Jan 29, 2015
Bridging the Gap

They’re self-confident, full of new ideas, and communicate in a very different style. Working with Generation Y athletic trainers can be a challenge and a boon at the same time.

By Nate Dougherty

Nate Dougherty is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: [email protected].

During a baseball game last year at the University of San Diego, a pitcher took a line drive to the head and collapsed to the ground. A graduate assistant athletic trainer from the pitcher’s school rushed to the mound to evaluate the player, followed by the San Diego athletic training staff. But as the young athletic trainer crouched close to the player’s head to evaluate the injury, she froze.

“The paramedics asked if we were boarding him, and I jumped in and said ‘yes’ while she just let go of the player’s head and backed away,” says Carolyn Greer, MA, ATC, Associate Director of Athletics for Sports Medicine and Head Athletic Trainer at San Diego. “If you had asked this athletic trainer beforehand how to treat that injury, she could have told you down to a ‘T.’ But she just didn’t have the confidence or experience to stay with the player and make the call on her own.”

In Greer’s mind, the story demonstrates one of the defining characteristics of the generation of athletic trainers now entering the workforce. Despite the latest medical advancements being taught in their curriculums, they sometimes lack the decision-making experience previous generations gained through internships.

“Part of the difference comes from the NATA’s education reforms that eliminated the internship route to certification and required everyone to be in a curriculum program,” Greer says. “With that reform, more supervision of athletic training students is required, and they’re not allowed to do a lot of the things my generation once did in internship programs.

“Before the change, athletic training students would travel with teams or run the athletic training room when I was gone,” she continues. “Clinically, they came out of the program more prepared for situations than those graduating from curriculum programs are today.”

But the differences between Generation Y athletic trainers–those in their early- to mid-20s–and their predecessors extend beyond decisions made on the field. It’s a group that’s often more comfortable firing off a text message or an e-mail than having a short face-to-face talk. They tend to have different ideas about what a strong work ethic means, and they are not always comfortable with an authoritarian structure.

However, it’s also a highly educated group adept at finding outside-the-box solutions to workplace problems. Twenty-something athletic trainers are eager to learn and take on new challenges. Today, working with young athletic trainers means understanding Generation Y and how their ideas and philosophies differ from those of the veterans in the field.


Knowing how to best integrate younger workers into the athletic training room starts with understanding the factors that shape their abilities and attitudes. Gary Wilkerson, EdD, ATC, Professor and Graduate Athletic Training Program Director at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, says the differences start with how Generation Y athletic trainers identify themselves.

“I think athletic training has been moving away from alignment with physical education programs in favor of being more aligned with clinical healthcare,” Wilkerson says. “Many older athletic trainers have seen themselves as being closer to the coaching staff than the healthcare community, but those graduating now see themselves more as clinicians in a medical field.”

And because they are completing more rigorous educational programs than their predecessors, many of these athletic trainers bring a sense of accomplishment to their first jobs. “The current generation has higher expectations and a sense of being entitled to certain salary levels, levels of respect, and fewer work hours,” Wilkerson says. “I think they expect those things partly because they’ve completed a particular education program. Older generations accepted a greater degree of personal responsibility for gaining respect and making their job something they were proud of.”

In addition, with more opportunities for athletic trainers to move into clinical and industrial settings, students see models of the profession that don’t require the traditional “work whenever it’s necessary” mindset that’s seen in athletics. “Experienced athletic trainers have worked in a culture with the expectation that you work long hours and just accepted that it came with the territory,” Wilkerson says. “But a significant portion of our professional membership now works in physician clinics and corporate and industrial settings where the salaries are better and the hours aren’t as long. Many younger athletic trainers see that and think, ‘Why should it be any different in the athletic setting?'”

An expanding athletic training field isn’t the only factor contributing to new ideas about work-life balance. Many educational programs themselves are impressing on aspiring athletic trainers that they can help the profession change.

“In our curriculums, we keep telling the students that they don’t have to do all the extra things and put in the ungodly hours,” says Kent Scriber, EdD, ATC, PT, Professor and Director of the Athletic Training Education Program at Ithaca College. “But at the same time, you have older athletic trainers who did put in those hours and think everyone should learn that way. Sometimes, accepting that there’s been this change in philosophy is difficult.”

Attitudes also tend to differ regarding workplace ethics. “I think earlier generations made much clearer distinctions between right and wrong,” Wilkerson says. “We see things as black and white while younger people see gray areas, and that creates another challenge to us in relating to the younger generation. Sometimes, young people think what the majority says is ethical, rather than understanding an absolute standard.”

One example Wilkerson points to is relationships between athletic trainers and the athletes they serve. “For many years, most institutions have had a clear understanding that romantic relationships between student-athletes and staff are out of bounds,” Wilkerson says. “We’ve found that many in the younger generation see those rules as being almost laughable, and feel they can have a relationship with anyone they choose.

