Jan 29, 2015
Class & Clinic

How do you balance the needs of a curriculum program and an athletic training department? Slippery Rock University has blended the two groups into one.

By Bonnie Siple & Scott Zema Bonnie Siple, MS, ATC, is Coordinator of the Athletic Training Education Program and Athletic Trainer for women’s lacrosse, and Scott Zema, MEd, ATC, is Coordinator of Clinical Education and Athletic Trainer for football at Slippery Rock University. They can be reached at: www.sru.edu/ers.

For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health… Here at Slippery Rock University, we sometimes joke that athletic trainers should take vows before joining our staff.

Why? Because all five of us are committed to working together toward a lofty goal that takes a lot of dedication. Our mission is to educate future certified athletic trainers within accreditation standards and also provide medical coverage for an NCAA Division II athletic department. And we do this not by splitting tasks between medical coverage and teaching, but rather by blending them together.

Many colleges and universities have separate athletic training education programs and athletic training departments. What we are attempting at SRU is to make the two programs one, without adding staff&#151or needing marriage counseling!

Although this structure may take more communication, we are finding it benefits our students in a huge way. Our student-athletes receive medical care from an experienced staff and our athletic training students gain a broader educational experience.


Years ago, we employed a more traditional system. Two athletic training faculty members were housed in an academic department. One taught and serviced a team, while the other taught and served as program director of our athletic training education program (ATEP). Two other athletic trainers were housed under athletics and serviced the athletic department only, with no teaching responsibilities.

Like so many other colleges and universities, we dealt with the usual conflicts that arise between two sets of people who have differing responsibilities and goals. The shared desire to educate future athletic training professionals, as noble as it is, was not a sufficient glue to hold us together in the face of any disagreements that came up. As a result, the faculty and staff did not enjoy the healthiest of working relationships. Secondary to that, although our ATEP students were successful, they did not enjoy the level of benefits they should have had from us.

To resolve these conflicts, the administration created the opportunity for us to shift the paradigm of our program structure. Essentially, they took us off opposing teams and placed us on the same team: All athletic trainers became housed under the academic department responsible for our ATEP.

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education helped with this endeavor by allowing all athletic trainers to fall under the umbrella of the faculty union. We all became faculty members housed within an academic department and under the guidance of a department chair.

Additionally, we discarded the traditional terms “Head Athletic Trainer” and “Assistant Athletic Trainer.” No one individual was placed in a position of authority over another, thus leveling the playing field and forcing us to work collectively through our differences.

Instead of adhering to specific titles, each of us assumed a role and set of responsibilities necessary for successfully implementing an accredited ATEP and servicing our athletics programs. One of us serves as ATEP coordinator, another as athletic training services coordinator, a third as medical services coordinator, and another as clinical education coordinator. The fifth person assists in coordinating the ATEP program. But all of us are responsible for coverage of one or more athletic teams, all of us teach classes, and all of us supervise athletic training students as Approved Clinical Instructors (ACIs).

The difference between our structure and a traditional one may seem subtle, but how it plays out is not. It allows us to be united by the same goals of educating and providing healthcare, which leads to a different type of camaraderie on the sidelines and in the classroom. We all get to mentor our students in the classroom and clinical settings. And we all get to model appropriate behaviors and professional attributes. The educational goals then become clearer to our students, allowing them a deeper learning experience.


In this structure, teamwork is paramount to our success. Relationships take work, and ours are no exception. Many of the ideas we now use to build teamwork were learned from mistakes we made along the way, especially with regard to communication.

Breakdown in communication results in the breakdown of our team, so we have set up systems to communicate both quantitatively and qualitatively. First, we make communicating a priority. All athletic trainers meet formally each week to discuss academic and athletic issues. We also communicate one-on-one almost daily in the athletic training facilities during sport coverage. And we don’t hesitate to pick up our cell phones, text message, or send an e-mail any time we have information to pass on or a question to ask.

Just having the opportunity to talk with each other is not sufficient to create successful communication, however. Next, we work at having quality communication. For example, something as simple as calling for agenda items from each member of the team before weekly meetings, preparing an agenda, and then providing that agenda to each other ahead of time is extremely helpful in facilitating effective exchanges in our meetings. Although the coordinator of the ATEP runs these meetings, everyone works at making them an effective and efficient use of our time.

We also work hard on communicating with those outside of our athletic training team. All athletic trainers attend departmental faculty meetings and college meetings in order to remain vested as faculty members within the department and the college. Additionally, the athletic training services coordinator attends all athletics department meetings and communicates with the athletic director as needed, relaying that information to the rest of us.

Along with focusing on communication, we have enhanced our teamwork by talking about our roles and working relationships. For example, we have spent time as a group talking about the book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, by Jim Collins. He compares an organization to a bus. You must put the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and everyone in agreement about the destination and the route you will follow to get there. That analogy has been a great outline in guiding our employment process and program assessment.

Another valuable philosophy for us was found in the book, Soar with Your Strengths, by Donald Clifton and Paula Nelson. Their philosophy is to build on each person’s strengths in your organization to arm and empower them to be successful. The wrong people in the wrong place doing the wrong things will not allow for a successful outcome. Even the right people in the right place doing the wrong thing makes success difficult to achieve.

