March 03, 2009
Training for success
College students learn ropes as athletic trainers
The athletic training room in SUNY Cortland’s Park Center is busy at 2:50 p.m. on a weekday, as athletes prepare for practice or work on recovering from months-old injuries.
Thirteen athletes, mostly male lacrosse players but also some from winter and fall sports, lie or sit on clinic tables around the room as trainers tend to them.
A sophomore, or Level I, student trainer does cross-friction massage on a young man’s sore knee. A junior, a Level III veteran in her third semester of actually working with athletes, massages a man’s back muscles.
The college has four full-time and two part-time certified athletic trainers, plus as many as 10 student trainers in the room. They chat with the athletes, sometimes hear about their problems with school or personal lives, listen to how badly they want to get healthy and back in action.
Athletic training is one of the few academic majors where a SUNY Cortland student can literally step from the classroom into doing the work of the profession in a clinical setting. They can be listening to faculty Alyson Dearie or Patrick Donnelly in a lab, reviewing how to detect injuries or help athletes heal, and then be actually doing it later that day.
The program began as sports medicine courses in the 1940s, grew into a minor in the physical education major and became its own major in 1996, in the kinesiology department.
The seniors eventually take the tests for national certification.
March is National Training Month, a time when certified trainers promote their work.
“People don’t know what it is — they think we’re personal trainers or team managers,” says Sonya Comins, the college’s head trainer.
John Cottone, the head trainer at SUNy Cortland from 1985 to 2000, who is now interim dean of the School of Professional Studies, says the public understands more as high schools have paid for trainers to work with their athletes’ injuries.
The number of emergency room visits by high school athletes has decreased, he says, as trainers work with them at the game or practice itself.
“Liability caused schools to pay for trainers,” Comins said. “Football started it, with all of the injuries in that sport. Cheerleading and wrestling have high injury rates too.”
There are about 1,400 athletic trainers in New York. Cottone is president of their association.
Cottone said prospective training majors really enter the program in the first semester of sophomore year. While studying anatomy and medicine, they observe trainers at games “to get oriented and see the time commitment” which is about 20 to 25 hours a week outside of class.
They work in the training room and are assigned to teams in the spring semester. Over four semesters, they rotate among men’s and women’s teams, sports that are “equipment intensive” and ones that are not. They also spend time in clinics off campus.
They learn about an enormous range of skeletal, muscular, skin and lung problems such as asthma. They study sports psychology, as trainers must convince athletes to admit they are injured or do what they must to heal, when athletes do not want to miss playing time.
Intervention is another course topic, as the trainers might deal with grief, depression, eating disorders or alcoholism among athletes.
“There is lots of knowledge, little things you have to pick up quickly, like how to talk to athletes and get them to listen to you,” said sophomore Katie Mitchell of Pine Bush, who works with baseball.
Mitchell became interested in the field when she tore ligaments in her right foot while performing on a dance team in high school. She is part of SUNY Cortland’s kickline team.
Cottone said all but a few student trainers played sports in high school, so they understand athletes’ moods and feelings.
Cottone, Comins and Dearie, the program’s interim director, all played at least two sports in high school. Comins played basketball for SUNY Cortland.
Junior Danielle DeLay, student trainer for Homer High School this spring, said she took a sports medicine course as a high school junior and knew this would be her career. A basketball player for two years at SUNY Cortland, her second season ended with stress fractures to her right foot.
“So I know how hard it is not to play,” DeLay said.
“Can you wrap me?” a tall baseball player asked DeLay. She wrapped tape around his elbow to hold ice in place.
Mitchell and DeLay said student trainers can become part of the team and know its business, which means they must learn to keep confidentiality. DeLay said they sometimes face the athletes’ anger when they tell the coach the athlete must not play.
“Part of the job,” DeLay said. “The certified trainers usually step in at that point. I’ve heard someone say to anothet trainer, ‘You’re just a student, younger than me, what do you know?’ ”
Athletes often want a certain trainer to wrap their knee or get them ready to play, if they like the way that trainer does it or if they won the last time that trainer worked with them.
Last Thursday, Donnelly led 18 Level I students through a lab, reviewing how to detect spinal pain and then do neurological testing on the legs using first the senses, then motor function, then reflex.
Joking with the students but also pushing them and listening to how they talked to their “athlete” partners, he said they had performed better on their recent practical exam, which comes every one or two weeks.
Fifteen minutes after lab ended, some of the students were in the training room to work, having changed from casual clothes into khaki pants and polo shirts.
One of them, junior Justin Harbst, helped lacrosse players stretch their legs.
“It doesn’t bother me that some of the trainers are students, because it helps them to work with us,” said sophomore lacrosse midfielder Frank Padolecchia, sitting nearby while he applied heat pads to his legs. “Justin gets along with all the players. He has a good personality.”
Harbst just smiled and kept working.
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