Jan 29, 2015
Career Climb

Landing a job as a head athletic trainer takes more than experience and talent. It also requires strategically positioning yourself on the professional ladder.

By Randy Biggerstaff

Randy Biggerstaff, MS, ATC, is Director of Athletic Training at Lindenwood University. He was inducted into the NATA Hall of Fame in June and was honored as the NAIA Head Athletic Trainer of the Year in 2007. He can be reached at: [email protected].

At an NATA Convention several years ago, many of us heard an inspirational and exciting talk by Robin Roberts about her success as a television broadcaster. When asked how she advanced in her career, she said, “I put myself in a position for good things to happen to me.”

When assistant athletic trainers ask me what they need to do to become a head athletic trainer at the college level, I have a similar answer: Put yourself in a position for growth and to be noticed. Moving up in the athletic training profession doesn’t happen only through hard work, and it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes strategic planning and initiative.

There are three major areas to concentrate on when trying to position yourself for a head athletic training job–education, experience, and networking. By focusing on these three avenues, which often intertwine, you’ll show potential employers that you have what it takes to lead a department.


Education is found in two areas: formal and continuing education. Formal refers to your degrees in athletic training or related fields. If you are reading this magazine, you likely have already secured your undergraduate degree. If you have not earned your master’s degree yet, this is a great place to start positioning yourself.

Before you choose a master’s program, put a lot of thought into where you want to be a head athletic trainer, then apply to graduate programs that fit your plan. If your dream is to head a large NCAA Division I athletic program–and take on the pressure that accompanies it–you’ll want to get your master’s at a big-time school. If you think a smaller college is a good fit, then look at those types of programs.

If you’re not sure, pick an institution that is different than the school where you received your undergraduate degree or where you are currently working so you can experience a different setting. You should also find a program that provides many internship options.

Continuing education is another important method you can use to position yourself. We all need to get our CEUs every year, but continuing education can do more than simply keep us certified. If you make the most of continuing education opportunities, you can open doors and advance yourself in significant ways.

One is to use your CEUs to form a specialty, which shows a future hiring committee that you have initiative and passion for the field. When I graduated from college, I saw a real need for athletic trainers who could take care of chronic injuries in the lower leg. (This was in the 1970s when the marathon craze was beginning.) So I made the effort to attend every workshop and seminar I could find on this topic area. I was a high school athletic trainer at the time and worked closely with the school’s track and field team to test my newly acquired knowledge.

A second way to use CEUs is to increase your knowledge base. When I was a new athletic trainer, I felt a lack of expertise in a lot of areas so I attended the NATA Convention each year and went to every seminar possible. The key is to take advantage of any chance for learning that you come across.

Finally, choose continuing education opportunities that also allow you to network. In other words, do not only look at course content but also the possible attendees. And frequent those seminars that allow interaction with the presenters and other attendees.


When a hiring committee is reviewing resumes, they are usually poring over a huge pile. To narrow it down, the first thing they look for is a “good fit,” which means someone who has worked at a school that is similar to their own. Especially at the higher levels of collegiate sports, becoming a head athletic trainer requires experience in that setting. It is rare for an NCAA Division I institution to select candidates from other divisions to interview.

Therefore, make sure your positions as an assistant athletic trainer are at institutions similar to your dream head athletic training job. If you are an assistant at a large school and feel that a head job in the same setting is unsatisfactory for your quality of life, look for an assistant job at a small school so you can get experience in that setting.

Another point to consider is that a Division I school with football usually wants its newly hired head athletic trainer to serve as its head football athletic trainer. This does not mean you have to be the head football athletic trainer forever, but you will be expected to fill that position for several years. So, if your goal is to be an NCAA Division I head athletic trainer, you must have previously worked with an NCAA Division I football team.

From my own career, I can tell you how important it is to have comparable experiences. I worked in the clinical setting for 20 years and then found myself the head athletic trainer and program director here at Lindenwood, an NAIA school with 20 sports. As I readied myself for my first two-a-days in 20 years that summer, I had severe butterflies in my stomach and night fears weeks beforehand. I did fine once the job began, but I was truly afraid of failure. It would have been a much easier transition if I had worked at another NAIA or small NCAA school previously.

It can also help to ask yourself, “What’s missing from my experiences?” Covering football, basketball, and baseball might show that you have been trusted with high-profile sports, but do you have any experience with soccer and track and field? Or maybe your resume lacks coverage of women’s teams. What question marks might pop up for someone reviewing your resume?

To fill in any gaps, consider volunteer work. Local professional sports teams are often looking for athletic trainers to help during the summer and with home games during the season. You can contact your state athletic trainers’ association about working at high school championships. And there are always local sporting events that need sports medicine coverage. These volunteer opportunities also allow you to meet other athletic trainers in your area, which helps with your professional networking.

Internships are another great way to get experience you don’t already have. If you have summers off, that is a perfect time to intern somewhere. Even if you work during the summer, you can sometimes set up internships on a limited basis (like during a one-week vacation or on summer evenings) while still holding down your current job. Many professional football and baseball teams provide spring and summer internships, and the USA Olympic training centers offer two-week internships throughout the year.

Finally, it’s advantageous to have some practice with the administrative side of the job. Being a head athletic trainer involves duties like supervising a staff, budgeting, and negotiating with others. To gain experience, ask your head athletic trainer if you can assist in these areas. Even if he or she can only delegate small portions of the administrative work to you, it can provide you with insight into that part of the job.

You can also gain some administrative know-how by working on committees. This includes local, state, or national athletic training groups, campus committees, or even local volunteer boards, like a Rotary club or a non-profit health center. Along with being involved in discussions about administrative and leadership issues, such work shows a hiring committee you understand the importance of giving back to your community and know how to get along with people in other professions.

If you are interested in being a head athletic trainer at a small college with a curriculum program, you may be asked to teach. Therefore, becoming involved with academic committees is important. Look for openings both on your campus and within NATA education or curriculum groups.

One more idea for gaining administrative and leadership experience is to volunteer to sponsor the athletic training student organization on your campus. And if your school does not have such a group, go ahead and start one!


There is one area that can trump all the education and experiences you may pile up: networking. The people you come into contact with both professionally and otherwise (volunteering, committee work, and so on) can have a tremendous effect on you landing a head athletic trainer position.

I mentioned earlier that I was offered my current position at Lindenwood even though my professional experiences did not include working at a small college. I owe that to networking, which put me in front of the right people at the right time.

About 20 years ago, when I was a clinical athletic trainer, an orthopedic surgeon I had worked with donated the money to replace the turf in the stadium at Lindenwood. He asked if I would chair a committee charged with bringing activities to the stadium to raise revenue so the field could be maintained. This chair came with a seat on one of the advisory boards of the college. I also volunteered to help the school’s head athletic trainer with coverage when he had a conflict or needed to be absent.

A few years later, the head athletic trainer at Lindenwood decided to pursue a position as a head athletic trainer at one of the larger high schools in the area. I called the president of the college and asked if he might be interested in letting my clinic provide athletic services for its teams. The president stated that he was not interested in contracting out our services but instead wanted to know if I was interested in becoming the university’s head athletic trainer.

Because people at the school knew me, I was offered a job that has turned out to be fantastic. Their interactions with me were ultimately more important than my lack of experience as an athletic trainer at the small college level.

Having a professional network can also get your resume examined by those who matter more closely. When a busy athletic director is in the process of reviewing candidates for the school’s open head athletic training job, he or she is probably scanning the pile of resumes pretty quickly. If the athletic director gets a call from someone they respect–maybe a former assistant athletic trainer at the school who is now a head athletic trainer elsewhere–who says, “I think this candidate has what it takes,” it makes a huge difference. The athletic director will read your resume and cover letter carefully, with positive thoughts in the back of his or her mind.

How do you build your network? Start by understanding that every contact you make can reap rewards many years down the road. From your first day as an undergraduate to the day you retire, you will meet athletes, coaches, students, professors, administrators, and fellow athletic training students who will have an impact on you. The volleyball athlete you are rehabbing right now could be an assistant athletic director at a school where you apply to be head athletic trainer five years from now.

Professionally, there are many additional avenues you can pursue to build your network. Every continuing education course you attend and volunteer opportunity you take on is a chance for networking. The most valuable event to attend is the NATA Convention. There is no profession that has more members in its professional organization and most of the members attend the national meeting once every three years. This means you will cross paths with every head athletic trainer in the country at least once every three years. Can you imagine having all those athletic trainers as part of your network? The possibilities are immense.

I have attended every NATA Convention since I graduated from college, and I have been involved in discussion at one time or another with Pinky Newell, Spike Dixon, Otho Davis, and most of the present and past presidents. This does not mean I am a part of their inner network, but I think I could call them to ask about a job they posted.

And there are many athletic trainers I see at the convention that I get to know and trust more and more with each passing year. When a job is posted, I could certainly contact them and ask if they happen to know anyone at the school or have any inside information, which is what can land that initial interview. The network also sometimes provides you with advance notice of jobs, which is becoming more and more important to getting your foot in the door.

It’s just as critical to not have a negative network. There are examples of athletic trainers who, after 20 years of experience, still have job applications derailed by their head athletic trainer from their college years. The old saying “do not burn any bridges” is still very appropriate in this day and age.

On the day they start in our program, I remind every student that the staff and I will someday be writing letters of recommendation for them. What do they want that letter to say? Even if you don’t like your supervisors or professors, you need to work with them. A recommendation, even a mediocre one, is better than a poor one or no recommendation at all.

And if you have made mistakes in the past, try to rectify them. Maybe you were headstrong as a student and got in arguments with professors and staff members. It is a great sign of your maturity to contact them and let them know you have changed. You can even apologize and thank them for their guidance that you now better understand and appreciate.

One last part of networking is finding a great mentor who can help you with your career path by assessing your goals and helping you plan your next steps. Your mentor could be anyone from your current head athletic trainer to a former professor to someone you’ve met through networking. Choose someone who you respect and can talk easily with–you need to be able to take constructive criticism from them.


Once you have positioned yourself well, the last step is landing the open job. That requires being savvy about finding positions, applying, and interviewing.

Where to look: Athletic trainers have a great job assistance program through the NATA Web site. As long as you are a member, you have access to the Career Center. This is where employers list approximately 90 percent of the positions that are open to athletic trainers.

The NCAA and NAIA also post jobs for athletic trainers. You may want to look at individual college and university Web sites, or even just search the Web. Another great strategy is to alert your network that you are interested in a head position. This way they can be listening for possible opportunities for you.

How to apply: To start, always follow the requirements set by the specific job posting. If a school requests two letters of recommendation, be sure to send two.

Take time to make your cover letter specific to the job. The goal is to show the hiring committee that your experiences match the qualifications of the position–not just any head athletic training job, but the one at this school. Do some research to find out about the athletic department and what its needs are, then explain how you can fill those needs.

For example, from postings on its Web site, you might notice that the school hosts many NCAA regional competitions. In your cover letter, explain any experiences you have in this area. Or maybe you see that there was a rash of ACL injuries on the women’s basketball team–do you have experience implementing some of the latest ACL prevention programs? If so, make sure to highlight that.

Should you call the school after sending in your materials? This is appropriate only if you know the person receiving them or someone else at the specific institution. However, it is okay–and recommended–that if someone in your network has a contact at the school, they call and let the contact know you are a great candidate.

If you do not receive a notice in a few weeks stating they have your application, you can call to make sure they have everything they need, but don’t call too frequently. You can politely call every couple of weeks if you do not hear anything.

Interviewing: If you advance to a face-to-face interview, remember that first impressions can be wonderful or deadly. Many years ago, I interviewed a young man three different times on the phone for a position we had at our sports medicine clinic. He was our first choice until he stepped off the airplane. He was wearing a cowboy outfit, with blue jeans and boots, a look way too casual for our clinic. After picking him up at the plane, I took him directly to the clinic to meet our staff. My physicians could not get over that first impression and it cost him the job.

You need to present the best “you” when first meeting professionals. This starts with dressing and acting professionally. I suggest you always wear a suit and tie if male, and a suit, or nice skirt or pants if female. But make sure the outfit looks good on you. If the suit looks sloppy, then try wearing a sport coat and slacks. Be conservative in your style and don’t wear anything distracting, such as a too-short skirt or large medallion necklace. Never wear a shirt with a logo from your present school.

