being. Whether it’s handling the care of the student-athlete or ensuring that they are referred to the proper people to handle that care, that responsibility falls on a skilled clinician with the athlete’s best interest at heart.

“Trainers have always been essential toward guiding coaches with how to train athletes properly, how to recognize injuries and the skill set to help them recover,’’ said Scott Verstraete, head basketball coach at Rock Island, Illinois-based Alleman Catholic High School. “They have eased the burden on all involved. Just the attention paid to concussion training of coaches and the presence of medical personnel at all games, are game changers.’’

Certified athletic trainers are so much more than someone who tapes and ices athletes. Most are Master’s-degree educated and have years of experience. They are creative in nature, possessing the ability to roll with the punches and change on a dime, but hold an amazing gift to stand their ground when it comes to what is best for the athletes they serve.

 They put in an enormous amount of time and energy maintaining education in the most current trends and knowledge in the sports medicine and rehab fields. They must also be great record-keepers and administrators, in addition to caring about the health, well-being and the success of the student-athlete.

““The field of athletic training hasn’t necessarily changed but the education has,’’ said Viel. “Graduates now from athletic training programs are doing so much more in school that I did 20 years ago. They are coming out with more skills in broader areas of healthcare, and it is great.’’

Rock Valley Physical Therapy’s  Misti Thompson (ATC/LAT)  is the athletic trainer at Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s Xavier Catholic High School. An engaging sort with take-charge, light-up-a-room personality, Thompson calls certified athletic trainers: “The overlooked MacGyvers of the healthcare world.’’

“By our nature we are flexible, adaptable and quick learners, however we are becoming more recognized and appreciated,’’ Thompson said. “We are innovators. There has been a bigger push for athletic trainers to be in the secondary setting and are more available to athletes consistently every day. Even from starting in the school I am at now almost six years ago, I went from being at the school from 2:30-4:30 p.m. and only an hour before the start of an event on game days. Now I am at the school daily starting at 2 (p.m.) and going to 7-7:30 on a normal day, plus covering all levels of home events and traveling to postseason events.’’

Thompson says certified athletic trainers are not just in the athletic world. Their value is beginning to be recognized and utilized in industrial settings, clinics as physician extenders, hospitals, performing arts, equestrian and tactical settings like military, police and fire.

 “These different positions have become more frequently filled since I have been practicing,’’ Thompson said. “Coaches, school administrators and governing bodies are also recognizing the need for ATs. I would say for the most part, coaches and administrators have been building better trust, communications and relationships with athletic trainers, realizing that we’re able to evaluate, diagnose and treat injured kids and get them back on the field with the benefit of having constant direct communication. My mom  told me if I found something that I loved to do, that I would never work a day in my life. It is a lot of work but it’s also a lot of fun.’’

Like many in her field, a competition-related injury ledThompson to where she is today. Athletes get a chance to see up-close the dedication and work that goes into caring for them by athletic trainers, creating a unique bond on both sides.

“When I was in high school and we had to do our job shadows, I actually wanted to be a crime scene investigator but then realized I wouldn’t be able to handle certain situations with that and ended up shadowing a physical therapist,’’ Thompson said. “It wasn’t until I went through my own surgery and rehab did it  spark a fire in me. Prior to having an MRI, I had been suffering knee pain for roughly five years. After surgery, I was working with my physical therapy assistant (PTA)  and he was asking the typical, “what do you want to go school for,” which led us to the point that my brothers were always hurt in sports .I loved sports, didn’t want a desk job, wanted something different every day where I could make a difference and he started to talk to me about athletic training.’’

To a person, a certified athletic trainer will smile, softly roll their eyes and chuckle when anyone uses the word “typical.’’

There are consistent moments each day for all certified athletic trainers, but no day in their world is ever considered typical. That said, few, if any in this world, handle change better.

“I will make my rounds to all the practices that may be going on at the time,’’ said Kylie Meyer, ATC/L, and lead trainer at Alleman Catholic. Meyer also plays a huge role at Rock Valley’s Cedarwood (Muscatine, Iowa)  Iowa clinic.

