September 21, 2016

From conferences to colleagues, there are tons of resources athletic trainers can use for professional growth. The key is being open to all of them.

This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of Training & Conditioning.

By Dr. George Wham

George Wham, EdD, ATC, is the Head Athletic Trainer at Pelion (S.C.) High School. He has served as an Instructor in the University of South Carolina’s Athletic Training Education Program and continues to work with the department. He’s also participated on numerous committees for the South Carolina Athletic Trainers’ Association, Mid-Atlantic Athletic Trainers’ Association, and NATA, consults with the Brain Injury Association of South Carolina, and sits on the Board of Directors for the South Carolina Athletic Coaches Association. Dr. Wham can be reached at: gwham@lexington1.net.

Whenever I’m presenting about best practices in athletic training, I like to include a slide that shows a picture of the old Steve Martin “Saturday Night Live” character Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber. His skits mocked the use of outdated, barbaric medical techniques that were once considered the pinnacle of science. My point is to illustrate that there is always room for improvement in our practice.

Just as our methods have advanced over the years, athletic trainers must continue to grow and develop as health care professionals throughout their careers. In many circles, “professional development” has been used derisively—code for something we have to do but don’t always want to do. However, it doesn’t have to be like this. 

Some time ago, I came to appreciate that progressing as an athletic trainer could and should consist of more than just “getting my CEUs.” Professional development can take many forms, several of which are non-credit bearing or informal in nature.

My greatest growth as an athletic trainer has come from pursuing opportunities to get involved with activities, projects, and initiatives that go beyond the requirements of my “day job” as Head Athletic Trainer at Pelion (S.C.) High School. Exploring so many different avenues has made me a better athletic trainer, while also allowing me to maintain my standards of practice.

CONTINUING COURSEWORK

Formal education provides a number of opportunities for professional growth. One that all athletic trainers are familiar with is attending conferences and seminars to get Board of Certification-approved CEUs.

It is often said, “When you know better, do better.” Athletic trainers must make a commitment to “know better” by adjusting their view of CEUs. Rather than perceiving them as a hoop to jump through, we should look at CEUs as a way to keep up with the evolving knowledge and skills of our profession. We should commit to staying up-to-date by reading emerging literature and attending conferences, not because we are required to do so to maintain our credentials, but because of our desire to excel at our jobs.

In addition, let’s start looking at CEUs as a way to challenge ourselves. Too often, athletic trainers select CEUs based on what is easiest or what topics they are comfortable with. I believe the profession would be better off if we all started using CEUs to focus on strengthening our weaknesses, instead.

I attempted to do this while attending conferences this past summer. For instance, I recognized that my skills in manual therapy techniques were not what they should/could be, so I went to several seminars at the NATA Convention focused on enhancing my ability with my hands and certain tools.

Furthermore, I also took part in sessions geared to practicing helmet/shoulder pad removal and the eight-man lift at my state athletic training conference and a local hospital-sponsored CEU opportunity. Immobilizing an athlete who suffered a cervical spine injury according to current recommendations was not part of the educational process when I became an athletic trainer. But it is my responsibility to find continuing education on this topic to keep up-to-date.

Beyond CEUs, what better way to pursue professional growth via formal education than by earning an advanced degree? As athletic training transitions to a master’s degree level, graduate programs will continue to be a valuable means of development. For example, my time as a graduate student at the University of South Carolina enabled me to gain specialized knowledge and skills. More importantly, it provided experiential learning that allowed for an easier transition to practice.

By advanced degree, I’m talking about the doctoral level, as well. After working for several years in the secondary school setting, I returned to USC to pursue my EdD in health education administration with a special focus on sports medicine/athletic training.

Doctoral work continues professional growth by allowing athletic trainers to immerse themselves in topics they are passionate about. My terminal degree helped me find my niche in athletic training: appropriate medical care for the secondary school athletics program. Then, I was able to frame my doctoral coursework and dissertation around this topic. The experience has set the course for the rest of my career.

An athletic trainer with a terminal degree is viewed as an expert in their field, which opens doors for additional professional development opportunities. Since earning my EdD, I have been contacted to present at conferences for a number of different professions, consulted for the South Carolina High School League and Brain Injury Association of South Carolina (BIASC), been interviewed by print and TV media regarding health and safety issues in high school athletics, written articles in trade publications, and served as an expert witness in legal cases. Perhaps some of these opportunities would have come along anyway, but I credit the lessons learned as a doctoral student for making them happen.

STUDENT BECOMES TEACHER

Using formal education for professional growth can include more than just getting educated—it can extend to educating others, as well. While a teaching requirement for athletic trainers has often been perceived as a negative due to the time and effort involved, I encourage athletic trainers not to look at it that way. Instead, think of it as an opportunity for growth. After all, the teacher always learns more than the student.

I have found that limited teaching duty helps “my sword stay sharp,” so to speak. Each fall, I instruct a sports medicine class at Pelion, and I’ve served as a full-time and adjunct professor in USC’s Athletic Training Education Program (ATEP). Digging into the material for my courses requires me to review ideas that I may not have thought about in my day-to-day duties caring for athletes.

For instance, last year I taught the Organization and Administration in Athletic Training course (O&A) in USC’s ATEP for the first time in 10 years. Some of the course content was the same, but some had changed, so it was a great opportunity to remind myself of concepts I had not thought about for a while and catch myself up on new additions. By sitting down to prepare lectures, discussions, and activities for students, I found myself applying the course information to my program’s policies and procedures. My recordkeeping improved, I found myself more focused on legal and ethical components of my practice, and I started displaying enhanced professionalism. In many ways, teaching O&A last fall was like taking the course again—but this time as an athletic trainer with 20 years of experience.

I also taught and mentored athletic trainers for eight years in South Carolina’s state DIRECT program, which grants teaching certifications for high school athletic trainers in the areas of health science and sports medicine. My role was to help the athletic trainers develop the skills needed to be successful in the high school classroom, but our discussions often involved sharing strategies for success in creating a high school sports medicine program.

Many of the athletic trainers I taught and mentored in DIRECT are now colleagues who return the favor. I recently adopted a new template for my injury report document from one of these former protégés. Another shared some great tips on how he maintains his medical clearance list and relays the information to his coaches, and I incorporated some of his methods into my practice. If you would enjoy the chance to mentor and learn from other athletic trainers, check and see if your state has a program similar to DIRECT.

Although it doesn’t take place in a classroom setting, presenting at professional conferences is another type of teaching that can help us grow. Since 2004, I have given 38 conference presentations and 10 advocacy speeches/interviews.

If you had asked me about becoming a regular presenter at the beginning of my career, I probably would have said I never expected to do it. So what changed? As I immersed myself in the current literature on appropriate medical care in secondary school athletics for my doctoral dissertation, I developed a drive to share this information with others. My passion for the topic allowed me to be more comfortable and skilled as a public speaker.

Since then, presenting has become an opportunity for growth and a great source of professional fulfillment. It requires me to stay on top of the literature and explain how to implement best current knowledge. When I share this with other athletic trainers, I gain the satisfaction of knowing I played a role in helping them take better care of their athletes. Additionally, I can use the same information to improve my own program. 

CALLED TO SERVE

Professional service goes hand in hand with professional development. Some of the most profound growth I’ve experienced as an athletic trainer has come from working on different committees at the state, district, and NATA levels. Even though committee work is a significant time investment, the chance to make a difference for athletes far beyond the walls of your school is worth it.

My first experience with professional service was as a member of the South Carolina Athletic Trainers’ Association (SCATA) High School Student Aide Workshop Committee. It was a great first step and allowed me to meet and work with athletic trainers from across the state.

After several years on the Workshop Committee, I gained the confidence to serve on—and in some cases, chair—a variety of state committees, including Public Relations, Hall of Fame, Governmental Affairs, and Secondary School. On the district level, I have represented South Carolina on the District 3 Secondary School Committee and served as an abstract reviewer for the Mid-Atlantic Athletic Trainers’ Association Symposium’s Free Communications Program.

Currently, I’m a member of the NATA Secondary School Athletic Trainers’ Committee (SSATC), representing the Mid-Atlantic States. I chair the District 3 Secondary School Committee and remain a member of the SCATA Secondary School Committee. I am also a member of the NATA Internship Workgroup, the NATA-Gatorade Task Force, and the South Carolina Department of Education workgroup to revise the state’s standards for high school sports medicine courses.

Participation in committee work is important because it requires athletic trainers to get off our little islands and examine the ways our programs function. Being exposed to lots of great ideas from lots of other athletic trainers helped me see some holes in my program that I am working hard to fill.

For example, I recently served on a SSATC project to develop recommendations for a Team Physician Agreement. Pelion has a wonderful relationship with our team physician group, and we have a formal contract that establishes the nature of the relationship. However, my work on the SSATC project showed me ways to grow our partnership, particularly in regards to documenting the supervisory role of the physician and increasing their involvement in developing policies and procedures for our athletic training services.

Beyond committee work, many other opportunities for professional growth through service exist. Acting as a moderator at a symposium, reviewing manuscripts for the Journal of Athletic Training, working as a Health Occupations Students of America competition judge, mentoring a new athletic trainer, and volunteering at an all-star game are some additional ways I have grown through service.

LEARNING FROM PEERS

One of the most valuable sources for professional development is, in my opinion, also one of the most overlooked—our peers! By building a network of colleagues, athletic trainers can gain relationships that provide an avenue for growth.

I’ve found this especially true in the secondary school setting. Since many high school athletic trainers are often the only sports medicine professional at their site, they can feel isolated. Early in my career, I benefited greatly from having dinner every other Tuesday with a group of veteran athletic trainers from different schools around Columbia, S.C. While we ate and socialized, there was lots of shoptalk that gave me invaluable insight into how they managed their programs and navigated common problems. Though there was no CEU category for this type of educational opportunity, few things have been more beneficial to me as an athletic trainer.

With three small children at home, I don’t make it to many biweekly dinners anymore, but I’ve carried on the spirit of this tradition with several area high school athletic trainers. We get together on school in-service days and discuss new recommendations for best practices. Together, we develop a plan on how to incorporate the new recommendations, and then we go back to our schools and create protocols that fit our programs. We talk regularly and compare notes on our problems, and we’re always sharing ideas and feeding off each other. Over the last couple of years, we’ve collaborated to develop documents that set expectations for ambulance coverage at football games, described athletic training services to be provided to athletes, and revised plans to prevent and manage heat illness.

It’s important to remember that today’s technology means relationships with peers don’t have to be face to face. Recognizing this, the SSATC has established several ways for high school athletic trainers to connect via Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Twitter. While I tend to read more than post on social media, this 21st century way of connecting has been a valuable tool for me to compare notes and grow from peer interaction.

BRANCHING OUT

Sometimes, getting a different perspective on an issue can lead to the best kind of growth. For this reason, I encourage athletic trainers to look outside the sports medicine world for professional development opportunities. For me, these have come from serving on the Board of Directors for the South Carolina Athletic Coaches Association (SCACA) and consulting with the BIASC.

Serving on the SCACA’s Board of Directors for the last 10 years has given me the chance to develop relationships that would have been otherwise unlikely. As the first and only athletic trainer ever elected to a seat on the board, I have grown by getting more comfortable working with the individuals who influence the high school sports decisions in my state. My relationship with the BIASC has also helped me progress. From 2010 to 2014, I represented this organization by presenting at conferences on best practices in concussion management, participating in media campaigns on concussions, planning for educational symposiums, collecting data on current concussion management practices by South Carolina high school athletic programs, lobbying state legislators for the South Carolina Concussion Law, and assisting once the law was implemented.

These experiences allowed me to develop special knowledge in the appropriate prevention and management of concussion and made it easier to work outside the athletic training world. The speaking opportunities made me a better presenter, and advocating made me more comfortable dealing with media. Finally, meeting with legislators helped me better understand how government works, which I can apply in future lobbying endeavors.

Though it doesn’t always take precedence, professional development should be a top priority for athletic trainers. With so many options to consider and avenues to pursue, find what works best for you and get to work improving.

Sidebar 1:

EMPLOYER ENDORSEMENT

Since pursuing professional development for athletic trainers often includes attending out-of-town conferences and symposiums, it’s important to have an employer who supports these efforts. Admittedly, that’s easier said than done.

School and athletic administrators often don’t understand the requirements for an athletic trainer to maintain his or her credentials—earning 50 hours of continuing education every two years is no small task. It’s our job to educate them about these requirements, as well as our need for professional leave to attend professional development opportunities. Employers must be convinced that their investment in our continuing education will produce dividends for them—that we’re not just traveling to some exotic destination for fun.

I find it helps to share the knowledge and skills I’ve gained with my administration and athletic staff when I return from a conference. Our program has committed to being innovative and focuses on continuous improvement, so I make sure my supervisors understand where those seeds of innovation are sown. 

In addition, it’s tough for athletic trainers to stay current with best practices when they can’t afford to attend the symposiums designed to help them grow. I recently conducted the South Carolina High School Athletic Trainer Survey, and only half of the respondents reported that their employers assisted with any costs of attending the state athletic training convention. Only a third reported any financial assistance for attending the NATA Convention.

Employers need to be informed of the costs of professional development so they can find ways to help out. For instance, continuing education for athletic trainers at my school is included in our sports medicine budget. Funding comes from sponsorship banners displayed at our athletic events, along with money collected from our pre-participation physicals. Through these funds, our program is able to cover some of the costs of attending national, district, or state conventions to obtain CEUs.

Sidebar 2:

USING NATA RESOURCES

The NATA meets athletic trainers’ need for professional growth by providing an abundance of valuable materials. You can find them all on the NATA’s newly improved website: www.nata.org.

Here are several great options that I have found helpful. Some have improved my school’s athletic training positions, while others have enhanced the care I provide, how I manage my students, how I cover events, and how I teach my classes.

TOOLS

• Secondary School Position Proposal Guide: designed to assist a secondary school in creating an athletic training position

• Secondary School Position Improvement Guide: provides guidance to secondary school athletic trainers in improving an existing athletic training position

• Secondary School Value Model: helps secondary school athletic trainers demonstrate their value to their employers

• Secondary School Case Studies Workbook: scenarios created by secondary school athletic trainers to teach “real-world” concepts

• Secondary School Sports Medicine Course Outline: provides the framework for a high school sports medicine class

STATEMENTS

• Proper Supervision of Secondary School Student Aides Official Statement: identifies the appropriate role, responsibilities, and restrictions for high school students who aid athletic trainers

• Appropriate Medical Care for the Secondary School Aged Athlete Consensus Statement and Monograph: outlines the components of proper medical care for secondary school athletics

• Inter-association Consensus Statement on Best Practices for Sports Medicine Management for Secondary Schools and Colleges: defines best practices regarding how athletic trainers carry out their duties and are supervised

• Inter-association Task Force for Preventing Sudden Death in Secondary Athletics Programs: Best Practices Recommendations: identifies key conditions an athletic trainer should focus on when creating protocols and procedures

RESEARCH

• High School Rio: provides national injury surveillance data

• High School NATION: provides national injury surveillance data

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