“They think, ‘If it doesn’t hurt anyone else, why isn’t it okay for me to do it? And if I can’t see tangible evidence of how it’s hurting someone else, then you have no right to impose that rule on me,'” he continues. “There are plenty of examples of how those relationships can get out of hand, like when two athletic trainers have a relationship with the same person, and it causes conflict in the athletic training room. But the head athletic trainer needs to recognize that a young staff member does not easily see the ethical problem.”

More conflict can arise when younger athletic trainers lack the respect for the history of the profession held by older generations, Wilkerson says. “They seem to be much more interested in the here and now, and history doesn’t have much relevance to them,” he says. “That becomes a source of conflict because the older generation has a strong sense of obligation to pay respect to our predecessors who paved the way. For example, we place great importance on inducting athletic trainers into our hall of fame. Recognizing those contributions seems to be much more important to the older generation.”


So how do you deal with differing attitudes and job perceptions among younger staff members? Wilkerson suggests that head athletic trainers start by revisiting their own expectations and philosophies. “One thing we need to do is honestly re-appraise what is a reasonable expectation of an athletic trainer,” Wilkerson says. “It’s not necessarily going to be the same as what was expected in the past.”

The re-appraisal should include a fresh look at the style you use as a supervisor. Mike Poskey, Vice President of the Dallas-based human resources consulting firm ZeroRisk HR, Inc., explains that younger workers seek a more equal footing with their mentors, and want their ideas heard. “The younger generation is interested in having a coach or a mentor, but not necessarily a micro-manager,” Poskey says. “They want to be able to give their input. They may have other ideas on how to do something and believe they can get the same result more efficiently.”

Wilkerson agrees. “We’ve seen a gradual shift in the way athletic trainers view their mentors, whether it’s a teacher or a head athletic trainer,” he says. “I think they’re much less inclined to accept an authoritative relationship. Some of them expect you to be their friend and call you on a first-name basis, having more of an equal-to-equal relationship.

“They’re experiencing a more collaborative experience as students and are much more oriented toward independent self-learning that is guided rather than imposed on them,” he continues. “When they enter the workforce, they expect that environment to continue.”

Wilkerson says this kind of collaborative atmosphere can be created by simply opening the doors of the treatment room to let younger athletic trainers follow the diagnosis and rehab processes. “Head athletic trainers have to be comfortable allowing younger athletic trainers to see everything that’s going on,” he says. “There’s a strong tendency for many older athletic trainers to just do what needs to be done instead of taking the extra time required to let the young athletic trainer follow the process. But by doing so, the young athletic trainer can see all the factors that go into making a decision.”

Creating hypothetical situations for young athletic trainers or having them give diagnoses on cases they aren’t handling themselves are other ways to give them a collaborative experience. “You can challenge them to come up with the answers in a circumstance you’ve created where no one will be harmed with wrong responses,” Wilkerson says. “They won’t actually perform the procedures, but you can essentially simulate them and work with the young athletic trainer to assess the appropriateness of the diagnosis and treatment they came up with. That lets them work on their own but still allows you to be there to give them input.”

It can also be helpful to use a style they’re familiar with when critiquing their work. “You have to be careful because people want to be who they are and you don’t want to turn them into robots,” says Bernie DePalma, MEd, ATC, PT, Head Athletic Trainer at Cornell University. “When you need to critique them, it still needs to be a positive thing. You should let them know what their good attributes are–that maybe they’re an outgoing person and the athletes love them, and you’re not trying to change that.”

Then you need to thoroughly explain the why behind the problem. “When the trouble is with their work ethic or demeanor, you have to remind them what your philosophy is and what changes you’d like to see from them,” says DePalma. “For example, you might say, ‘You can’t come in with earrings and tattoos showing because when you talk to a coach who is a very disciplined person, he may not respect what you have to say.’ It helps to have them put themselves in the other person’s situation–‘How would you want to be addressed if you were the head football coach?'”

Similarly, it’s important to thoroughly explain the criteria for advancement in your department and what you want out of your employees. “Conflict arises when someone has a concept of how the work experience will go and it doesn’t square with reality. The person can then become disgruntled,” says Poskey. “It seems like younger workers today have less patience, and you can really address that by giving them a realistic preview of what the timeline for advancement is. You need open and clear communication of what you expect from them so they don’t have their ideas of the work experience going unfulfilled.”


Changing your style to be more collaborative and communicative doesn’t mean you have to back down on your expectations of a work ethic, however. It’s just that some young athletic trainers who leave the very structured environment of a curriculum program can have difficulty adjusting to their new unstructured time, and need to be taught exactly what working hard means.

“As athletic trainers we have a fireman’s nature where we’re waiting for something to happen,” Scriber says. “That’s when young athletic trainers can get distracted and bored, and we have the challenge of making sure they’re being useful with their time. They need to be taught that they can always help out another staff member, practice a taping technique, or watch an assessment instead of just sitting around.”

