Jun 25, 2021
Load Management: How ATCs Juggle Large Student Bodies
Nick Friar, contributing writer

Imagine walking into your office on a Tuesday, in the middle of a nice spring day, and seeing a long line of teenagers waiting for you. All of them are in pain, some greater than others, and all require your attention. A student or more may show up later, and you have to be elsewhere soon — be it for a game or practice.

Welcome to the life of a high school athletic trainer.

“I would say it took me a good three to four years of going through fall, winter, and spring sports to get an understanding of the demands,” said PJ Gardner, athletic trainer for Liberty High School in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “Some days, there’s a lot to do; some days, not as much. In that time I learned to meet with coaches before each season, get them your expectations, but I also need to know their expectations. Then, the school athletic director is a real intricate part of making sure the coaches understand what the medical procedures are and what my role as an athletic trainer is.”

For the last 20 years, Gardner has been taking care of the 500 to 600 student athletes at Liberty. And for those 20 years, it’s been him running the show alone. But next academic year, he will be able to bring on students from the University of Colorado Colorado Springs who are studying athletic training as interns — something Maria Hustick has been doing at Medfield High School in Massachusetts. Between her time at Boston University and 30 years of experience as an athletic trainer, she saw how an intern program could help her, Medfield’s student athletes, and college students looking to get a feel for the field.

“Have between three and five interns year-round and I take one of Bridgewater State University’s graduate students every year,” said Hustick, who manages 300 student athletes. “A lot of my students have gone into nursing, physical therapy, or I have five or six that are out in the field as athletic trainers. They get a lot of experience, and I teach them a lot about basic rehab.”

While she still has quite a bit to manage, Hustick has never lost sight of the fact she prefers her current workload over the stresses that come at the collegiate Division I level.

“It’s such an easier job for me, but I tell my students, ‘When you become an athletic trainer, don’t have your first job be at a high school,’” she said. “You need two or three years where you have other people mentoring you and backup.”


After years at the collegiate level, Natalie Bumpas is now making the same change Hustick did years ago. After spending years in the Big Ten, most recently at Northwestern University, she made the move to Dallas in 2020 to be the athletic trainer for St. Mark’s School of Texas in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the bizarre nature of the past year-plus will probably provide Bumpas with a significantly different experience in her second year at St. Mark’s from her first, she has gotten an understanding of at least one of the big differences between being an athletic trainer at the college level and high school.

“I think the biggest transition between (Division I) and a secondary school is the fact that you’re dealing with minors,” Bumpas said. “They have parents that they are going home to every night. They have their own doctors. Sometimes, you have to help out students that may be less fortunate that need access to a physician that wouldn’t normally have it.

“I went from a population of 30 guys that I spend every single day with to a population of several hundred that may or may not show up,” Bumpas continued. “And when things go wrong, you’ll need to get the parents involved in things — we’re talking to parents a lot more often at this level. We just have a different set of concerns.”

But regardless of the level of athletics or the workload, communication remains paramount to success. Bumpas is simply experiencing it with a different crowd. She’s still building relationships, much like Gardner and Hustick have done for years at their respective programs.

» ALSO SEE: Assessing Proper Hydration in Athletes

“I tell our AD I have to work with 40-plus coaches because we have 26 sports,” Gardner said. “I have to be flexible and try to work with each one and communicate with them. That is the biggest part, just having that relationship with not only the head coach but all the assistant coaches, volunteer coaches, the strength and conditioning coach. You just have to be in line with everyone and try to fit in every year with that group. That’s very important.'”

Another essential component to success when dealing with these large student-athlete populations: balance. That doesn’t just mean in the workplace.

“For personal well-being, young athletic trainers need to have an outlet, a hobby, a project, something to go beyond or instead of athletic training duties,” Gardner said. “I ride a mountain bike, I hike, fly fish. Just have an outlet to pace yourself if you intend to stay in athletic training, like with any industry, to avoid burnout and stay healthy.”

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