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Athletic Trainer Career Guide

What is an athletic trainer?

An athletic trainer is a certified and licensed health professional who plays a critical role in managing, preventing, recognizing, and rehabilitating injuries, particularly those associated with competitive sports and physical activity. They are instrumental in reducing the risk of injuries, optimizing physical performance, and ensuring swift recovery for athletes. As key members of a healthcare team, they work closely with physicians to develop and implement comprehensive rehabilitation programs that guarantee the proper well-being and physical readiness of their assigned athletes.

The profession’s value arises from the need for immediate and specialized care for athletes who are subject to regular physical stress and risk of injury. The trainer not only works on the treatment and rehabilitation of sports-related injuries, but also devises preventive strategies to minimize the occurrence of such injuries. Essentially, they help to provide a safer environment for athletes, allowing them to maintain high performance levels while improving their overall health and fitness.

Duties and responsibilities

Athletic trainers manage a wide array of duties that revolve around the health and welfare of athletes. They are responsible for identifying and evaluating injuries as soon as they occur. An integral part of their role is establishing immediate care and emergency management strategies, which often entails making quick decisions in the face of unforeseen accidents or traumas.

Trainers take on the task of designing and coordinating rehabilitation programs in conjunction with medical professionals. This typically involves devising therapeutic exercises and educating athletes on the techniques and precautions involved. Another significant duty is the implementation of preventive measures. They set up protective or injury-preventive devices such as tape, bandages, and braces and conduct screenings and fitness assessments to identify potential health risks.

Work environment

Athletic trainers can be found in a variety of settings where physical activity is a central component. This includes schools, colleges, professional sports teams, rehabilitation centers, and even military organizations. Quite often, their work environment tends to be dynamic, given the on-field nature of their job. They’re frequently needed at practice fields, gyms, locker rooms, and on the sidelines during competitions. This role demands staying close to the action to offer quick assistance in case of injuries.

While their work is largely active and on the ground, these professionals also spend time in office settings where they may perform administrative duties like preparing reports, coordinating individual athlete health care plans, or consulting with team physicians and coaches. They occasionally get involved in meetings and conferences related to athletic health care.

Typical work hours

The work hours of an athletic trainer are often tied to the schedule of the athletes they support. This might mean unconventional hours, such as early morning, evenings, and weekends, to cover practice sessions and games. Especially when part of a team’s support staff, trainers may need to travel for away games, which could also extend their work week.

However, if working in a clinic or rehabilitation center, their hours may more closely resemble a typical work week, from morning to evening on weekdays. In either scenario, these professionals should be prepared for the potential of overtime, especially during competitive sports seasons, when keeping athletes healthy and fit becomes a top priority.

How to become an athletic trainer

This career guide section outlines the steps to become an athletic trainer. The process includes obtaining a bachelor’s degree, meeting any state licensure or certification requirements, and potentially pursuing advanced education and experience for more specialized roles within the profession.

Step 1: Obtain a high school diploma

The journey starts with earning a high school diploma or equivalent. Courses like biology, anatomy, physiology, and physical education lay the groundwork for the studies you’ll pursue in college.

Step 2: Earn a bachelor’s degree

The next step is to obtain a bachelor’s degree from a college or university. Preference is given to degrees in athletic training, strength and conditioning, kinesiology, or a related field. This coursework should be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education (CAATE). These programs prepare you with classroom instruction as well as clinical training experiences.

Step 3: Gain practical experience

Practical training is a crucial part of your education. Much of this will come during your college program, as many degrees require clinical rotations or internships. You may also seek out volunteer positions or part-time work that allows you to practice and develop your skills under the supervision of experienced athletic trainers.

Step 4: Get certified

Upon completing your degree, you must pass the Board of Certification (BOC) exam. This nationally recognized certification is required in most states and certifies that you have the knowledge and skills to work as an athletic trainer.

Step 5: State licensure

Most states require athletic trainers to be licensed. The requirements for licensure vary by state but generally include having a bachelor’s degree in athletic training, passing the BOC exam, and maintaining your BOC certification by completing continuing education.

