Oct 10, 2016
Changing Course-Part 1
Timothy Neal

There are various laws of nature that affect every person — the law of gravity is a simple example that we all understand. Another is the law of impermanence. It states that nothing in life is permanent — whether good or bad. All things in life evolve from one state to another, which can include relationships and jobs. What should the athletic training professional consider when planning their career given the law of impermanence? I’ve had several stops in my nearly 40-year athletic training career, so I have a number of suggestions for athletic trainers thinking of trying out a new professional path.

My first career change came as a teenager when I first decided to pursue athletic training. Many athletic trainers get into the profession after suffering a sports-related injury, but I was turned on to sports medicine as a result of watching baseball on television. Growing up in Ohio during the 1970s, I would always watch the Cincinnati Reds. During the games, I kept noticing the athletic trainer who provided health care to the players when they were injured. I was impressed with his confident and cool demeanor when dealing with the numerous superstars the Reds had at the time. Once when I went to a Reds game as a teenager, I got a team yearbook and immediately looked up the name of the athletic trainer — Larry Starr, EdD, LAT, ATC, CSCS.

Hooked on athletic training, I was determined to attend the college that Dr. Starr graduated from: Ohio University. I was fortunate to be selected for Ohio’s athletic training education program in September 1975 and graduated four years later.

This first career change of choosing my life’s work demonstrated my commitment to athletic training. This is a good tip for anyone making a career decision: Be fully invested into the profession and build upon that commitment. I wanted to use my growing intellect, curiosity, work ethic, and attention to detail to learn how to provide health care to athletes at an expert level. My first career choice of selecting athletic training as my profession is the cornerstone of my career.

At Ohio, I met my first mentor Ken Wright, DA, ATC. An Assistant Athletic Trainer at the time, Dr. Wright provided direct and honest feedback, insights, experience, encouragement, and high expectations in performance and outcomes. Sometimes the feedback wasn’t easy to listen to, but it was honest and helpful. This is key for any young athletic trainer building their career: Find a mentor who will provide you with not only information and encouragement, but also straight talk. I still speak regularly with Dr. Wright and highly value his insights and friendship.

As a senior at Ohio, I was accepted for graduate school at the University of Virginia. I was thinking that after completing my master’s degree, I would go immediately into a terminal degree program and then go into teaching. However, Dr. Wright knew my long-term goals and reminded me that I could always go into an educational program. To maximize my value as a professor down the road, he said it was important to gain high levels of clinical experience first. Dr. Wright convinced me instead to attend Syracuse University as a graduate assistant athletic trainer working for Don Lowe, MA, ATC, who was the Coordinator of Sports Medicine at the time. This was the second career change for me and a valuable learning lesson that I pass on to others: Your post-graduation position should provide you the opportunity to be further mentored and gain experience as a certified athletic trainer.

It was during my second year at Syracuse when my third big career opportunity presented itself. When an opening on the sports medicine staff occurred, Don asked me to remain on as an Assistant Athletic Trainer. This was key in the sense that even though I was becoming a full-time staff athletic trainer, I knew I needed more mentorship and opportunities to expand my growing body of knowledge and experience to eventually become an expert in the field. I eagerly accepted Don’s offer and continued to prepare myself both clinically and administratively under his tutelage. Don is known for his rigorous and exacting expectations of himself and his staff. I shared in his approach of bringing my “A game” each and every day, and I have learned an immeasurable amount from his mentorship.

Less than three years later after becoming the Assistant Athletic Trainer, the Associate Athletic Trainer at Syracuse left to become a Head Athletic Trainer in the United States Football League. Don asked me to fill the position, which I did for the next 16 years. Although this period was very busy, I gained invaluable experience clinically. I cared for thousands of injuries and numerous medical emergencies, as well as performing or supervising the rehabilitation progress of hundreds of student-athletes’ long-term injuries and post-surgical care. Administratively, those years working closely with Don on a daily basis provided me insights and opportunities regarding the inner workings of sports medicine department policies and procedures, risk management, and staff enhancement.

This fourth career change assisted me in my preparation to eventually become a Head Athletic Trainer. Each career change should set up the next evolution in your career because all job positions have a shelf life.

In 2000, my fifth career change occurred when Don left Syracuse for Georgia Tech, and I was selected as his successor. From 2000 to 2014, I was the Head Athletic Trainer/Assistant Director of Sports Medicine at Syracuse. I was able to grow the size of the full-time and graduate assistant staffs, oversee several new athletic training room constructions, and help the full-time athletic training staff gain numerous certificates of advanced qualifications, such as ART, CES, PES, SASTM, and CPR/AED instructors. I also helped increase the number of team physicians, added chiropractic care, and developed nearly two dozen new policies and procedures that enhanced the safety and wellness of Syracuse student-athletes, while minimizing risk to the institution. Like the other changes in my career, I was prepared for this position and committed myself to leaving it in better shape than I found it, which was a tall order following a NATA Hall of Fame member like Don Lowe. More importantly, as Associate Athletic Trainer and Head Athletic Trainer, I helped others in their career changes just as Dr. Wright and Don did for me.

Check back next week for part 2 of “Changing Course.”

Timothy Neal, MS, ATC, is Clinical Education Coordinator of the Athletic Training Education Program at Concordia University Ann Arbor and President of TLN Consulting. He has more than 35 years of experience as an athletic trainer at the NCAA Division I level. Neal can be reached at: [email protected].

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