To help us put the right people in the right place doing the right things, we have sometimes brought in a facilitator. This person administers the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory on each of us and then discusses with us the different ways we interact with each other based on our personality type.

For example, because one of us has an interest in educational leadership and administration, this person serves as director of the ATEP. Because another person enjoys working with physicians and the health center (and has extensive experience in it), she has assumed the role of medical coordinator.

When time and budget allow, we also try to employ team building projects. Our campus sponsors a leadership training program that includes outdoor adventure activities combined with teamwork exercises, which has helped us to grow as a group.


How does working on our relationships as athletic trainers benefit our students? Because we have the right people in the right seats on the bus, and because we know our destination and route, we are more successful in getting to that destination. Ultimately, our ATEP students are passengers on the bus with us, learning to become excellent athletic trainers themselves while we care for our student-athletes.

A common thread of conversation during our athletic training faculty meetings revolves around the students, whether it be the general athletic training student population, the student-athletes, or one or two individuals who have inspired our focus. Student concerns (or successes) do not warrant only the attention of the program coordinator or that of the supervising ACIs&#151they warrant the attention of all the athletic trainers. By discussing these issues, everyone is on the same page on how to work with a student, tackle a specific problem, or emphasize a new idea. This helps us increase the quality of our interactions with students and student-athletes.

Since our program does not distinguish between the traditional faculty and staff roles, SRU students have the unique opportunity to learn from the same faculty in both the classroom and clinical settings. This fosters a relationship between the student and athletic trainer that allows for the acculturation of the student into the profession. Additionally, it increases consistency between what is taught in the classroom and what is practiced in the clinical setting.

We also think it’s advantageous for our athletic training students to see how their professors are able to meet the needs of both departments. It ingrains in our students a sense of importance for both their book learning and clinical skills. They can also directly observe that we practice what we preach.

When it comes to gaining respect from coaches and athletic administrators, we’ve found it’s helped a lot that we are all faculty members. Athletic department staff appreciate the fact that we work within an accredited ATEP responsible for educating future certified athletic trainers. And they can also see that we are advocates for their teams and caring for their athletes every day. They recognize that our dual roles as teachers and practitioners do not come at the cost of the healthcare we deliver to their student-athletes.

As our students start to look for jobs, our dual roles again assist them. It is to our students’ advantage that prospective employers receive recommendations from individuals who know the students very well. As faculty, we can address the students’ success in the classroom. As staff athletic trainers, we can address the students’ critical thinking, clinical skills, ability to react to any situation, and work ethic.


Overall, we have eliminated the black and white to operate in the gray. Yes, we still have our conflicts and failures. We struggle with how to maintain our accreditation and academic integrity, and how to achieve tenure and promotion, without sacrificing the quality of healthcare we deliver to our athletes. However, those challenges belong equally to all of us, thus we must resolve them equally among us.

Just as important, our successes are celebrated together. When our students pass the Board of Certification (BOC) exam on the first attempt, we all celebrate. When one of our teams wins the conference championship, we all celebrate.

At the end of the ATEP students’ ride with us, we hope they are prepared to pass the BOC examination with ease. More importantly, we hope they are prepared to competently, ethically, and professionally practice as certified athletic trainers. We feel that the blending of our roles allows them the greatest chance for success as they begin their careers, and as they continue them in the future.

Sidebar: Conflicts with Coaches

When considering a structure where athletic trainers are not housed in the athletic department, an obvious question is, “How do you handle conflicts with the coaches?” This is probably one of our most consistent unresolved issues.

We rarely experience conflicts with our more tenured coaches. They understand the athletic trainer’s role and tend to handle their concerns directly with whomever covers their sport. But we do sometimes run into problems with newer coaches. They have a tendency to play athletic trainer roulette when they don’t like the way their assigned athletic trainer is responding to them.

In response, we are working hard to educate new coaches about how we work. We are taking the time to explain the athletic trainer’s role in general and how we work at SRU specifically.

We are also addressing any coaching complaints as a team. If approached by a coach with a concern that involves another athletic trainer, we refer the coach back to his or her assigned athletic trainer for resolution of the conflict. If that doesn’t work, the coach is welcome to address his or her concerns with the athletic trainer responsible for coordinating athletic training services.

It is always our goal to resolve conflicts with coaches at the lowest level and not involve the athletic director, our department chair, or especially our dean. As conflicts remain unresolved, we work our way up the chain of command until the conflict is resolved. Fortunately, that happens very rarely.

Another strategy we are using is the development of a new policy and procedure manual for coaches. We have followed a manual for many years within the guidelines of our ATEP and university health center. However, those policies have not traditionally included the athletic department with any great detail. We are now in the writing stages of preparing a separate policy and procedure manual for the coaches, athletic department staff, and athletes to improve our relationship with them and create less opportunity for misinformation.

Additionally, we attempt to participate in team building activities with the athletic department. For example, at the end of each academic year, the athletic department has a two-day retreat, which they include us in.

Finally, the athletic director and our department chair meet annually to review and evaluate the “state of the union” between our two departments. Ultimately, communication is as critical to our relationship with the coaches and athletic administration as it is within our academic department.

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