Step 6: Pursue advanced education

For those interested in specialized roles or higher-level positions, advanced education may be beneficial. Some athletic trainers pursue a master’s degree in athletic training, sports medicine, or a related field. Doctoral degrees are also available for those interested in research or teaching at the college level.

Step 7: Grow your resume

After getting certified and licensed, aim to gain relevant professional experience. It could be serving in a clinic, high school, college athletic department, or professional sports team. Every distinct role will allow you to hone your skills and make you more attractive to potential employers.

Step 8: Continuing education

Continuing education is a lifelong commitment for athletic trainers, ensuring they stay current with the latest methods and procedures. This ongoing learning can be fulfilled through seminars, workshops, and courses. Many organizations offer continuing education opportunities, and they are also a requirement for maintaining BOC certification.

How much do athletic trainers make?

Athletic trainer salaries vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Factors such as specific sports or athletics niche, level of competition (i.e., high school, college, professional sports), and specific responsibilities and duties can greatly impact their level of compensation.

Highest paying industries

  • Spectator Sports – $58,960
  • Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools – $57,650
  • Hospitals – $55,430
  • Offices of Health Practitioners – $53,630
  • Secondary Schools – $50,510

Highest paying states

  • New Jersey – $63,400
  • California – $59,470
  • Connecticut – $59,320
  • Hawaii – $58,780
  • Massachusetts – $58,540

Browse athletic trainer salary data by market

Types of athletic trainers

Below, we explore common career types and areas of specialization for athletic trainers. We’ll present a comprehensive look at the various roles and niches that they can venture into, shedding light on the vast possibilities within the area.

Clinical athletic trainer

Working mainly in clinics or rehabilitation centers, these professionals focus on helping patients recover from various physical injuries. They design therapy plans, apply treatments, and monitor progress, nurturing close interaction with patients throughout their recovery journey. Clinical athletic trainers also often collaborate with physicians and other healthcare personnel to provide the best care possible.

Educational institution athletic trainer

They work within the educational system, such as at high schools, colleges, and universities. These professionals provide injury prevention, immediate care, and rehabilitation services to student-athletes. They may also educate the sport community on nutrition, physical well-being, and injury prevention.

Professional sports athletic trainer

Helping professional athletes maintain optimal physical condition is the primary responsibility of these professionals. They treat injuries, implement therapy programs, and advise on injury prevention, often traveling with teams and being present during games to provide immediate care if necessary.

Research athletic trainer

Their work contributes to the evolution of the athletic training field by conducting studies on various areas, including injury prevention, new treatment methods, and more. They often work within universities, research institutions, or professional sports teams, contributing to the cohort of knowledge that helps improve individuals’ sports performance and well-being.

Industrial and commercial athletic trainer

The focus here is not solely on athletes. Instead, their expertise is applied to the workplace. They work with companies to reduce workplace injuries, amplify ergonomics, develop injury prevention programs, and provide rehabilitative care to employees if needed.

Top skills for athletic trainers

This career guide section highlights the key skills and traits that are crucial for success as an athletic trainer.

Scientific knowledge and analytical skills

At the heart of their work is a firm grasp of science, specifically anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics. Using this knowledge, trainers can accurately assess injuries, develop effective treatment plans, and innovate to prevent future injuries. Excellent analytical skills help in understanding complex medical reports and designing a precise recovery roadmap.

Interpersonal and communication skills

Frequent interaction with athletes, coaches, and medical personnel makes strong interpersonal and communication skills a necessity for this career. They need to explain complex medical terms in a simple, clear manner to athletes and their families. It’s also important to build a rapport with the athletes, fostering trust and understanding, which aids in treatments and recovery.

Physical endurance and stamina

Serving as an athletic trainer can be physically demanding, often requiring long hours on their feet, aiding in physical rehab exercises, and sometimes lifting or supporting athletes. Therefore, possessing physical endurance and stamina is pivotal. This aspect also includes maintaining personal fitness and an active lifestyle, as they are role models for athletes in many cases.