In addition, polish your shoes or buy new ones. Women should never wear heels that would make it difficult to walk across an athletic field or gym floor. When I interview a potential candidate, I notice their shoes first. I want to know if they take care of their possessions. It also tells me how much they want the job. Did they take time to make themselves look the best they could?

Acting professionally means being polite, respectful, and interested. Don’t criticize anything you see and never say anything that might be offensive to anyone you come into contact with during the hiring process. You also need to bring your best manners. I know candidates who did not get jobs because their professional presentation was really weak. You may be taken out to lunch during your interview and this is another area where you will be judged. If you don’t know proper etiquette while eating at a restaurant, there are classes you can take to learn this.

You should also do prep work to be able to answer all questions intelligently. This requires doing some research on the responsibilities of the job at that particular level. For example, if there is drug testing at the school, be prepared to answer questions about overseeing this process. At the NCAA Division I level, there is a lot of paperwork that is critical–know how to answer questions regarding this area.

And be ready to be interviewed by a full committee. At a big-time school, this group will often include an assistant or associate athletic director, the head football coach, and a team physician–at the very least. At smaller schools, the committee will likely include the athletic director, a few coaches, and possibly a faculty member. You may ask the contact at the school exactly who is on the committee, then think ahead about each of their concerns and questions they might ask.

Just as important, throughout all parts of the interview, be yourself. Use the personality you were given and the knowledge you have to acquire the position. If you think you need to change your personality or act a certain way to get a job, then I do not believe the job is worth interviewing for.

Becoming a head athletic trainer often takes time and patience. You need to gain experience and education and build your network. You need to find the right fit for you. But, by doing those things, you are purposely preparing yourself–allowing good things to happen for you.


At Lindenwood University, author Randy Biggerstaff is currently mentoring one of his assistants, Tom Godar, MS, ATC, who serves as Head Football Athletic Trainer and Associate Professor, to become a head athletic trainer. We asked Godar about his game plan for moving up the ladder.

T&C: Why do you want to become a head athletic trainer?

Godar: After developing my skills and confidence as an assistant for nearly 10 years, I have a lot of faith in my ability to contribute at a higher level. I am especially excited to continue working in a small college setting, where I can both teach future athletic trainers and work with motivated student-athletes on a daily basis.

How are you making sure you have the right experiences?

Early in my career, I was given the opportunity to teach classes, volunteer at several state and national events, and assume various administrative roles within the university. I also made sure to get experience with football while in graduate school–with a little luck and some networking, I was hired as the Head Athletic Trainer for an indoor professional football team and then as an athletic training intern with the St. Louis Rams.

As I’ve taken on new challenges, I’ve always understood the importance of being properly prepared, and I’ve tried to learn from every mistake. I never settle for a partial understanding of anything, and I allow my natural curiosity to help me develop. I’ve come to understand the importance of taking advantage of every opportunity to gain a better understanding of all areas within the athletic training profession.

Have you used continuing education to grow? With advancements made on a daily basis in the fields of medicine, exercise science, rehabilitation, and modalities, I know I have to continually expand my current knowledge. I’ve used state, district, and national conventions and seminars to meet with others, discuss current trends, and learn new concepts. How are you learning about the administrative side of becoming a head athletic trainer?

I’ve learned by taking advantage of opportunities, asking questions, and having a strong desire to be involved. I’ve taken on tasks like meeting a prospective student and his or her parents, conducting a thorough inventory, and developing a budget. It’s about stepping up and being willing to accept new roles, tasks, and challenges.

I really appreciate that Randy has also given me opportunities in supervision and delegation of responsibility. It is critical that a good supervisor has the necessary confidence, trust, and personality to assign various tasks to others and ensure the completion of all jobs–and these characteristics can take some time to develop. Through these experiences, I now understand how difficult the role of a supervisor and administrator can be and the importance of keeping the entire staff positively motivated.

Have you gotten involved in outside committees?

I haven’t and this is a future goal of mine. As I’m still working on establishing myself in my current position, it’s been tough to find extra time for outside committees. I hope to do this in the near future.

— Eleanor Frankel

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