Get the Word Out

January 29, 2015

Looking for effective ways to motivate athletic trainers to promote the profession? Here's how one state association mobilized its members on a grassroots level.
By Dr. Deanna Errico and Kristy Hart

Deanna Errico, DPT, ATC, is Past-President of the New York State Athletic Trainers' Association (NYSATA) and an Assistant Professor of Physical Therapy at Utica College. She can be reached at: [email protected]. Kristy Hart, MS, ATC, CSCS, is Chair of the NYSATA Public Relations Committee and a self-employed athletic trainer in Brockport, N.Y. She can be reached at: [email protected].


As many opportunities do, this one began with a crisis. In 2010, the New York State Education Department issued a memo indicating that athletic trainers (ATs) lacked the qualifications to manage concussions in student-athletes. This was a severe misinterpretation of New York's practice act, which had not been updated in more than 20 years. The leaders of the New York State Athletic Trainers' Association (NYSATA) understood that action needed to be taken.

Along with addressing the immediate threat to the athletic training profession by correcting the education department's mistake and making athletic training voices heard by state legislators, it was necessary to get to the root of the problem: there was a dramatic lack of public awareness about the education, qualifications, expertise, and importance of athletic trainers in New York state. While NYSATA had entertained various ideas over the years to mobilize athletic trainers around the state to promote the profession, none had come to widespread fruition. Therefore, increasing the public profile of athletic training was imperative in order to update the state's practice act.

Since that fateful memo was issued, NYSATA has helped the state's lawmakers and education department develop and implement the new Concussion Management and Awareness Act, and the updated state practice bill is working its way through the legislature. Just as important, NYSATA has activated the energies of athletic trainers at the grassroots level, enlisting them to raise the profile of the profession and show the public the difference they make in athletes' lives every day. The strategies used have run the gamut--from providing exciting volunteer opportunities to initiating an athletic training recognition week--and can be replicated in any athletic training organization looking to boost efforts in public awareness.

DIFFERENCE MAKERS
Often the hardest part of galvanizing people to help a cause is convincing them to take on outside responsibilities. Back in 2010, that was one of the NYSATA's big challenges: to get more members actively involved in the organization.

One idea that worked very well was to provide athletic trainers with an array of ways they could make a difference. NYSATA leaders created volunteer opportunities that took a minimal amount of time and tapped into different skill sets. Interested athletic trainers were able to find something that matched their talents and availability.

Through these efforts, NYSATA members found that any amount of time spent helping the profession was beneficial. They saw that even a few small actions ensured that their voice was heard and that they were making a positive impact.

Some of the volunteer efforts could be done from the comfort of the athletic trainers' own schools. For example, NYSATA encouraged members to maintain educational bulletin boards in their schools, write columns for their school newspapers, use social media tools to disseminate information, and make themselves available for interviews. As a result of their jobs within athletics, NYSATA members have forged relationships with local media outlets, and then used these connections to promote athletic training or offer professional opinions and comments.

Additional strategies to get members involved included asking them to write letters to their legislators in support of the updated state practice act, as well as requesting the physicians, school officials, and parents they work with to submit letters of their own. NYSATA also added a contest during National Athletic Training Month (NATM) to further generate enthusiasm and participation in this letter-writing initiative.

One very successful volunteer opportunity was asking members to invite state lawmakers to visit them at their schools. This has proven effective in showing legislators, most of whom have little to no prior knowledge about the athletic training profession, the range of skills athletic trainers possess and the important role they fill in athletic health care.

Once members got their feet wet with outreach opportunities, they were often inspired to do more. To tap into their potential, NYSATA created additional committee and leadership positions. This included expanding the Secondary School Committee to provide better local representation. The Government Affairs Committee added members from each NYSATA region to better disseminate information, and new leadership positions were formed in the growing Public Relations Committee.

NYSATA has also tried to better connect with athletic trainers at the interscholastic level. The Association has embraced smaller athletic training societies that have developed around New York state based on their high school athletic sections or geographical location. These societies allow local athletic trainers to better network and collaborate amongst themselves and also with the NYSATA leadership. By NYSATA encouraging these groups and recognizing their efforts and value, it has helped motivate non-member athletic trainers in the state to join the Association.

Another simple but effective strategy was leading by example. Those on the NYSATA Executive Council found that leaders who are passionate and excited about what they are doing generate enthusiasm and involvement. The group of athletic trainers already on board were very committed to creating a better state practice act and they let it show.

All of the above actions had a galvanizing effect. News and views regarding athletic training started showing up in media outlets, communication increased among athletic trainers about what NYSATA was doing, and interest within the organization multiplied. Members were excited to see their efforts--and those of their colleagues--receive some recognition, which made them more apt to share their time and ideas, leading to even greater collaboration. Once members saw that NYSATA was doing its best to serve them and the profession, they were more willing to help, despite the heavy workload all athletic trainers carry.

REACHING OUT
Since the big-picture goal was to increase public awareness of the athletic training profession, networking and educational opportunities with others invested in the well-being of student-athletes was another crucial part of NYSATA's strategy. The association reached out to other sports medicine and educational groups around the state, such as the associations for school boards, family physicians, and athletic administrators, and attended their annual meetings. Members hosted an informational NYSATA exhibit booth at conferences or submitted proposals to participate as speakers.

The experience of attending these meetings proved eye-opening for NYSATA members. They saw first-hand the disturbingly low level of understanding that many have about the qualifications and skills of athletic trainers. Through their presentations and discussions at conferences across the state, members have educated many health care professionals and school officials about the important services athletic trainers can provide, and NYSATA intends to increase the number of presenters next year.

