People who want to work in the health care industry and are also passionate about sports may be interested in working as an athletic trainer. Learning more about this job and what it involves may help you determine if it’s a good career for you.
In this article, we describe what athletic trainers do, discuss the salary and career outlook for this career, outline the requirements and process to become an athletic trainer and share an example job description for this profession.
What does an athletic trainer do?
An athletic trainer is a specialist in the health care industry who supports individuals, mostly athletes, with the prevention and treatment of muscle and bone injuries. Athletic trainers work with individuals of all ages and backgrounds across a wide range of work environments. When working with injured patients, their goal is to help them regain their strength, recover a full range of motion and resume competitive and other athletic activity.
Specific responsibilities include:
Injury prevention through education
Assessment and diagnosis of acute or chronic patient injuries
Development and implementation of rehabilitative treatment plans
Collaboration with physicians and other medical providers
Maintenance of medical records to document patient progress
Teaching and modeling of safe, effective exercises
Athletic trainer salary and career outlook
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the national average salary for an athletic trainer is $48,420 per year. An athletic trainer’s salary varies significantly depending on factors such as their years of experience and work environment. Athletic trainers working with professional sports teams, for example, typically earn higher salaries than athletic trainers working at the collegiate level. The same is typically true for athletic trainers with a master’s or doctoral degree when compared to a bachelor’s degree.
The BLS also reports an anticipated 17% increase in the employment of athletic trainers from 2021 to 2031. This is much faster than the average for all occupations. It attributes this growth to many sports programs for all ages and skill levels becoming more popular, creating a demand. Similarly, aging populations continue to be active, which may lead to risk of injuries that require treatment.
Athletic trainer requirements
Regardless of the specific role, there are several important requirements to be hired as an athletic trainer. These include:
The minimum educational requirement to be an athletic trainer is a bachelor’s degree in athletic training from a college or university accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education (CAATE). When enrolled full time, this degree takes approximately four years to complete and includes courses on anatomy, nutrition, sports science and kinesiology. Accredited programs incorporate both classroom learning and clinical application experiences focused on the core competencies necessary to be a successful athletic trainer. Many athletic trainers pursue a master’s or doctoral degree, which takes an additional two or four years to complete.
A core component of athletic training degree programs is the completion of clinical training hours. This includes practical training with individuals in rehabilitation centers, doctor’s offices or outpatient clinics. Most training programs have a structure that aims to develop the candidate’s skills in the athletic training education competencies, as outlined by the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA). During training, candidates learn to and practice evaluating patient functioning, making treatment recommendations and overseeing plan implementation.
Although not required, informal training opportunities also exist to prepare individuals for a career as an athletic trainer. Some informal training opportunities include reading professional articles, shadowing a physician, being mentored by a peer athletic trainer and taking part in employer-led continuing education sessions. Current athletic trainers may consider pursuing similar opportunities if they hope to develop their skills more.
After getting a bachelor’s degree, becoming an athletic trainer requires passing the Board of Certification for the Athletic Trainer exam (BOC) to work as an athletic trainer. This certification is the industry standard and is a requirement in Washington, D.C., and most states. It takes approximately four hours to complete the exam, and participants receive their results within two to four weeks.
Being an effective athletic trainer requires a unique combination of hard and soft skills. Besides content knowledge, athletic trainers use these soft skills to manage the patient care aspects of the job. The most important athletic trainer skills include:
Compassion: Being able to empathize with and support patients who are dealing with the physical and emotional pain of an injury is critical for success as an athletic trainer. Acknowledging that it’s a difficult experience and offering encouraging advice or success stories are effective strategies for modeling compassion with patients.
Attention to detail: Each patient’s injury is unique, so athletic trainers develop individually customized treatment plans. This requires close attention to detail about their medical history, symptoms and progress after starting treatment.
Communication: Strong communication skills of active listening, paraphrasing and explaining are essential for success as an athletic trainer so they fully understand a patient’s needs, describe the treatment plan and compare notes with colleagues when designing an appropriate intervention. Strong written communication skills are also necessary to perform the charting and documentation functions of this job.
Fitness: Although an athletic trainer doesn’t perform all exercises alongside patients, it’s helpful if they can model the techniques and support patients through specific exercises. This is especially true for care immediately following an injury, during which patients may struggle to maintain their balance and perform the assigned tasks independently.
Innovation: Complex medical care sometimes requires innovative solutions to engage patients, such as when selecting exercising, structuring training sessions, deciding where to have sessions or picking which equipment to use. This is especially true if you are working with young children or in a resource-limited environment.
Athletic trainer work environment
Athletic trainers work in many settings, including doctor’s offices, hospitals, athletic organizations, schools, outpatient clinics and more. The typical work hours and conditions differ depending on the exact job, and some athletic trainers work a 40-hour week during the traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours. Those working with professional athletes work longer and more atypical schedules, including nights, weekends or out-of-town travel with the team. Although the environment may feel intense for professional athletes, the work environment for most athletic trainers is collaborative and solution-focused.
How to become an athletic trainer
Approaching the athletic trainer preparation and job search process thoughtfully can help ensure you have a successful career. Here are four important steps to becoming an athletic trainer:
1. Gain relevant experience
Relevant experience is helpful for teaching you what working in this career involves and gives you practical skills. Consider volunteering at a rehabilitation facility or applying for an internship under the supervision of an athletic trainer. If possible, seek a variety of such opportunities so you can thoroughly research the industry and build skills to add to your resume.
2. Obtain your certifications
Certifications are beneficial for demonstrating your knowledge and skills relevant to your career. Research accredited degree programs and any supplemental certification requirements in your state. When choosing a college or university, consider factors such as cost, location, clinical training requirements and alumni career support after graduation.
3. Create a strong resume
It’s crucial to have a resume that highlights the technical qualifications and unique skill set you would bring to an athletic trainer position. Be sure to include your BOC certification and details of your clinical training experiences. Including specific successful outcomes from previous roles can distinguish your resume from that of other candidates.
4. Apply early and often
Even though employment is contingent upon graduation and earning of the BOC, consider applying for jobs before you graduate. This shows proactive interest and could differentiate your application from graduating peers who apply shortly after you. Also, given the broad range of skills an athletic trainer possesses, consider applying to a diverse group of roles that span various work environments and populations.
Athletic trainer job description example
Here’s an example of an athletic trainer job description for reference when searching for a role:
New York Liberty is seeking a driven and highly skilled athletic trainer to join the organization’s team of support staff. Responsibilities for this person include player education about injury prevention, prompt evaluation and diagnosis of player injuries and implementation of timely and effective rehabilitative treatment plans. This position requires weekend hours and out-of-town travel for home and away games respectively.
The ideal candidate has demonstrated success in treating athletic injuries and preventing recurring injuries or impairment. A bachelor’s degree and board certification are required. Experience with professional athletes preferred.