Jan 29, 2015
A New View

Making a big career change can be daunting. In this three-part article, athletic trainers who have been there share their stories.

By Tim Bream

Tim Bream, MS, ATC, is the Director of Athletic Training Services and the Head Football Athletic Trainer at Pennsylvania State University. He can be reached at: [email protected].

When news of the Pennsylvania State University child sex abuse scandal broke in 2011, I was in my 19th year with the Chicago Bears and my 15th as the team’s Head Athletic Trainer. As a Penn State alum, the shock of what had happened and the resulting aftermath was challenging. It raised a lot of questions about what path the university, and specifically the athletic department, was going to take. Like seemingly everyone else, I followed the latest developments on the news.

Then, toward the end of the year, I got a call from Dave Joyner, who had assumed the role of Acting Athletic Director at Penn State during the turmoil and was later officially named to the position. I have known Dave for more than 20 years. He’s a fellow alum, and we worked together on the United States Olympic Committee Sports Medicine team in the early 1990s. In the midst of everything that was happening on campus, he wanted to talk shop, so we spoke on and off about athletic training at Penn State over the next month.

Unbeknownst to me, Dave was also communicating with newly hired Head Football Coach Bill O’Brien during this time about bringing me on as the new Director of Athletic Training Services and Head Football Athletic Trainer. I was shocked when Dave and Coach O’Brien called and offered me the job.

My first thought was that I had no intention of leaving the Bears. It was a privilege to work with such elite athletes on a daily basis, and I had developed very close relationships with the players and many members of the organization, especially our sports medicine team. To me, Chicago was the best franchise in the NFL, and I was content with the idea of spending the rest of my career as the team’s Head Athletic Trainer. To be honest, if any place other than Penn State had called, I wouldn’t have even considered it.

But since it was my alma mater, a place that I loved and felt like I owed a lot to, I started mulling it over. My first consideration was my family. My wife is from upstate New York and I’m from central Pennsylvania, so taking the Penn State job would mean being closer to our families. I also have two daughters–one graduating from college and one graduating from high school. My younger daughter had chosen Penn State to attend for college. They were both preparing for the next phase of their lives and looking toward their own futures, so I thought a move wouldn’t disrupt them as much at this point as it would have when they were younger.

I also consulted with one of my mentors, Don Lowe, MA, ATC. He’s a member of the NATA Hall of Fame, and was my first boss at Syracuse University–the Coordinator of Sports Medicine who hired me fresh out of graduate school as an Assistant Athletic Trainer. Don made a similar move in 2000, taking over the sports medicine program at Georgia Tech after 25 years with Syracuse. He pointed out other positive aspects of the Penn State position, such as getting the chance to work with the athletic training students. This was an important factor in my decision because I wanted to be able to give back to the school. I had such a great educational experience here with the staff that mentored me–I wanted current students to have that same opportunity.

My conversations with Coach O’Brien sealed the deal. Originally, I questioned how long he was going to stay at the collegiate level, but he assured me that he was dedicated to the athletes at Penn State. When we spoke about me coming in to work with the team, I found out that not only did he and I have the same philosophical views on treating student-athletes, but newly hired Strength and Conditioning Coach Craig Fitzgerald did as well. Coach O’Brien wanted his players’ academics and health to come first because he knew this approach would make them more productive on the field. He charged Fitz and myself with the mission of keeping the players healthy and maturing physically and mentally.

I was officially hired in February 2012. The new position felt like an opportunity to help with what was going on at Penn State, especially knowing the university as an alum who grew up in the state. I had been gone for almost 30 years, so I wanted to come back and put my accumulated experience and knowledge to use, making sure everybody in athletic training was on the same page moving forward.

I was aware of all the outside attention Penn State was getting before I arrived on campus. But once I got here, all of that went away and our staff focused on giving our student-athletes the best care we could.

My work began as soon as I arrived in State College. After evaluating the needs of our athletic training staff and speaking with all of our varsity coaches, I realized that I couldn’t effectively oversee 25 athletic trainers on a day-to-day basis. With the help of Dave Joyner and Coach O’Brien, we implemented an administrative structure within the athletic training department. The various athletic training rooms were given managers who report directly to me, and all athletic trainers were given administrative tasks so they could take ownership of specific responsibilities within our department.