Emerging technology skills

The sports training field continuously evolves with the advent of new technology. Proficiency in using modern equipment, software applications, and digital records management systems is becoming increasingly important. Staying current on emerging trends and technologies helps ensure more precise assessments, advanced treatment plans, and more efficient communication.

Problem-solving abilities

Each athlete presents a unique set of challenges regarding injuries, physical strengths, and weaknesses. Successful trainers must have effective problem-solving abilities to create customized treatment plans and strategies. This requires a systematic approach that considers the athlete’s needs, the specific circumstances of the injury, and the optimal recovery strategy.

Athletic trainer career path options

As an athletic trainer, numerous career paths are available that provide personal development and professional progression opportunities. Depending on your interests, you might choose a specialization within the field or leverage your skills and experience to pivot into another closely related profession.

The first avenue of career growth comes from specialization within athletic training. Some trainers may choose to focus on coordinating rehabilitation programs for athletes recovering from injuries, while others may opt to work predominantly in prevention, designing training programs that minimize the risk of injury. You may choose to work strictly with a specific population like professional athletes, students, or the elderly. The progression in these roles often involves moving from an assistant to a lead trainer position, and eventually, to a managerial position overseeing a team of trainers.

Another route available is to ascend the administrative ladder within an athletic department of a school or a sports organization. Here, you could evolve into roles such as an athletic director or department head, where you would be responsible for the overall direction and coordination of the organization’s sports and wellness program.

For those interested in academia, a career path in athletic training could lead to roles in teaching or research. Becoming a professor at a university not only allows you to pass on your expertise to the next generation of trainers but also provides opportunities to conduct research in your field of interest. Presenting at conferences, publishing, and participating in peer-reviewed studies can further propel your career in this direction.

Lastly, experienced athletic trainers frequently transition into allied health professions, such as physical therapy, physician assistant, or occupational therapy. While these paths often require additional education, they build upon the foundations laid in athletic training and offer unique opportunities to aid people in restoring and maintaining physical functionality.

The athletic trainer role has significantly changed over the last few years. This has mostly been thanks to technological advancements and increased awareness surrounding player safety in sports. Professionals in this field are finding themselves working with technology more often, tracking and analyzing data about athlete performance and health. This approach ensures that every fitness regimen or treatment plan is fully personalized and optimal.

Athletic trainers also partner more frequently with other healthcare professionals as part of a wider team. With the growing realization of how multifaceted health and wellbeing truly are, these professionals often collaborate with specialists in diet, mental health, and more. As such, interprofessional skills are becoming increasingly important within this profession.

Promoting safety in sports has become a significant trend as well. This revolves around actively advocating for player welfare, implementing safer athletic practices, and staying up-to-date with research concerning concussions and other sports-related injuries. The demand for trainers who can provide emergency care has increased drastically, emphasizing the need for professionals to be competent in delivering critical and immediate care when required.

Employment projections for athletic trainers

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of athletic trainers is projected to grow 17 percent through 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations. As people become more aware of sports-related injuries at a young age, demand for these professionals is expected to increase, most significantly in schools and youth leagues.

Athletic trainer career tips

Understand the industry

It’s crucial to be aware of the current trends and changes in the sports workplace. This covers vast areas from the latest treatment techniques and rehabilitation programs to innovative fitness technologies. As the industry advances rapidly, it’s essential to stay informed about the trends. This knowledge will help you to stay efficient in a challenging work environment and adapt to unexpected situations when dealing with athletic injuries. Be sure to follow professional publications, subscribe to related periodicals, and join online forums dedicated to athletic training.

Build a professional network

Networking is key to your growth. Connections may lead to future job opportunities, expanding your knowledge, or gaining referrals. Aim to forge relationships with people within your profession and with physical therapists, orthopedic doctors, sports coaches, and athletes. Consider joining the following professional organizations:

  • National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA)
  • Athletic Trainers’ Society of New Jersey (ATSNJ)
  • American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)

Continue learning

Continuing education is essential in maintaining your competence and keeping your skills up-to-date. Regularly attending professional development webinars, workshops, and training can broaden your existing knowledge base. Here are few suggestions:

  • Attend health and wellness webinars organized by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA)
  • Enroll in courses related to sports medicine and rehabilitation from accredited institutions
  • Attend online workshops on physiotherapy or sports nutrition

Consider additional certifications

Pursuing a relevant certification could enhance your job market competitiveness and demonstrate your commitment to the field. Certifications such as Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) or Performance Enhancement Specialist (PES) can offer you an edge when working with athletes and improving your career progression.