“I then check in with coaches to see if they have any questions or concerns. I then see if an athlete has a concern, to which  they are welcome to share that as well. Taping or stretching an athlete is part of a day, as well as just checking in on their life to see how things are going. Sometimes kids just need someone to talk to about anything and I like to be that person for them.

“Everyday is a little different being an athletic trainer, so it’s crucial you know how to roll with the punches and be ready for changes at any minute,’’ Meyer added. “ It’s important to always be willing to learn and try new things. I can say from personal experience, I have learned so many new tips and tricks that they did not teach me in school.’’

Thompson says there is a daily routine she follows just to have consistency, but nothing about her job is typical. Change is constant in her world.

“There’s not a day I am doing the same thing over and over again, even dealing with the same athlete or similar injury. You are constantly adjusting and tweaking things,’’ she said. “I typically do paperwork and make phone calls in the morning and early afternoon. I arrive at the school around 2 p.m.

“ When the bell rings I start to get kids filtering in my room. Depending on the season depends on how busy I am,, Thompson added. “ I do anything from preventive taping, bracing, padding to taking kids through rehab with modalities or evaluating a new injury. It is a constant balance of getting kids the best quality care while being efficient enough to get the majority of them out to practice.

“ When time allows I begin documentation, calling parents and setting up or referring out appropriate care to physical therapists or physicians as well as educating on what I see a plan of care to be. Before I begin my notes, I go out and talk to the coaches, update them on new injuries and progress of old injuries as well as address any concerns they may have. When things have settled I do my notes, check in on practices and continue to see kids who got injured during practice. When practices end I am doing post-practice treatments with them and making sure they understand what they should be doing at home. Gamedays look completely different, because there is a lot more prep work for those things and depending on if an event is at home you are taking care of two teams.’’

In addition to being educated and up-to-the-minute with the latest trends and techniques, certified athletic trainers must be great communicators, not just with the athlete, but with coaches, parents, administrators and any other healthcare expert involved. Many times the certified athletic trainer is  called on to stand his or her ground.

“ I will go around to all the coaches and talk to them about their injured kids and what they can and cannot do,’’ Viel said. “Then I will return back to my room and work with kids who are not practicing due to an injury or run others through some functional testing to make sure that they are ready for practice.

“Part of the daily duties also includes letting the coaches and parents know that the athlete is unable to practice or play. This can be a tough conversation. The good thing is that I have been at PV for 13-plus years and have gained the respect of all of the coaches. Sometimes the parents can be a little more difficult to deal with but that is because they just want their kid to play. When you lay out the pros and cons of playing with an injury or the fact that they physically cannot perform or long term effects of not sitting out parents come around. Especially if you are firm in your answers.’’

Meyer says compassion must be part of every certified athletic trainer’s gameplan. Yet done in a firm, unbending manner.

“Most coaches and parents can understand just how vital we are in the role of athletics,’’ she said. “ There are definitely times where I’ve had to remind a coach to let me do my job, they usually will get the hint after that first reminding. Parents are always going to try and do what is best for their kids, so sometimes inserting our advice can be difficult for them to accept. You’ll still have athletes who will or won’t do a certain thing because mom or dad said so. It’s something you have to learn comes with the job. There are  frustrating days, but ultimately we all try and keep the athlete and their safety in mind.’’

Two things have dramatically changed the landscape for all certified athletic trainers. The handling of concussions is no longer left up to a coach whose success depends on the injured player being on the field.  And the athlete. Testing, done by the certified athletic trainer, has changed the game.

“Concussion testing is another tool in the toolbox,’’ Viel said. The main points with concussions have been and will always be education and management. Testing has given us a tool to see functionally where an athlete’s brain is so that we can compare that to their post-concussion self. Concussions aren’t like an ankle or knee injury where we can physically see the athlete limp or not be able to run. With a concussion the athlete may appear normal,  but really they are dealing with a multitude of issues. This allows us to be able to see if functionally the athlete is ready to begin their return to sport process and monitor them through that process. It has changed things, but left decisions up to those who know and understand. That is a good thing.’’