Coach O’Brien also wanted to create a stronger partnership between athletic training students and football. The prior coaching staff did not allow athletic training students to work with the team. Not only did this change under Coach O’Brien, he also opened the team to our female athletic trainers, something the football program hadn’t done in decades. Since the beginning, he and I have enjoyed a very open relationship, with lots of give and take.

Although I was eager to make changes in my new position, I quickly realized I was facing some changes myself. For one, after working exclusively with NFL players for 20 years, having female athletic trainers and female athletes in the football building was different for everyone.

Another change I had to adapt to was working with student-athletes again–something I hadn’t done since I left my position as Director of Sports Medicine and Head Athletic Trainer at the University of Richmond in 1992. I was happy to see that for the most part, college student-athletes had stayed the same.

But they have pushed me to stay current. Our student-athletes have up-to-the-minute knowledge on almost anything because they’re always on Twitter and Facebook. I’ve been trying to do the same. Staying current has helped me develop relationships with my student-athletes, but it has also helped me professionally.

There’s always research going on at a strong academic institution like Penn State, and social media helps me stay up to date on rehab techniques and protocols and treatment regimens with different modalities. My staff has also been great at introducing me to alternative treatments utilizing methods like holistic medicine. Being back in this environment is professionally refreshing and has been great from an educational standpoint.

As rewarding as my first year at Penn State has been, there are some things I miss about the NFL–particularly the relationships I developed with the players and my fellow athletic trainers. However, I’m well on my way to developing new relationships here. By following the golden rule and treating others the way I want to be treated, I feel I have been fortunate to have already gained the respect of my new student-athletes, fellow athletic trainers, our varsity coaches, and administration.


By Michael West

Michael West, ATC, is the Principal at Jurupa Valley (Calif.) High School and President of the California Athletic Trainers’ Association. He can be reached at: [email protected].

Considering where I started 20 years ago, how I ended up as a high school principal is still a mystery to me at times. My first job after college was as a full-time high school athletic trainer. In between, I have been a vocational education teacher, high school teacher, high school athletic director, high school assistant principal, and alternative education school principal. Early in my career, I never wanted to be anything but an athletic trainer. I pictured myself ending up as the head athletic trainer at a small college or university and staying there until retirement. Watching administrators perform their work, I vividly remember saying to myself, “I would never do that job.” However, as I became more familiar with the different positions in high schools, I started asking myself, “If they can do it, why can’t I?”

New challenges have always appealed to me but I have never changed positions just for the sake of change. I have simply taken advantage of opportunities that presented themselves. It was then a matter of deciding whether I wanted to walk through the doors that opened for me.

I always considered a variety of factors, including duties, hours, salary, a retirement plan, what was best for my family, and what was best for me. Each change, at that given time, seemed like the right thing to do when I considered all of these factors. And each decision ultimately ended up being a good one. I can say that it has been a wonderful ride.

I left the athletic training room in 1998 to become a teacher because it meant a higher salary and better hours–no more late night events. The position was to instruct vocational students and teach a single care and prevention class for traditional high school students, so I knew I would still be involved in the athletic training program. Another athletic trainer was hired to replace me, so I basically considered myself the student athletic training aide curriculum director.

My first year as a teacher was the most difficult transition of all my career changes. From the outside, teaching looks easy. However, once you begin to understand all the aspects of being a good teacher, it can become a real challenge to fill that role–particularly for a rookie. One of the classes I taught was World History, and I had to read the textbook every evening to plan lessons. Being involved in the athletic training environment at the same time required a tremendous amount of both time and time management skills.

Another significant change in my career occurred in 2001. I had the chance to become athletic director at a new high school in our district that would open with only a freshman class. I imagined it would be the opportunity of a lifetime to be able to hire all the coaches, order the athletic equipment, design the athletic facilities, and help pick the school colors and mascot. And I was right. It was probably the most rewarding professional experience of my career thus far.