Master communication skills

In this field, you will need to clearly communicate with athletes, team members, clients, or medical professionals. Apart from making accurate diagnoses and explaining treatment strategies, the ability to encourage and motivate athletes to follow rehabilitation protocols is equally crucial. Being an effective communicator can significantly impact the recovery process and strengthen your relationships in the workplace.

Where the athletic trainer jobs are

Top employers

  • United States Sports Academy
  • Marathon Physical Therapy
  • US Fitness Holdings, LLC
  • Premier Health Partners
  • Professional Physical Therapy

Top states

  • Texas
  • California
  • Illinois
  • Florida
  • New York

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • NATA’s Athletic Trainer Career Center
  • indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • SimplyHired


What educational background is needed for an athletic trainer?

A bachelor’s degree in athletic training or a related field from an accredited program is the minimum requirement. These programs educate future trainers in injury prevention, emergency care, clinical diagnosis and therapeutic intervention. Many athletic trainers have a master’s degree, which can provide opportunities for specialization.

What professional certifications are beneficial for athletic trainers?

Certification through the BOC is generally required. That involves earning a degree from an accredited program, taking an exam, and ongoing continuing education. Some states also require licensure. Trainers who work with athletes with specific medical conditions, like diabetes, may also seek additional certifications.

What skills are essential for success as an athletic trainer?

Skills in injury assessment, treatment planning, and the ability to guide rehabilitation exercises are key. Trainers need good problem-solving and communication skills to work with patients and healthcare providers. They must be compassionate, patient, and decisive. Good physical stamina and the ability to remain calm in stressful situations are also important.

What are common challenges faced by athletic trainers?

Athletic trainers often work in physically and emotionally demanding settings. They may need to respond to emergencies, make quick decisions about treatments, and work long, irregular hours, including evenings and weekends. They may also face the challenges of working with various personalities, from athletes to parents to healthcare teams.

Is there room for career progression in athletic training?

Yes, there are many opportunities for career progression. Trainers could move into administrative roles, clinical specialty areas, or progress to working with higher level sports teams. Some choose to obtain a doctorate and teach at the university level, or conduct research.

Where are athletic trainers most often employed?

Athletic trainers work in varied settings, including colleges, universities, and high schools. Professional sports organizations, healthcare facilities, and corporate settings also employ them. Some may work for sports medicine clinics, government organizations, or the military. Some even work independently, running their own businesses.

What is the job outlook for athletic trainers?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment for athletic trainers will grow much faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is expected due to better recognition of sports-related injuries and an increasing amount of older people needing injury prevention guidance.

What are work hours like for an athletic trainer?

Athletic trainer’s hours can be quite varied and may include evenings, weekends, and holidays. They might be required to travel frequently with athletic teams, work outdoors in varying weather conditions, and stand for prolonged periods. Flexibility and the ability to handle an unpredictable schedule is needed.

What is a day in the life of an athletic trainer like?

A typical day can involve developing and implementing injury prevention programs, diagnosing injuries, providing first aid, and designing rehabilitation programs for injured athletes. They might also communicate with physicians, coaches, and family members about an athlete’s condition and progress. Much of their day might be spent standing or moving around.

How does an athletic trainer interact with athletes?

Athletic trainers have a close relationship with athletes. They are often the first line of defense when injuries occur, providing immediate care, deciding if further medical treatment is necessary, and working with athletes during the rehabilitation process. They often communicate about injury prevention strategies and nutrition advice. Building trust with athletes is key.

Can athletic trainers have a specialty?

Yes, athletic trainers can choose to focus on various specialty areas, including strength and conditioning, pediatrics, geriatrics, performing arts, military, occupational health, and more. Following a specific sport season or working with a type of athlete, like runners or swimmers, can also be considered a specialty.