Oct 26, 2018
AT Self-Care: Part 1
Timothy Neal

A growing concern among thousands of athletic trainers is the stressors felt daily in the profession. What steps should the athletic trainer consider in keeping their stress in check in order to experiencing a fulfilling career?

Stress is part of life and the athletic training profession. The time demands of the job; pressure to produce outcomes in care; problems that seem outside your sphere of influence and responsibility; unreasonable expectations from coaches, athletes, and parents; administrative issues; budget; and staff concerns all compound themselves on a daily and yearly basis. Add in issues of salary, autonomy in decision-making, and family issues such as childcare, and the athletic trainer is faced with stressors that may seem overwhelming.

This stressful lifestyle can take its toll on even the hardiest athletic training professional. Many athletic trainers did not envision this lifestyle when they entered their athletic training program as students. It is up to those of us who have gone through these trials and tribulations to give perspective to those now going through what we experienced, and still experience.

Every profession has different types of challenges, but challenges nonetheless. Once one accepts that challenges and difficulties are a part of life and a profession, the easier it becomes to develop approaches to effectively deal with the stressors.

It is useful for athletic trainers to talk to one another about their stress. Stress is very real for a person, even if it is a stressor that is handled effectively by other athletic trainers.

Throughout my career, whether at the clinic setting or now as an educator, I’ve explained to others that any relationship or profession is like having a baby. People enjoy the attention that comes from others commenting on your child and the joy experienced with every milestone: smiling, cooing, crawling, walking and talking. However, as every parent can attest, that baby also cries. A lot. Sometimes for no reason or at inopportune times. There are also sleepless nights due to illness and tons of diapers. However, the immense gratification of being a parent is something that is hard to quantify.

Joining a profession is like picking up a stick. When you pick up a stick, you pick up both ends, the good and the challenging. This is important to keep in mind throughout your career.

That takes us to the key point of this article: self-care in the face of a stressful lifestyle of an athletic trainer. We know from research how unchecked stress is very unhealthy for people, which can lead to burnout, mental health disorders, and professional attrition. Some signs of burnout are:

  • Emotional exhaustion as a result of being overextended and depleted of emotional resources. The athletic trainer feels all used up and barely able to face another day, practice, patient, or meeting. This is not a situational moment as a result of an unpleasant event — it becomes a way of life despite one’s schedule
  • Depersonalized attitude toward others. The athletic trainer adopts a callous or emotionally detached attitude to others. This can also lead to dehumanizing others.
  • Reduced personal accomplishments at work. The athlete trainer feels inadequate and frustrated about their ability to perform and care for patients. Even when an accomplishment occurs, they feel no joy in it.

Once a person descends into burnout, they are at risk for a mental health disorder. Whenever I interact with someone with a mental health challenge, instead of labeling them, I ask myself what must have happened to the person to make them behave or feel a certain way. Oftentimes, a person with a mental health issue becomes overwhelmed with a life circumstance and is unable to manage their emotions. Over time, if these emotions are not effectively acknowledged and managed, mental health issues develop.

The first step in self-care is acknowledging stress. In society, it is at times still not all right to talk about your stress. This stigmatization prevents open and useful discussion on how stress is affecting someone. It is useful for athletic trainers to talk to one another about their stress. Stress is very real for a person, even if it is a stressor that is handled effectively by other athletic trainers.

This is where education comes into play. By educating a younger certified athletic trainer — or even earlier, athletic training students — that stress is a part of the profession, you can help normalize fears and instill preparation for stress in their daily and professional lives.

Instructing and testing skills under pressure is a good way of preparing an athletic training student for the real-life stressors of performance as a certified athletic trainer. Oftentimes, I hear complaints on the lack of preparation of performing under stress by newly certified athletic trainers. This is why instructing knowledge and skills with expectations of accurate and expeditious performance by the athletic training student is beneficial in my opinion. As a result, some athletic training students may leave the program. This does the student a favor by identifying early the expectations and stressors experienced by certified athletic trainers and giving that student the opportunity to choose a different profession that fits their personality.

This article will continue next week with more practical tips for self-care.

Timothy Neal, MS, AT, ATC, CCISM, is Assistant Professor and Program Director of Athletic Training Education at Concordia University Ann Arbor. Previously, he spent more than 30 years at Syracuse University, serving in a variety of sports medicine roles. Neal is also a member of the Ohio University Alumni Association Board of Directors. He can be reached at: [email protected].

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