The principal responsible for opening the school was the same principal who had hired me as an athletic trainer and then a teacher. I believe she hired me not because I was so much better than any other candidate, but because she trusted me. She had seen how I handled myself in my previous positions. Doing a good job from the start had paid off.

I really enjoyed my time as athletic director, so why would I become an assistant principal? Ultimately, I knew that I could make a difference in more kids’ lives, and I saw it as an exciting challenge.

As an athletic director, my office was next to the assistant principal’s. She was responsible for discipline at the school, and I saw everything that entailed. It was another time when I said to myself, “There is no way I would do that job.”

However, the more I was exposed to central administration, the more I realized that not only could I do the job, I might actually want to. I began to talk to my principal and assistant principals about their jobs, and each encouraged me to make the move.

I was able to take and pass an exam that gave me a preliminary administrative credential instead of going through an expensive and long credentialing program. What pushed me to finally become an assistant principal was an opening in a district close to home and where my wife worked.

Now, nearly six years later, I am in the same district and in my first semester as a principal. I am really enjoying the position as I work with a great group of teachers, staff, and students to develop a vision for our school and begin implementing it.

None of these career moves would have been possible if the doors had not opened for me. I feel that the work ethic, problem solving abilities, and interpersonal skills I developed as an athletic trainer helped me to not only be marketable for the positions I have held, but to do well in each of them.

And I have not lost my athletic training roots–I have continuously kept my ATC credential in good standing. I have served on numerous NATA, Far West Athletic Trainers’ Association, and California Athletic Trainers’ Association (CATA) committees and task forces over the years. And I am currently President of the CATA.

Athletic training is in my blood and I believe it always will be. Though I don’t actively practice, I stay involved and will assist the athletic trainer at our high school if asked. Sure, I miss being in the athletic training room and being directly involved in athletics, but I don’t regret one career change I’ve made.


By Sarah Wattenberg

Sarah Wattenberg, MS, ATC, is The Andrew ’78 and Margaret Paul Director of Student-Athlete Support Services at Cornell University. She can be reached at: [email protected].

I first fell in love with Cornell University when I was recruited to throw the shot put, discus, and javelin for the women’s track and field team in 1999. I eagerly jumped at the chance to attend an Ivy League school, but was slightly disappointed when I found out that Cornell did not offer an athletic training curriculum, which I knew I was interested in. At the time, I chose the next best route of Human Biology, Health & Society, a pre-med major with a focus in nutrition and human development. I was off and running–or in my case, throwing.

Upon graduation, I found myself still drawn to the field of athletic training. With help from our team’s athletic trainer, I ended up heading to the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga to pursue an entry-level master’s degree in athletic training. I loved every moment of my experience: the graduate program, the people, and the profession. I knew I had made the right choice and that athletic training was for me.

Two short years later, I landed my dream job when I became the athletic trainer for the men’s and women’s cross country and indoor and outdoor track and field teams at Cornell. I was back working with my old coaches, and I was ready to contribute to the team I still loved. I soon reconnected with my now-husband, a Cornell classmate and former athlete who was coaching at the school. Cornell athletics was our home.

Years passed, and I grew into my position quite seamlessly. With amazing support from co-workers, coaches, and athletes alike, I was lucky enough to start raising a family in conjunction with my career. (It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that I raised my daughter in the athletic training room.) Then, an unexpected opportunity popped up last June when the Director of Student-Athlete Support Services position became available.

I had always envisioned myself taking on a more administrative role within the athletic department, but thought that would be 15 to 20 years down the road. Yet, the job description spoke to me. What I loved most about athletic training was the interpersonal interaction. Getting to know the athletes, helping them overcome their injuries mentally in addition to the taping and rehab sessions, and treating them holistically were the best parts of my job.

With my nutrition background, I had also been working as the athletic department’s liaison to the eating disorder treatment team at the campus health center and had really taken a liking to the counseling aspect of that role. The Student-Athlete Support Services position felt similar, just on a larger scale.

