Playground Tussles

April 17, 2018
By David Csillan

David Csillan, MS, LAT, ATC, is Athletic Trainer at Ewing (N.J.) High School and a member of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s (NJSIAA) Sports Medicine Advisory Committee. He also serves as the NATA District 2 Secretary, Secretary Vice-Chair of the NATA District Secretaries/Treasurers Committee, and the NJSIAA Liaison with the NATA and NFHS. Csillan was inducted into the Athletic Trainers’ Society of New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2008 and received both the NATA’s Most Distinguished Athletic Trainer Award and Athletic Trainer Service Award in 2016. He can be reached at:


For a moment, think back to your younger days running around the playground. Remember three dozen kids moving in different directions? Some were playing tag, others were traversing from one piece of gym equipment to another, and a few attempted to conduct a conversation off to the side.

I’ve always pictured my athletic department as a playground. On any given day, some coaches are scrambling to prepare for games, others are transporting equipment to their practice field, and still others are negotiating practice and game schedules with the athletic director behind closed doors. As athletic trainers, we are also moving busily around the playground, focusing on the health and safety of our athletes. As we all go about our jobs, there are times when our decisions on injury management are not what a coach wants to hear. However, as with the playground, we all need to find a way to get along.

Coaches—and athletic trainers—come in a variety of different personality types. A few of the common ones include the sergeant, the negotiator, the promoter, the reasoner, and the softy.

A coach who is a sergeant has a “my way or the highway” attitude. This person usually speaks in a loud, authoritative tone and implies that he or she knows what’s best for the athlete. The sergeant recalls stories from their heyday of how kids played with concussions. This coach can’t take no for an answer and every discussion turns into a showdown at the OK Corral. Adopting a calm but stern demeanor is the best way to diffuse this bomb.

The negotiator expects a give and take. It’s not uncommon for this coach to proclaim, “I’ll allow the player to sit out of practice, if you clear him/her for tomorrow’s game,” although obviously, for the athletic trainer, clearing an athlete who is unable to pass functional stress tests is not an option.

The promoter is usually consumed with self-image. He or she thinks, “I have the best conditioned team, smartest plays, and most wins—and it’s all because I’m the hardest working person in town.” This coach likes to be seen, everywhere. When a player finishes their daily treatment in the athletic training room, the promoter will often put the athlete through an additional workout so they can assume credit for getting the athlete better. The athletic trainer should explain that doing too much may actually impede treatment and delay an athlete’s return to competition.

One might assume that the softy would create the easiest working environment for the athletic trainer, but this isn’t necessarily true. Often, the athletes on a softy’s team lack discipline, and this attitude carries over to the athletic training room. While most athletic trainers have a no treatment/no tape/no play rule, the softy permits athletes to make their own return-to-play decisions.

Most athletic trainers would agree that the reasoner is the ideal coach with whom to work. This coach welcomes discussions and digests all the facts before making a decision. He or she displays an excellent work/life balance and understands that sports are just a game in the big picture of life. The reasoner respects everyone’s time when scheduling practices and makes athletic training enjoyable.

On the flipside, athletic trainers also exhibit different personalities. Some of us are sergeants, others are complainers, and still others are easy going. As with a coach who is a sergeant, an athletic trainer who is overly focused on control often lacks flexibility and can create a hostile working environment within the athletic department, including with their own staff.

Athletic trainers who are complainers usually develop this habit after years of disrespect from coaches who are sergeants, promoters, and negotiators. Regrettably, they bear the complaining moniker throughout their career. The easy-going athletic trainer often has difficulty standing up for themselves and risks leaving the career due to burn out.

So how do we all get along on our athletic department playground? It’s actually rather simple. At the beginning of the year, it’s important to schedule athletic department meetings to discuss ground rules. The athletic trainer and the athletic director should review the athletics emergency action plan and everyone’s role during activation. The athletic trainer should also go over various injury scenarios which may occur throughout the year and present their management plan. That way, coaches will already know how the athletic trainer will manage the situation and there will be less opportunity for conflict.

Even with plans in place and expectations set, however, it doesn’t take much for problems to start in the sandbox over the course of the season. So, before the tension peaks, I remind my coaches of three points. First, you stick with the Xs and Os and I’ll stick with the health care. Second, we must respect each other’s time. And third, although we are taking different paths, we are both working toward the same objective. Early and effective communication has a unique way of bringing together people with various personalities to achieve that common goal called success.

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