Even the global pandemic has changed the approach of the certified athletic trainer. Contact has been less, already outstanding disinfecting protocol has been bumped up a notch. While Iowa prep athletics began rolling in June of 2020, Illinois did not resume play until January of 2021.

The dynamic, like all that has come with a pandemic, is both strange and sad.

“Covid in Illinois has definitely been interesting to navigate,’’ Meyer said. “ Athletes will be here one day and then gone the next, because they were exposed somewhere and now have to quarantine. Alleman has had it tough with having to go remote a few times due to spikes in cases. It is hard to tell kids what not to do outside of school, because they’re teenagers and want to hang out with their friends. I’ve been a teen once, and staying away from peers is difficult when that is what they thrive on. I am glad they are getting to play sports even with a pandemic going on. The proper precautions are being taken, and hopefully we will be able to get everyone vaccinated sooner than later.’’

For Thompson, the COVID-19 approach in Iowa, was far different than life for coaches, athletes, parents and certified athletic trainers than it is/was in Illinois.  It remains a juggling act.

“At the beginning of COVID I continued to see some of my athletes and complete rehabs through virtual telehealth appointments, especially the ones that just had surgery,’’ Thompson said. “ Rock Valley ATs as a whole worked on different programs to improve the sports medicine and AT aspect of our company. Iowa ATs came out of furlough when baseball and softball got word that they could start practicing and having a season. From there we really worked hard on mitigation factors, screening factors and a various amounts of other things to make sure our kids were safe. Everyday of practice for the first week or so I was screening every kid for temps, symptoms and exposures before they even got out of their cars. Once they were cleared I would cover practice. In my case, with the help of our school nurse.

“ Procedures have looked the same with some details changing as the pandemic has progressed,’’ added Thompson. “My school uses “Varsity Bound’’ for their screening tools so kids get sent a screening and must complete it before they are allowed to practice. If there are any red flags it notifies the coaches, administration and myself and we are able to keep kids away from each other as much as possible. Having athletes wear masks as much as possible has really helped keeping kids on the court and field since at times throughout COVID.

 “ Our athletic director, administration and nurse especially, have done a fantastic job staying on top of all of the guidelines and mitigation efforts to keep our numbers down. We have been lucky enough so far that we have not had to shut an entire team down yet and I think that speaks volumes to the policies and procedures in place.’’

 season meets. This makes it harder on fitting last minute games in or trying to keep something normal for these kids but has been successful so far. I think after missing so many seasons last year these athletes will do just about anything that’s necessary so they can play.

The need for certified athletic trainers continues to grow. More than just athletic programs are beginning to understand their importance. Viel, with his 20-plus years of experience, says the field is trending skyward.

“It’s heading in the right direction,’’ he said. “ There is a push nationally for ATs to be able to bill for rehab services from clinic and hospital settings. We are able to do this now it just isn’t pushed as much. What this will allow is, the settings where ATs are hired by private clinics or hospitals, athletic trainers to bill for services and bring in money to their employers along with the occasional referral back to the clinic.

“We also just made a push to an entry-level master’s program for education. It used to be that you could go get an undergraduate degree from an accredited program and sit for our national board exam. Now you will have to graduate from a school that has an accredited Master’s in Athletic Training (MAT) program to be able to sit for the national board exam. This will align the profession with other health care professions who have advanced degrees as their required degree.

“The field of athletic training is exploding. There is a need nationally for athletic trainers at the high school level. Currently across the country only 37 percent  of high schools have a full time athletic trainer on-site. I think the ideal situation for a high school is to employ an athletic trainer through the school that way the AT can be there throughout the day to help with injury prevention and rehab. It’s a great time to make a difference.’’

And what a difference certified athletic trainers make.

By: Johnny Marx, Storyteller