This got me thinking: If I saw myself taking an administrative position in 15 to 20 years anyway, why not now? So even though I had only received a department-wide e-mail stating that the Student-Athlete Support Services position was vacant, I made a gut decision to throw my hat into the ring. When I told our Head Athletic Trainer about my intention, he was nothing but supportive and reminded me that although the position meant leaving the athletic training room, it was an opportunity to stay within the athletic department and support our student-athletes in a new way.

In my mind, my strongest card to play was that I had “been there, done that.” As a student-athlete at Cornell, I had struggled enough academically my freshman year (chemistry–yuck) that I needed tutors. I also made it clear that I love helping people work through their problems and knew that I could be effective in this job. My interviewers heard me loud and clear, and in August, I was named The Andrew ’78 and Margaret Paul Director of Student-Athlete Support Services.

Starting a new job was scary at first. For starters, I had built my entire wardrobe on black track pants and red hoodies for seven years. It was pretty embarrassing to trip down the field house stairs in front of a group of athletes my first week on the job because I was not used to wearing high heels to work.

I also went from sharing an office with 14 other fun-loving, joke-making athletic trainers to having my own office–by myself, just me, all alone. My fellow athletic trainers were used to listening to my internal thought process constantly being vocalized, while my new boss, the Associate Athletic Director of Compliance and Student-Services, still doesn’t quite know what to do with me when I walk into her office, plop on her couch, and start telling her about my day.

Finally, my daily routine changed drastically. As an athletic trainer, I would go into work at 2 p.m. to cover practice. This left me the entire morning to spend with my daughter, work out, and run errands. It always seemed like a fair trade for missing out on dinner with my husband so I could close the athletic training room at 8 p.m.

Now, I work a “nine to five.” My daughter goes to daycare and I lose out on my 10 a.m. yoga class. However, this also means that I have dinner at home with my family instead of the microwave dinners I had been eating in the athletic training room for the past seven years. And although my immediate daily routine was sacrificed, it now means that when my daughter is old enough to go to school, I won’t be heading to work as she is hopping off the bus. Temporary sacrifice and change can be a good thing.

As my work has shifted from stress fractures and strained hamstrings to class schedules and tutors, I now truly appreciate all of the ways that athletic training has prepared me for this career change. The characteristics that are vital to an athletic trainer continue to serve me well in my new position, including my sense of humor, empathy, adaptability, ability to communicate, and patience.

As Director of Student-Athlete Support Services, I act as a one-stop shop for 1,200 student-athletes. Instead of referring injuries to the team physician, I now refer student-athletes to their college’s advising Dean, the Learning Strategies Center, alcohol counseling, the career center, or counseling and psychological services.

I miss seeing and working with the track teams closely on a daily basis. I miss the bus trips and championships. But now I get to reach out and help so many more of our student-athletes every day. Predicting what my day will bring is still a fun game that keeps me on my toes. I never know what scenario will walk through my office door next.

Although some days I feel unsure in my new career, I do know that I am ready and willing to help in any way that I can to the best of my abilities. It is nice to know that as much as things change, some stay the same.


Here are some thoughts to ponder as you continue in your own career. Often, it’s what you’ve done thus far that opens new doors.

– Be aware of your reputation and the perceptions of others.

– Strive to be known as a professional who can be relied upon.

– Consistently show up early and stay late.

– Be visible.

– Dress professionally.

– Complete all work to be submitted to supervisors or that will be viewed by others to the best of your ability, and keep it neat and professional.

– Non-verbal communication develops a person’s reputation more than anything else.

– While it takes a lot of work to build and maintain a solid reputation, unfortunately, it is quite easy to damage one, so always think before you act.

– If you think you might want to make a career change, investigate new positions diligently.

– Ask questions of your peers, supervisors, and particularly your family to see if a career change may be right for you.

–Michael West

Shop see all »

75 Applewood Drive, Suite A
P.O. Box 128
Sparta, MI 49345
website development by deyo designs
Interested in receiving the print or digital edition of Training & Conditioning?

Subscribe Today »

Be sure to check out our sister sites: