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Athletic Trainer Career Guide

What is an athletic trainer?

Athletic trainers are mid-level medical professionals that specialize in the diagnosis, treatment, rehabilitation, and prevention of varying injuries and medical conditions, and they work under a leading physician. They are often confused with personal trainers, however, there is a significant difference in education, job requirements, and skillset. An athletic trainer follows a medical model and must graduate from an accredited baccalaureate or master’s program.

An athletic trainer provides medical services to a varying degree of patients and has the ability to work in a variety of job settings. Most commonly, athletic trainers create exercise and nutrition programs for athletes, but anyone can go to them seeking treatment for an injury or injury prevention. The six fundamental aspects of this job are:

  • Primary care
  • Injury and illness prevention
  • Wellness promotion and education
  • Emergency care
  • Examination and clinical diagnoses
  • Therapeutic intervention and rehabilitation of injuries

Despite not being able to perform medical procedures, athletic trainers can utilize thermotherapy, cryotherapy, electrical stimulating currents, shortwave diathermy, laser therapy, ultrasound, phonophoresis, traction, intermittent compression, and massage therapies. The primary role of an athletic trainer is to carry out rehabilitation programs for injured athletes.

Many athletic trainers have a passion for sports and often choose to specialize in one specific sport, such as football, basketball, or soccer. Not only that, but they are also commonly utilized by dancers as well. Athletic trainers are an integral part of the medical community and are a huge asset to physicians and athletic teams.

Qualifications and eligibility

Professionals in this role must be personable, have strong communication skills, and have a passion for helping others. They must be comfortable working one-on-one with patients but also be okay with working under the advisory of a physician. They should also have a strong work ethic due to a more rigorous education program needed to obtain a degree in athletic training.

A comfortability working in the medical field and with athletes is essential to this position. Although blood may not be a common sight for athletic trainers, they must always be prepared and able to handle an emergency situation. A common trait many athletic trainers possess is a love of sports.

In order to become an athletic trainer, at least a bachelor’s degree must be obtained. However, a master’s degree is more common and makes for a more desirable employee. It is essential to graduate from an accredited athletic trainer program. They must be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Trainer Education (CAATE). Lastly, passing the certification exam by the Board of Certification is necessary to become an athletic trainer. This whole process tends to be about 4 years in total.

It is required by all states to have the certification requirements in order to be considered a certified athletic trainer. Some states require a state-specific license to practice, whereas other states do not. South Carolina and New York require athletic trainers to be certified within the state, whereas Hawaii requires athletic trainers to register within the state. 

Here are the best universities with the top athletic training programs:

Work environment

Athletic trainers most commonly work indoors if their job is at a gym or indoor training facility. Some work outside if their job is located on athletic fields, at certain sporting events, or job sites. Athletic trainers may even have to travel for long periods of time if they work for a professional team or university. The work environment for athletic trainers can often be very loud and disruptive, requiring a strong ability to focus.

It is important to know that professionals in this position are often exposed to infections and even diseases so they typically wear gloves when providing first aid. Athletic trainers also work closely with people all day so it is essential to have strong interpersonal skills, as well as the ability to follow directions due to working under a physician. However, it is not common for athletic trainers to ask for permission. Most work fairly autonomously.

Athletic trainers also work in a highly competitive environment and must be exact when they work due to the potential for injury if they are wrong. This can open up athletic trainers to the potential for a lawsuit so it is a good idea to have liability insurance as protection. Some good insurance agencies for athletic trainers are:

Athletic trainers must also meet strict deadlines often for training and game times, so punctuality is key. In an athletic trainer’s day to day, they often repeat the same physical tasks. It is important for athletic trainers to be in good shape and able to stand on their feet for long periods of time.

Typical work hours

Athletic trainers typically work full-time. If an athletic trainer works in a non-sports setting, an established schedule is more common, with weekends off and approximately 40 hours per week. Those working within the sports industry often have much longer and varied schedules with a minimum of 50 to 60 hours per week. However, the hours tend to vary during the off-season and may be less demanding.

Types of athletic trainers

There is not a varying “type” of athletic trainers, but rather ones that work within the sports industry and ones that don’t. Often working within the sports industry means working for a specific team or organization. These types of athletic trainers most frequently focus on injury prevention for the athletes. Whereas an athletic trainer working outside of the sports industry will often see a variety of patients from young to old. This type of athletic trainer will often have to use a wider skill set on a daily basis depending on the specific patient’s needs.

Income potential

The earning potential for an athletic trainer can vary greatly depending on geographic location, industry, education, experience, and specialty. The following are bullets containing important income information for athletic trainers:

  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for athletic trainers was $48,420 in May of 2021. The lowest 10% of trainers were paid an annual wage of $36,930 whereas the highest 10% earned more than $76,180 a year.
  • The top industries for athletic trainers are:
    •  Education services including state, local, and private sectors – $58,750 annually
    • Fitness and recreational sports centers – $54,710 annually
    • Hospitals including state, local, and private facilities – $48,070 annually
    • Offices of physical, occupational, and speech therapists and audiologists – $47,210 annually
  • The top paying cities for athletic trainers are:
    • Keystone, CO – $58,442
    • San Francisco, CA – $57,168
    • Bolinas, CA – $56,964
    • Hartford, CT – $56,843

Position trends

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the athletic trainer position will increase by 17% from 2021-2031, which is much faster than average. The number of athletic training positions in 2021 was 29,400. Not only that, but about 2,500 job openings are predicted each year, on average, for athletic trainers. 

Sports are integral to the United States and unfortunately, athletes will keep getting injured. This makes becoming an athletic trainer a truly invaluable position with many job opportunities.

Career path

As an athletic trainer, you have a variety of career paths available to you, including working at a gym, for a sports team, at a hospital, for a government agency, etc. You can work with the general public or focus on athletes. Some of the career options for certified athletic trainers include:

  • Certified athletic trainers – Someone who passed the board-certified exam and earned a degree from an accredited university.
  • Clinical athletic instructors – Someone who supervises and instructs students during their athletic training education program.
  • Resident athletic trainers – A more research-based approach to athletic training. They commonly participate in research projects and data entry.
  • Clinical athletic trainers – These athletic trainers work more in conjunction with physicians very closely or even work on a team with them to achieve one common goal.

There are also some similar career choices to consider if an athletic trainer wants to expand their earning potential and they include:

  • Chiropractors – A focus more on the neuromusculoskeletal system, including nerves, bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Chiropractors use spinal adjustments and manipulation as their common form of treatment.
  • Exercise physiologists – Analyze a patient’s medical history and determine the best fitness regimen for their chronic disease or impaired cardiovascular function.
  • Occupational therapists – Treat people who are disabled, ill, or injured and struggle to complete daily activities. They help patients regain or develop skills needed for everyday life.
  • Physical therapists – Work with patients to better their pain or improve their movement whether from an injury or due to an issue at birth.

Steps to becoming an athletic trainer

1. Get a bachelor’s degree

Get a bachelor’s degree in exercise science, kinesiology, or any field related to athletic training. This will usually consist of a 4-year program at an accredited college or university. Some top universities for a bachelor’s degree in exercise science are as follows:

Some top universities for a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology are as follows:

2. Obtain an athletic training certification

In order to obtain an athletic trainer certification, it is necessary to pass the Board of Certification, inc. (BOC) examination. In order to pass, it is required to have completed an accredited bachelor’s or master’s program in athletic training and pass the accompanying exams that evaluate professional abilities. It is also recommended to be a member of the National Athletic Trainer’s Association (NATA) in order to pay a lower fee. This exam process may take a few months to complete.

3. Earn a master’s of science through an athletic training program

There are two types of master’s programs to consider. The first is an entry-level master’s program for those with an undergraduate degree in athletic training. The second option is an advanced master’s program which is geared toward those with an Athletic Trainer Certification (ATC). A master’s program will include classes ranging from athletic training administration to orthopedic evaluation. A master’s program typically consists of a 2-year program. It is not necessary to pursue a master’s degree in athletic training, however, about 70% of those with athletic training certifications continue on to a master’s program. Some of the best athletic training master’s programs are at the following universities:

After 2022, all athletic trainers will be required to receive their master’s. Being an athletic trainer with only a bachelor’s will no longer be possible. The Board of Certifications will not let you take the exam unless you have a master’s in athletic training.

4. Apply for jobs

Start applying to jobs in areas of athletic training that you are interested in. It is necessary to gain work experience to advance your career. You can apply for jobs online, like through Linkedin or Indeed, or even job board postings. Your university will often have job recommendations and may be able to help you find the perfect job.

5. Continuing education

All athletic trainers are required to continue their education through continuing education units (CEUs). It is now required that 25 continuing education units are completed with at least 5 being Evidence-Based Practice CEUs during the maintenance period of an athletic trainer’s certification.

6. Maintain the certification

An athletic trainer’s license is good for three years and then must be renewed. A renewal notification will be emailed or mailed, and the certification must be renewed within 90 days of the certification expiration date. In order to renew the certification, a renewal fee must be paid.

Tips for becoming an athletic trainer

If you are planning to become an athletic trainer, you can do a few things to put you ahead of the game. This is a highly competitive field, and it always helps to have an edge. Here are some tips:

  • Have a passion for helping others, especially athletes, reach their goals
  • Develop strong interpersonal skills due to continually interacting with patients and coaches.
  • Have good communication skills to build and maintain a good relationship with your patients and employers. 
  • Understand that this is a medical degree and people trust you with their life. Be focused and precise. Mistakes can be detrimental.
  • Go to a master’s program to be more competitive within the job market. Most athletic trainers now have a master’s degree. After 2022, it will be required for all athletic trainers to have a master’s degree.
  • Determine your interests within the field of athletic training. Are you passionate about a specific sport? Do you want to work with professional athletes? Would you prefer to work in a hospital setting? You must consider these questions when applying to jobs, even if athletic training is the right field for you.
  • Shadow an athletic trainer for a day to truly determine if that’s the career for you. They can also discuss their perspective as well as give you firsthand knowledge.
  • The medical field is constantly evolving; stay in the know. It is essential for you to stay up to date on the latest technological advances in your field in order to offer the best care to your patients.
  • Don’t get discouraged. Being an athletic trainer is a very competitive field to work in, and it may take time to get your dream job. The more experience you have, the better chances you have of obtaining your dream position.
  • Make sure this is your passion. Athletic training requires a decent amount of training/schooling. Make sure it’s something you love and have a passion for, before diving in head first.
  • Shoot for the stars. Athletic trainers are needed for every sports team and dance troupe. If you want to work with athletes, keep working hard and you could end up working for an NFL team or whatever sport you’re passionate about.
  • Being an athletic trainer does not just mean treating physical injuries, it can also mean helping athletes through a mental block during training or game-day anxiety. This is important to keep in mind when treating athletes.
  • Join athletic trainer associations. You’ll find career resources, job opportunities, and other helpful information here. Some of the best associations are:

Athletic trainer interview questions to expect

  1. What was the most challenging course you took while completing your athletic training program?
  2. How would you evaluate a patient’s readiness to resume physical activity?
  3. What techniques and equipment do you have experience working with?
  4. How do you motivate an injured athlete?
  5. During a performance or game, how do you assess an athletic injury?
  6. How would you help a patient understand their injury?
  7. How do you evaluate an athlete’s readiness to play in a game?
  8. How would you deal with an athlete that doesn’t want to cooperate with you?
  9. What part of athletic training interests you the most? 
  10. Can you give me an example of how you coached an athlete to care for an athletic injury when they weren’t happy with their diagnosis?

Athletic trainer FAQs