Landing at Your Destination

January 29, 2015
There are many stops between an entry-level position and a head athletic trainer. This author says the journey can be made more direct with early goal setting, establishing personal values, and networking.
By Tory Lindley

Tory Lindley, MA, ATC, is an Associate Athletic Director and Director of Athletic Training Services at Northwestern University, managing a staff of 17 athletic trainers and 10 sport performance coaches. He serves as District Four Director on the NATA Board of Directors and has been honored as an inductee into the Illinois Athletic Trainers Association Hall of Fame, an NATA Most Distinguished Athletic Trainer, and the CUATC 2012 NCAA Division I Head Athletic Trainer of the Year. He can be reached at:
[email protected].


No matter what stage you are at in your career, you are advancing. Regardless of the setting, as an athletic trainer today, you're faced with expanding roles, responsibilities, skill sets, and expectations.

You are also likely hoping to climb the career ladder. Demographic data suggests that more than half of athletic trainers are currently advancing "upward," looking to step into positions with more challenges and oversight. If you are in this category, you may be working toward your destination position.

Experienced professionals often say they found themselves in the right place at the right time when they landed their dream job. I do not share that sentiment. I believe you have significant opportunity to navigate your career destiny. Through goal setting, networking, and effective decision making, you can control the chaos created by thousands of professionals battling each other in a competitive job market.

However, that doesn't mean there is a single template to follow. In fact, most career paths look like a complex maze. While some turns may be well-planned and executed, other opportunities, while seemingly perfect, will lead to dead ends, forcing you to reevaluate, recalculate, and reenergize. Career advancement is a process fraught with handling the unexpected, bouncing back from rejection, and fighting feelings of impatience.

Although many would consider my career to be linear and traditional, I would characterize it more as managed madness. Within an 11-year span following graduate school, I printed business cards four times. My journey from an entry-level head athletic trainer position at NCAA Division III Hamline University to my dream job as Director of Athletic Training Services at Northwestern University included necessary career stops as an Assistant Athletic Trainer at Michigan State University and Head Athletic Trainer at Eastern Michigan University.

In addition to those four positions, I was a finalist for two other jobs, each time facing the professional stiff-arm of not being offered the opportunity. All told, I made good use of my interview suit.

Through those experiences, I have developed both an appreciation for and an understanding of the uniqueness of career advancement in athletic training. The chance to move up the ladder in our profession is there--the NATA Career Center posted more than 1,800 unique position vacancies on its website in 2013--but doing so requires carefully deciding which rung to grab onto.

DEVELOPING CAREER GOALS
Life coach Tony Robbins said, "Setting goals is the first step to turning the invisible into the visible." When I was a freshman athletic training student I set two goals: become an NCAA Division I head athletic trainer by age 30 and ultimately land that position in the Big Ten Conference.

Perhaps lofty and likely too specific, I wrote those two ambitions down on an index card, which I kept in my dorm room desk. Looking back, I'm not exactly sure what motivated me--beyond the desire to be like my earliest role models--to decide on those two goals. But I am a firm believer in the value of setting objectives early in your career. Doing so helps to provide direction, motivation, and self-confidence.

Goal development should be a continuous process from student to young professional to established professional and beyond. I would suggest writing goals down on paper and posting them where you will see them often.

While a student, it's best to keep your early career goals very general. As you're exposed to different aspects of and opportunities in the field, your goals may shift or begin to encompass more. It's important to avoid absolutes or pigeonholing yourself. For example, an early career goal could be: Obtain an entry-level position in the collegiate setting where I can provide clinical care and serve as a preceptor for athletic training students.

When interviewing entry-level athletics trainers, I often ask about career goals. The 21-year-old who tells me that he or she is going to be the Head Athletic Trainer for the Dallas Cowboys is to be commended for high aspirations, but may also be guilty of not taking enough time to develop his or her first set of career goals. Narrow objectives can limit your opportunities to cultivate personal insights.

We've all been taught the importance of developing SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based) goals, but that can be difficult to do as a student or young professional. There are many external factors that you do not control, such as the timing, location, and nature of job vacancies. Further, most new athletic trainers are not yet equipped to select their long-term professional practice setting. Early in your career, I recommend exercising patience, while remaining open to multiple paths.

One important element that can help you develop early goals is simple: read professional publications. This includes news about our profession, trade journals, and peer-reviewed publications. Reading about the profession is a great way to cultivate new interests and then narrow them in order to create clarity.

I also recommend leaning heavily on mentors while you map out goals. Not only are they a great resource for your questions, but learning more about their career paths can help you figure out your own.

Established professionals should revise and refine career goals. With experience (both professional and personal) you are better equipped to develop your objectives with more precision. A set of career goals beyond your entry-level position could be:

- Obtain a position assigned to provide health care for a men's or women's basketball team.
- Within four years, achieve promotion to Associate Staff Athletic Trainer.
- Within eight years, become a collegiate Head Athletic Trainer.

From there, each of your goals will spawn strategies, which can drive your own professional development. As different career opportunities arose from my seat at Hamline and as a staff athletic trainer at Michigan State, I always looked first to my career aspirations and tactics to see if they might benefit my own development. If an open position would lead me to my ultimate goals and I felt I was ready for it, I would pursue it. If not, I did not consider it further.

An important part of the process of developing goals is experiencing some amount of failure. When applications and interviews do not result in a job offer, it provides a great opportunity to reflect. After facing my own tough rejections, I moved on by reviewing both what I had accomplished and what I wanted to achieve next. I used those temporary setbacks as motivation, not discouragement.

STEP BY STEP
In setting my goal to become a head athletic trainer in the Big Ten Conference, some tactics were obvious. I needed to have experience as an NCAA Division I athletic trainer. I needed clinical experience across many sports incorporating both genders. I needed experience with football. And I needed to demonstrate the ability to manage people effectively.

But getting from point A to Z has as many viable career path combinations as solutions to a Rubik's Cube. Proving myself in the aforementioned areas could have happened in many different ways. And just as important as gaining those experiences is accomplishing them in a professional manner.

The first way to make progress is to focus on the position you have, not the position you want. The best strategy to advance in athletic training is to consistently improve and prove yourself each and every day.

How do you do this as a student? How do you get noticed among your peers so that you are the one your supervisors will rave about? Here are some ideas:

- Over-prepare in order to be first in line to take on a new task.
- Practice in order to be proficient.
- Step out of the pack, even if it feels uncomfortable.
- Ask a supervisor, "What else can I do or learn?" every day.
- Don't wait for your periodic evaluation to ask a supervisor how you're doing.
- Share your career goals with your supervisor/mentor.

As a Graduate Assistant Athletic Trainer at the University of Minnesota, I experienced my most rapid professional development by asking my supervisors for continuous feedback. Their honesty and my willingness to take constructive criticism were paramount to my needed growth.

As your career as a certified athletic trainer gets under way, not only do you have plenty to accomplish and learn, but eventually you are going to feel confident to move onto a new professional challenge. How do you maximize your entry-level position in a way that prepares you to advance? Consider these ideas:

- Effectively manage personal and professional firsts.
- Refine professionalism and ethical boundaries.
- Be confident and trustworthy.
- Establish lifetime mentors.
- Try new approaches and use mistakes to reflect on ways to do better next time.
- Author your personal values.

Early in my career I recognized the need to demonstrate confidence void of arrogance. My patients were not only relying on my expertise but also trusting me to make clinical judgments and referrals. Like many graduate students, I learned that knowing the answer isn't always as important as knowing where to find the answer. Further, my positive bedside manner and the way in which I interacted with student-athletes created an invaluable bond of trust.

Some of the bigger mistakes I made in this phase of my career related to the areas of managing firsts without guidance from my personal values. In handling personal firsts like marriage and the birth of our first child, I was just good, not great. While I never lost sight of life balance, I didn't consider the personal implications of my career decisions as strongly as I should have. Had I authored my personal values earlier in my career, I would have had more clarity when making professional decisions. Additionally, I may have been more patient, concentrating more on development of the job I had, rather than the 10-plus jobs a year I thought I wanted. As a result, some application decisions or role-expansion decisions would have been made in a more measured, reflective manner.

Once you are an experienced professional, you have likely expanded your skill set and tackled the nuances of being successful in athletic training. To make the next move, you'll need to focus on going above and beyond. Here are some ideas on what to work on:

- Establish one or more clinical specialization(s).
- Gain experience and expertise far beyond the job description.
- Develop meaningful relationships with administration.
- Become active in the athletic training community as a leader, volunteer, or scholar.
- Accept opportunities to lead and mentor others.
- Author your professional values.

How do you accomplish these things if they go beyond your current job description? I believe, above all, you must communicate your professional needs and interests with your supervisor. She or he cannot help you evolve unless you communicate openly.

As you prepare for such a meeting with your supervisor, remember to bring solutions and ideas, not just a list of what you need. After proving myself at Hamline, I communicated my desire for additional duties and presented to the athletic director a list of budget-neutral programming I wanted to introduce. This not only provided necessary new challenges but also solidified me as someone committed to exceeding expectations--and someone who could take the lead on figuring out how to implement new initiatives. To this day, the former Hamline Athletic Director remains one of my biggest professional advocates.

The key areas to expand your responsibilities include clinical assignments, administrative duties, and supervision. As you tackle these areas, reflect on your progress, both internally and with your supervisor. It's important to figure out if you excel in these areas--and if you enjoy them.

When I interviewed for the Head Athletic Trainer job at Eastern Michigan, I felt oddly confident that I was the best candidate for the position. I was able to have a wide variety of meaningful experiences at Hamline and Michigan State, which accelerated my professional growth. I worked on becoming competent in the key areas and consistently attempted to over-produce.

THE FINAL RUNG
Not everyone aspires to have oversight of the athletic training department at a Bowl Championship Series school. But if you do, there are additional areas of expertise you will need. When I applied to become the Head Athletic Trainer at Northwestern, what made me think I was ready? Likewise, as a supervisor and mentor, how do I know when my staff members or mentees are prepared to take on these coveted roles?

Most of the important competencies are similar to being ready for any head athletic trainer position. Here are some additional areas to become proficient in:

- Managing and developing staff
- Decisive clinical decision making
- Providing health care under a spotlight and managing the pressures associated with it
- Problem solving on a daily basis
- Identifying, developing, and utilizing talent in others
- Administrative tasks (e.g., budgeting, policy-making, facility management, staffing models, risk management).

In addition, there are certain characteristics and interpersonal behaviors essential to any successful candidate for a department head position. Think about whether you can do the following:

- Demonstrate an ability to deliver urgency in health care
- Reflect on, learn from, and evolve as a result of mistakes
- Demonstrate consistency in professional demeanor regardless of external stressors
- Exhibit integrity in decision making
- Possess strong professional boundaries
- Show selflessness by consistently assisting others.

YOUR NETWORK
Being ready for a career move is one thing. Landing the position is another. The main truth to know is that career advancement is much more than a solo venture--having a strong network is as important as everyone says. You cannot win the interview that you cannot get, and I can assure you that cover letters and resumes rarely secure interviews. Advance effort from your references and colleagues are typically the genesis for your application to move from the tall stack to the short stack.

Beyond supervisors, make the effort to network with peers at nearby institutions. These may be athletic trainers at rival schools or the clinic across town. One of the best ways to meet new professionals is through volunteering as an athletic trainer and attending professional meetings. More than half of my professional network has been developed through a variety of state, regional, and national volunteer opportunities. These relationships have become my strongest in the field of athletic training.

At professional meetings and conventions, break away from your hometown staff. These meetings provide an ideal opportunity to meet new people, learn about their careers, and plant seeds that you can cultivate to stay connected. Remember, once you have established professional relationships with others, their network becomes your network.

Establishing your network requires more than making professional connections, however. You must do the necessary work to maintain the contact. Former supervisors will not be lifetime references unless you continue to develop a relationship with them. As a young professional, I set up a monthly rotating schedule to communicate with members of my network. As my career continued, I took advantage of newsworthy events, big games, holidays, or other natural triggers to initiate a call or e-mail.

When it comes time to be active in the job market, the network you've worked hard to build is going to work hard on your behalf. Communicate openly with these individuals and be specific about your needs. Also, make their task as easy as possible by providing contact information, background material on the position, and your desired talking points.

Finally, do not be afraid to ask your network to make a call to someone they know at the hiring institution. I have been asked countless times to serve as a reference, but rarely am I asked to reach out to a colleague on a candidate's behalf. Each time I do, the hiring athletic trainer or athletic director is appreciative, interested, and informative about the vacancy.

TO APPLY OR NOT
There can be some anxiety in deciding to apply for a new position. I have found that my mentees and staff brood over whether or not to pursue a job opportunity. Overanalyzing position vacancies can be a mistake. That's not to say the process should be taken lightly, but it can be made less stressful by following a few steps.

First, consult with your mentors. They are likely best suited to tell you if you are adding an unnecessary rung to your career ladder. They can help you analyze whether the move is a step up, brimming with possibilities, or nothing more than the same job in a different location.

If you are considering a lateral move, think about how it might be explained or justified to future employers. A candidate who moves around a lot without advancement raises a red flag to those hiring.

Next, I strongly encourage you to put your personal and professional values to the test. Difficult career choices should always be filtered through your beliefs and standards. You may be surprised how much clearer the decision to stay or go will be when you examine how the move aligns with the ideals you have developed.

Accountability, life-long learning, creativity, and independence are examples of personal values that may not be supported by a new position or a new organization. During the interview process, I found it beneficial to ask questions that would give me the most information about these areas.

When making career decisions, remember that the grass isn't always greener somewhere else. No matter how perfect the interview went, you're only getting a one-day snapshot of a program, supervisor, coworkers, administration, and organizational culture. How accurate is your assessment? If you receive the job offer, consider doing some research into exactly what it's like to work at that school.

Another question to carefully examine is whether you will truly have a greater capacity to expand your skill set in the new job. Will you be challenged appropriately in the position?

Last and most important, consider how the career move will affect your life balance. Will it be enhanced or at least maintained? Try to uncover whether the hiring institution values life balance. In addition, sometimes job changes should take a back seat when your personal life is at a critical point. In those cases, it can be best to try to redefine your current position instead of moving elsewhere.

Experienced professionals are often asked: Looking back on your career, do you have any regrets? I have none. I am confident that each of my positions appropriately prepared me for the next. Every supervisor and mentor, good or bad, contributed greatly to my career success. I tried to use any negative experiences as learning opportunities. And I tried to be prepared to manage the unexpected.

I am a firm believer in what Samuel Goldwyn said about luck: "The harder I work, the luckier I get." By defining career goals, consistently developing as a professional, maximizing your network, and remaining true to your values, your career path to your destination position will be attainable.
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