As a result of networking efforts, NYSATA has established working bonds with various groups such as family physicians, orthopedic surgeons, other health advocate associations, and school officials. These relationships, and the support they generate, are helping athletic trainers to be heard in the area of student-athlete welfare. Additional groups that NYSATA would like to work with in the future include school nurses, pediatric physicians, and parent-teacher associations.

Another key group NYSATA has made strides in working with is the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA). An athletic trainer serves as a liaison to its Health and Safety Committee and NYSATA places ads in its annual championship programs. NYSATA has also offered its help as a resource, especially with information about complying with the state's concussion guidelines via Secondary School Committee reps for each NYSPHSAA section.

PUBLIC EFFORTS
Along with reaching out to medical and scholastic organizations, NYSATA wanted to increase understanding about athletic training in the general public. For several years, NYSATA had contemplated starting a fall event similar to NATM, but hadn't gotten anything off the ground--until recently.

New York State Athletic Training Recognition Week was launched last fall after a successful public awareness campaign during NATM the previous spring. To generate maximum exposure, rather than limit the event to just seven days, it was held over 10 days, beginning on a Friday and ending the following Sunday. This allowed more time for schools and teams to provide recognition during weekend contests.

Professional, college, and high school teams participated in the week in various ways. The Buffalo Bills supported the venture by making a public service announcement (PSA)--drafted by NYSATA--and recognizing their athletic training staff just prior to kickoff at a home game while showing the NYSATA logo on its scoreboard. At the high school and college levels, the association contacted athletic conferences to request that member schools participate in a similar fashion. Knowing that athletic trainers are not typically comfortable seeking out recognition, NYSATA made these efforts behind the scenes, but athletic trainers were also asked to promote the PSAs within their athletic departments.

Recognition Week was a success, as nearly 50 institutions made PSAs or honored athletic trainers at games. NYSATA plans to continue this event annually and hopes it can become as strong a tradition as NATM is in the spring.

Public outreach work certainly didn't stop with Recognition Week, and the Association has taken its cause to the Internet. The NYSATA website (www.gonysata2.org) was recently redesigned and focuses on being a resource for athletic trainers, as well as coaches, parents, and athletes with information related to sports safety, including concussion. The website also features current and consistent athletic training-related news. The use of social media also increased, with the addition of a weekly NYSATA-based historical fun fact, similar to the NATA's Flashback Wednesday, and the creation of a Facebook Group where Association members can network, communicate, and share information. These updated web-based resources were incorporated as part of NYSATA's NATM events the past two years, with a trivia contest on Twitter and a photo contest on Facebook depicting athletic trainers in action.

Another aspect of NYSATA's online efforts is creating and distributing press releases to publicize the association's recent activities, celebrate the accomplishments of our members, provide expert opinions on current health and safety issues, and inform the public about athletic training as a health care profession. NYSATA develops its own material and uses an online distribution company to reach media in New York state, while also providing opportunities for national and international exposure.

Although not initiated by NYSATA, athletic trainers supported and promoted other high-impact efforts in New York, especially during NATM. Various NYSATA representatives joined the Stony Brook University Athletic Training Education Program's NATM kickoff event at the Today Show Plaza in New York City and combined efforts with the other three NATA District 2 states in the development of an audio PSA.

TO THE CAPITOL
All of the combined public outreach efforts have helped NYSATA with its original objective--to convince legislators to update the state's 20-year-old athletic training practice act and help protect student-athletes from concussions and other serious injuries. In addition to raising awareness about the athletic training profession among lawmakers and the public, NYSATA has worked closely with a lobbyist representing it in the capitol.

When the Concussion Management and Awareness Act was passed in 2011, NYSATA was invited to provide representatives to be part of an advisory group that would create guidelines and regulations to help secondary schools adjust to the new law. This was a key victory for NYSATA, as it ensured the guidelines identified athletic trainers as an integral part of a school's concussion management and awareness team.

The momentum from this recognition spurred the creation of an ad hoc working group of athletic trainers from a wide range of practices and backgrounds to collaboratively write a new practice act bill that was put before the legislature. The same group worked to accommodate concerns of unintended consequences expressed by other healthcare groups related to the proposed law by revising the bill without compromising their own needs. This amended bill will be reintroduced at the start of the next legislative session. Once enacted, the new legislation will better protect the athletic training title and scope of practice and allow athletic trainers to more fully utilize their education and skills to provide quality care for athletes.

Initiating efforts to raise awareness about athletic training can take time, which is something few in the profession have in surplus. A key to getting and keeping athletic trainers involved is helping them feel like they are a part of something that is active, moving, and making a positive impact.


SIDEBAR: GIVING BACK
Help is a two-way street. At the same time the New York State Athletic Trainers' Association (NYSATA) was asking for the assistance of its members, it was also finding ways to help them.

In order to better support member athletic trainers, NYSATA recently developed a Secondary School Grant for high school athletic trainers to better equip their facilities. Upon announcing this program, NYSATA was contacted by a non-profit company offering to underwrite the grant. This contribution was combined with money NYSATA had already set aside for the project. In the first year there were 12 applicants and three deserving schools received funds.

NYSATA also increased promotion of its research grant, which is awarded to one member each year. Though this is not a new program, the Research Committee was able to award the grant after a short hiatus due to renewed promotion and interest.

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