As a parent, you may not realize that your young athlete’s school or sport program may employ an athletic trainer. In fact, you may have never even heard the term “athletic trainer” before! These trainers serve an important role in your athlete’s development, and they can be your athlete’s greatest advocate in sport—if you know how to best utilize their services.
Here, Dr. Michele LaBotz, TrueSport Expert and sports medicine physician, explains the role of an athletic trainer, helping you to understand how to access and best take advantage of the services that they offer.
What is an Athletic Trainer?
An athletic trainer has a high-level designation as a medical care professional. According to the National Association of Athletic Trainers, "Athletic training encompasses the prevention, examination, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation of emergent, acute or chronic injuries and medical conditions.” Athletic training is recognized by the American Medical Association and the Department of Health and Human Services as an allied health care profession and is highly regulated.
“People throw the term “trainer” around without recognizing that athletic trainers are certified and licensed health care professionals who are specifically trained in this capacity,” explains LaBotz. “Many states even have mandatory athletic trainer coverage in the schools—and athletes and families should be aware of their services.”
(Coverage in schools varies by state. If you’re not sure if your school has an athletic trainer, ask the coach or phone the school’s main office to check.)
Understand the Role of an Athletic Trainer
“The main responsibility of the athletic trainer is to advocate for the safety of the athletes in their care,” says LaBotz. “They can often run ‘interference' between the athlete and the coaching staff. Young athletes are often really intimidated by their coaches, and the athletic trainers can serve as a buffer or a go-between.”
Additionally, athletic trainers may be tasked with assessing if athletes are in a safe environment. This can include protective gear and equipment, or simply determining if it’s too hot, cold or stormy to play. “In the summer, it's the athletic trainers who make sure that good cooling opportunities are available on site if there’s a risk for heat injury,” says LaBotz.
They also help set return to play protocols based on current science and approved standards of care. “Athletic trainers help implement the return to play plan, not just after an injury, but even after an illness like COVID or a concussion,” says LaBotz. “Anytime there are graduated stepwise progressions to returning to play, the athletic trainers are there to prevent the athlete from being their own worst enemy. We know kids want to get back to sport quickly, so the athletic trainer is often the one who has to hold them back. The athletic trainer serves as an enforcer in this role.”