Sally Nogle, PhD, ATC, Associate Head Athletic Trainer at Michigan State University, also spends time explaining to young athletic trainers that every task–from cleaning tables to filling water bottles–can be just as important as rehab and diagnosing in ensuring the health of the student-athletes. “In football there’s a lot of water carrying, and some younger athletic trainers think that’s below them,” Nogle says. “They often only want to learn the advanced tasks–to run before they can walk. I understand their excitement, but I explain that those jobs are very important, too. During a game athletes need to be hydrated, just as they need their ankles taped correctly.

“I try to pitch in if I can, and later, when the task is finished, I’ll talk with them about how important it is and why we need to do it,” she continues. “If they see me doing things like cleaning the whirlpool, they can’t ever say it’s beneath them.”

But if they only experience everyday tasks, young athletic trainers can quickly grow disenchanted with the profession. “You need to give them other challenges, or else they won’t enjoy being an athletic trainer for long,” Nogle says. “To keep it exciting for them, I’ll try to give them an evaluation of an injury that’s a little more uncommon or let them take an athlete through a different kind of rehab process.”


Another aspect of working with today’s generation is understanding the curriculums they’ve been through and helping them with their clinical skills. To start, Greer suggests you carefully push them into more decision-making opportunities.

“Young athletic trainers and students today are almost afraid to make a mistake,” she says. “With all the supervision they have during their schooling, they’re always looking over their shoulder. The only way they’ll improve and get the confidence they need is to be eased into decision-making situations.”

To give student interns the experience they need to gain confidence, DePalma has them act as head athletic trainer during games under the supervision of a certified athletic trainer. “For instance, one of our student interns here is responsible for the j.v. football players–their rehab, treatment, and game status, and communicating with their coaches,” DePalma says. “On game day that student preps the team and makes all decisions, and we have a certified athletic trainer serve as the assistant. If a player goes down, they have to do the evaluation and report directly to the coach. This puts them in a position to realize, ‘Hey, I can do this. I can run my own team.'”

Nogle likes to have staff athletic trainers review cases and bounce ideas off one another. “They think their team is the only thing that’s important, which can make them isolated,” Nogle says. “But they need to be able to share ideas and get some different viewpoints on injuries and rehabs so they become better athletic trainers. By having them review cases together, the next time an injury comes in and I’m not there, they might be able to start a dialogue and come up with different diagnoses together.”

Gretchen Schlabach, PhD, LAT, ATC, Associate Professor and Director of the Athletic Training Education Program at Northern Illinois University, suggests pairing younger athletic trainers with more experienced ones for guidance and support. “This is a generation that needs immediate feedback to know if what they’re doing is right,” she says. “Because of that need to be supervised, it would be helpful to team them with a more experienced person and let them go out and do their thing. Often, just throwing them into the fire will cause difficulty for young athletic trainers.”


Sometimes, veteran athletic trainers are most bothered by an attitude from the younger generation that they’re not interested in practicing a skill over and over again to get it perfect. Greer says that even if they may not seem to appreciate it, she keeps remembering that her feedback and encouragement will help make them better athletic trainers.

“They come from a generation where nobody loses, so they want everything they do to be a good job,” Greer says. “When I do need to give some negative feedback, I just keep pushing them, even if they don’t like it.

“I got an e-mail from a former student who now works at a high school, and she had to take care of an athlete there who suffered a bad neck injury,” she continues. “She thanked me for making her practice boarding techniques over and over and over. Even if they don’t seem to appreciate it at the time, they’ll look back and realize there’s a reason for everything they have to do.”

And they should also be encouraged to play to their strengths, which Schlabach says includes a fresh perspective and approach. “The students graduating today have truly impressed me with their willingness to think outside the box,” she says. “They’re always able to entertain new ideas, and if we give them opportunities to assert those ideas, we’ll realize how creative and resourceful they can really be.”


Have you ever gotten an e-mail from a staff member working across the room, or a 10-word text message when a short phone call would have been more efficient and effective? Welcome to communication in Generation Y.

“My generation learned to communicate by talking face-to-face, but it seems like my younger colleagues often prefer e-mail,” says Gretchen Schlabach, PhD, LAT, ATC, Associate Professor and Director of the Athletic Training Education Program at Northern Illinois University. “They don’t seem to have time for a discussion, even though I find that to be more in-depth. And e-mail is full of the hazards of reading between the lines, which can bring about some dysfunctional relationships.”

She encourages younger athletic trainers to develop their face-to-face communication skills and all the nuances that accompany them. “For example, the body language of younger colleagues can sometimes communicate the wrong message,” Schlabach says. “When they are talking face-to-face, if they have a baseball cap covering their eyes or are looking down at their notes and mumbling their words, it suggests they’re really not interested.”

But Schlabach also feels older athletic trainers need to become more open to the younger generation’s style. “We all need an awareness that we have different communication styles, and we all need to be sensitive to those differences and find a middle ground where everyone can communicate effectively,” she says. “It’s not a matter of right or wrong, just differences. For all of us to be aware of these differences would be helpful in maintaining healthy relationships with each other and with coaches.

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