Apr 1, 2015
Catching Up with Joe Gieck

The following article appears in the March 2015 issue of Training & Conditioning.

When Training & Conditioning began constructing its inaugural issue back in 1990, one of our first calls was to Joe Gieck, EdD, PT, ATC, then the Head Athletic Trainer at the University of Virginia. The future NATA Hall of Famer agreed to co-author our very first cover story, titled “Teaming Up,” on how to foster partnerships between a school’s athletic training and strength and conditioning staffs. The article was well-received, and with it, T&C was off and running.

To celebrate our 25th anniversary this year, we will be catching up with the voices that helped shape our editorial in our rookie years. Naturally, one of our first calls was again to Joe Gieck.

Not only did Gieck lend an air of authority to T&C’s first issue, he continued to be a go-to expert for us on a variety of topics. He offered advice about starting rehab support groups for an article titled “Down & Out,” provided his take on ethical issues in “The Right Route?” and put forth some final words of wisdom in “Ready to Retire.”

Gieck, who became Virginia’s Director of Sports Medicine in 1998 and retired in 2005 after 43 years at the school, is now still very busy helping athletes and nonathletes, as well as his community. Continuing to live in Charlottesville, Va., he works part-time as a physical therapist, is active on his farm, volunteers for many nonprofit groups, and is enjoying family and travel. In the following, he talks about his work with senior citizens, reflects on the articles he’s written and contributed to, and shares his thoughts on how the world of athletic training and strength and conditioning has evolved since typing (and it was on a typewriter back then) what would become some of our magazine’s first words.

Why did you agree to write that first article for us back in 1990?

I felt our profession needed a louder voice. When I first became an athletic trainer, there was nothing written about us. At one point, I had the title of every sports medicine article that had ever been written in a little 3×5 notebook–and it filled about four pages. So I decided to do my part and started writing for publications like T&C.

Since you co-authored “Teaming Up,” how has the relationship between athletic trainers and strength coaches evolved?

It’s gotten even stronger, and there isn’t much space between the two–it’s become more of a hand-in-glove relationship. For example, take the Virginia men’s basketball strength and conditioning coach, who is one of my former athletic training students. What he brings in terms of scientific knowledge is impressive. He’s not just having guys lift weights–he has a science-based plan for every routine. And the basketball coaches are really listening to him because of that. It’s been very rewarding for me to witness the evolution.

What have been the largest changes since you entered the profession?

When I was coming up, you had one athletic trainer for the entire athletic department. Now, in NCAA Division I at least, you have an athletic trainer for every sport. That creates a scenario where the athletic trainer is in essence reporting to the coach. I believe all athletic trainers should report to a student health organization, which is responsible for hiring and firing. When you have highly paid coaches with a lot of power controlling athletic trainers, it can create a conflict of interest.

In 2005, when we interviewed you about dealing with ethical quandaries, you talked about the importance of being tactful and nonconfrontational when communicating with coaches. Do you think that is still the best approach?

I do. Athletic trainers really deal more with people than injuries, which is why I ended up getting my doctorate in counselor education. I used to tell my students to connect and get involved with a coach before even beginning to talk about injuries. I told them to ask the coach about how their family is doing and what’s going on in their lives instead of just showing up at a meeting as Dr. Doom with the injury report.

Our magazine also quoted you about preparing for retirement. Now 10 years into your own, what have you learned?

I see so many people who retire and have nothing to do afterward, which is a recipe for unhappiness. For retirement to be rewarding, I think you have to have something to retire to. As you get on in your career, you need to start looking down the road and assessing what you enjoy doing and what goals you want to accomplish. Then, you have to start putting a plan together to get there. You don’t want to retire and say, “Now what?”

So what are you up to now?

For starters, I’m working as a physical therapist three-and-a-half days a week at a clinic here in Charlottesville. I see everybody from Little Leaguers to professional athletes and plenty of nonathletes. Our clinic also has a grant to provide substance abuse education to NCAA schools.

Away from the clinic, my wife and I have a farm that I enjoy working on. I also manage a few real estate projects and volunteer with six nonprofit organizations around town. And we travel to visit family quite a bit.

One place we go to is a house I built in Montana after I retired. It’s located outside Yellowstone National Park, and my wife and I are there every July and August. We get a lot of visitors–last year 35 friends and family members came out to stay with us. It’s fun to show them how beautiful that part of the country is.

Why did you decide to keep working as a physical therapist?

I really wanted to keep my hands in the profession, yet not be consumed by it, and this situation is a good balance. It’s been great–there are a lot of patients who have been coming to us for years for various injuries, and the confidence they have in us is very satisfying. I had one patient tell me his cardiologist wanted to put a pacemaker in. He then looked at me, a physical therapist, and asked if I thought it was okay. I laughed and told him, “Yes, if the doctor thinks it’s a good idea, you should probably do it.” That example is a little extreme, but it’s nice to know that your opinion is so valued.

You’ve also kept busy volunteering with nonprofit organizations. What is that work like?

I’m on the board of directors for a variety of groups, including the Community Foundation here in Charlottesville, a local senior center, the Virginia High School League, the Virginia Amateur Sports Board, the Center for Nonprofit Excellence, and the Charlottesville Police Foundation. For most of us in athletic training, our work has always been about helping others, and for me, it was natural to take that mindset and apply it to nonprofits.

My work with the local senior center has become very important to me. I’m trying to get those folks committed to staying healthy and active for as long as they can. When you get to be in your 70s and 80s, if you lose your independence, you lose everything.

Overall, it’s all about giving back to the community I live in. Charlottesville has given me so much that I would feel guilty not reciprocating.

How did your career as an athletic trainer prepare you to serve on a nonprofit board?

In a lot of ways, it’s just like working with coaches. You need to have a good relationship with coaches so they respect and know you as a person before you can really have an impact. When serving on a board, other board members need to know you’re concerned about the organization, and not just interested in having your opinion heard.

In the T&C article on retirement, you mentioned the importance of reassessing goals every year after retiring. Do you still do that?

I do. I’ll sit down at the end of every calendar year and think about what I want to accomplish in the upcoming 12 months. For example, each year I have a goal to build and sell a couple of houses, which is a process I really enjoy watching come to fruition. I also think about the people in my life and develop goals that relate to my time with them.

What do you see as the biggest issue facing athletic training?

One of the largest problems I continue to see is people in the profession not pushing the media to use the term “athletic trainer” instead of just “trainer.” You see it in articles and hear it on TV broadcasts all the time. There are some athletic trainers who are happy to just have the attention and don’t care when we aren’t given the proper respect that comes with the title–and that needs to change. Step up and identify yourself as an athletic trainer. Have some pride in the profession. Being a trainer is an occupation. Being an athletic trainer is a profession, and that’s how we all should be identified.

What are you most proud of in your time as an athletic trainer?

The creation of the certification program and all of the continuing education opportunities that now exist. Also, when you look at the academic journals now, you see that athletic trainers are doing a lot of research, and that’s huge.


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