Oct 20, 2015
Catching Up with Mike Sims

For two decades, Training & Conditioning has been offering Comeback Athlete profiles to readers, detailing unique and hard-fought rehabs. The very first one appeared in our August 1995 issue and told the story of Baylor University football nose guard Steve Strahan, who overcame personal heartache and an ACL tear during his senior season to realize his dream of being drafted into the NFL. Helping Strahan complete his return to the field was Mike Sims, LAT, ATC, then the Head Athletic Trainer at Baylor.

In the article, Sims spoke of Strahan’s unrelenting resolve and remarkable rehab dedication-a situation made even more difficult due to the death of his two-day-old daughter after she was born premature just months before his injury. Strahan fought through his mourning by focusing on his recovery, and despite missing seven games of his senior season, signed a three-year contract with the Carolina Panthers.

As part of our 25th Anniversary celebration series, T&C recently caught up with Sims, who is now Baylor’s Associate Director of Athletic Training. In his 38th year at the school, he shares his thoughts on how the profession has changed over the past quarter-century, working with today’s athletes, and the challenges of making return-to-play decisions.

Do you remember Steve Strahan and his comeback?

I don’t recall all the specifics of his case, but I could never forget what he had to go through to get back on the field, especially the tragic death of his child. Those types of stories have a way of staying with you.

How has your department’s approach to rehab changed since that time?

Nowadays, our athletic trainers don’t do many long-term rehabs. We have a physical therapist on staff who has taken over that responsibility. Adding that position has allowed the athletic trainers to focus on the athletes who are on the field-assessing and managing their injuries. And the person in charge of rehab is with the athletes from start to return to play, so they really get to know what makes them tick. That can provide better insight into motivating them through what can be a tough time.

As director, what is your day-to-day like?

I spend about 70 percent of my day covering football, which keeps me very busy. The other 30 percent is spent performing administrative tasks that affect the entire athletic training department.

How does working with athletes today differ from 25 years ago?

We’re finding more and more overuse problems because athletes are training year round. When I started, our football players would finish up the fall semester, and we wouldn’t see them until preseason practice the following August. Now, they’re here working out all winter and spring and staying on campus throughout the summer. This constant pounding has led to a big uptick in overuse injuries.

How do you counteract these overuse injuries?

We’ll limit athletes’ activity and do a lot of cold water immersion to deal with aches and pains. Basically, we try to catch the injuries before they become chronic. To do that, we watch our athletes very closely and spend a lot of time talking with them about how they are feeling.

What are the keys to connecting with today’s athletes?

We try to know them on a personal level. If certain athletes mention they have a problem, I know it’s pretty serious because otherwise they wouldn’t say a word. But I have other athletes who come to me whenever they get bruised or have slight discomfort, so I know not to overreact when they tell me something hurts.

We also ask what’s going on in their lives off the field. If an athlete just had an argument with his girlfriend, that’s going to affect how he reacts to a sprained ankle. The same goes for the athlete who is dropped from first team to second team or has failed a big exam. Knowing all of those outside factors helps me take a big-picture approach when assessing an athlete.

In addition, I let players become comfortable with my personality. They have to be able to trust my judgment, even if they don’t agree with my decision.

What are the biggest challenges faced by today’s athletic trainers?

Keeping medical information confidential is a big problem. Social media makes it difficult to control the flow of information pertaining to injuries. I’m constantly telling players not to talk about their injuries or their teammates’ injuries on social media, and I don’t allow them to take photos in the athletic training room.

Concussions, though, are probably the biggest challenge we deal with-especially in football. The development of department-wide concussion protocols is helpful in that it establishes objective criteria for our return-to-play decisions, which makes it harder for anyone to challenge us.

How do you deal with pressure on return-to-play decisions?

It’s tough because we are so connected to the athletes and teams. We want them to do well, and we cheer them on as fans would. But if something happens, I’ve learned to quickly switch hats-stop being a fan and make sound medical judgments. There are so many people pulling you in different directions-you have an athlete in pain, the coach hollering for him to get back in the game, his father telling him to get tough, and his mother saying, “Don’t let my baby get hurt again.” You have to separate yourself from all that and make your decisions based on what’s best for the athlete in the long run.

What’s your approach to getting on the same page with new coaches?

I work hard to get to know them and build trust-and in a lot of cases, that just takes time. Once they realize we have the same goals-to take care of the athletes and win games-they are in my corner.

The first time I sit down with a new coach, I talk about the unique personalities of the athletes and explain our sports medicine system. I tell them I’m always open to suggestions and new ideas, and we go from there. Each coach is different in how they want information delivered or certain situations handled. I will adapt my style a bit to accommodate them, but I never change my judgment and principles.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

It’s when an athlete like Steve Strahan works hard to overcome an injury and gets back on the field. Most people-including the athlete’s teammates-had no idea how much time and effort it took him to come back. The other players didn’t see him rehabbing early in the morning or late at night like I did.

With that being said, it can also be stressful-when they first get back out there, I’m probably as nervous as their mothers. But knowing how much they’ve been through to get to that point makes it very fulfilling.

What have been the toughest moments for you?

In our profession, winning is always a big deal, and it can be difficult to watch teams go through down seasons, especially knowing how hard they work. But career-ending injuries are the hardest part. A lot of players come here with NFL dreams, and having to tell them their career is over because of an injury is tough.

How do you approach those conversations?

I start by explaining the injury and why the athlete can’t participate in athletics anymore with that specific type of medical problem. I’m very big on laying out all the facts for the athletes so they can see for themselves what the barrier is.

What do you look for when hiring new assistant athletic trainers?

I try to assess their personality. I can teach people what I want them to know, but I can’t change their attitude and work ethic. I look for highly motivated people who want to be part of a team. If someone is a clock-watcher and is only worried about their stated duties, they’re not going to cut it in our program.

What is your impression of the current generation of athletic trainers entering the field?

They are more knowledgeable than any generation before them, but most lack practical experience when they start working. It’s tough because we can’t turn them loose when they’re in college and let them work with athletes like we used to. There always has to be someone looking over their shoulder. Then when they get their license, it’s the first time they’re practicing without oversight.

How do you coach up a new athletic trainer on your staff who comes in without practical experience?

We pair them with another staff member who serves as a mentor-a go-to person if they have any problems or need input on dealing with specific injuries. I also go through different scenarios they are likely to see when covering a team and talk about ways they should respond. And I tell them that it’s okay to sometimes say, “I don’t know, but I’ll go find out.” I would rather that happen than have an athletic trainer make an uninformed guess and have it turn out to be wrong.

What has kept you at Baylor for almost 40 years?

Baylor is home. My wife and I went to school here, as did both our children. I’ve stayed because of the culture of the school and the friendly nature of everybody who works here. It’s a smaller school atmosphere, and I really enjoy that. I think too many times, people get caught up in climbing the career ladder and don’t appreciate what’s great about where they are.

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