Jan 29, 2015
Debra Iwasaki, University of California-Los Angeles

With bachelor’s degrees in psychology and kinesiology from UCLA and a master’s in physical therapy from Boston University, Debra Iwasaki wanted to work in the “real world” upon graduation in 1990. She had enjoyed her work as an athletic training student, but was eager to delve into physical therapy and experience treating a broad range of patients.

With bachelor’s degrees in psychology and kinesiology from UCLA and a master’s in physical therapy from Boston University, Debra Iwasaki wanted to work in the “real world”u pon graduation in 1990. She had enjoyed her work as an athletic training student, but was eager to delve into physical therapy and experience treating a broad range of patients.

After working as a staff physical therapist at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in Inglewood, Calif., for two years, she learned the rigors of being a traveling physical therapist. For three years, Iwasaki moved from one three-month appointment to the next, working with out-patients at an orthopedic clinic, treating in-patients at a pediatric hospital, and developing sports medicine clinics for high school athletes.

In 1997, however, Iwasaki was drawn back to college athletics, taking the job of Assistant Athletic Trainer at the University of California-Irvine, where she covered basketball, crew, soccer, tennis, and water polo. Two years later, after adding a certification in strength and conditioning, Iwasaki returned to her alma mater, UCLA, where she worked with the swimming and diving teams and supervised the rehab of post-operative athletes.

In 2004, she became Associate Head Athletic Trainer and took charge of UCLA’s football program, joining the small group of female athletic trainers working in the high-stress world of NCAA Division I-A football. It’s been the toughest assignment of her career, and in this interview, Iwasaki, MS, ATC, PT, SCS, CSCS, talks about the challenges of covering football, her switch from physical therapy to athletic training, and working with an athlete who has multiple sclerosis.

T&C: In the last few months, you’ve been profiled by the LA Times and NBC News. You’re one of very few female athletic trainers working with a big-time college football team. What’s it like?

Iwasaki: I’m really a behind-the-scenes kind of person, which is why I’m in athletic training. But I like football, and I like treating the injuries associated with the sport. In football, we have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario, so it’s mentally stimulating. The severity and volume of injuries you deal with on a regular basis is a lot higher than in other sports. Also, there’s a high level of stress because the sport gets a lot of media attention. Everybody wants to know who is and isn’t participating each day. I hear a lot of, “Why aren’t they practicing? When are they coming back?” Coaches are also under a lot stress, and that makes the pressures on everybody else a little higher. It’s a challenge.

Is it more exciting than other assignments you’ve had?

It’s a different kind of excitement. I’ve definitely had to learn the ins and outs of the game, because obviously, I’ve never played contact football. But I’ve found players like to talk about themselves and their positions, so if there’s something I don’t know, I just ask them, “What’s preventing you from playing your position right now?” or “What do you need to do before you can play again?” And they’ve been great about sharing their knowledge with me.

What about the physical challenges of working with such big, strong athletes?

I’m only 5’3″, but I can hold my own. I do bag drills with some of the guys on the offensive line, and sometimes they knock me off balance. But I know how much I can handle, and before it gets too hard on me, I have them work with the sleds.

I’ve been short my whole life, so I’ve learned to adjust. If I need to, I can stretch athletes on the floor or on a low table. And the guys are pretty good about understanding that. If I’m doing a treatment on them, right off the bat they’ll ask “big table or small table?”

I know there are other females who have had issues working with male athletes. I’ve been really lucky, because I don’t feel I’m treated any differently as a female athletic trainer. When I first started with the football team, I tended to be tougher on the athletes than my male counterparts, just so I wasn’t looked at as the softie. But now I think I’ve reached a happy medium.

What is that happy medium?

Well, I’m still pretty tough on them. I have high expectations for myself, and I have high expectations for my athletes. I’m also very straight forward. I’ll tell them, “You’re not getting the work done, and I’m not going to sit and argue with you about it. I’ll just let the coaching staff know, and let them deal with it.”

What did you learn from working as a traveling physical therapist?

I learned that there are as many different ways to get an end result as there are doctors. If this doctor did the surgery, then he wants the rehab done this way. And if that doctor did the surgery, he wants the rehab done that way. I’ve seen a lot of different approaches—some conservative, some super-aggressive—and in the long run I’ve learned to be more open-minded about trying new and different techniques.

What prompted your switch from physical therapy to athletic training?

The primary reason I got out was insurance—I didn’t like having to treat patients based on their level of health insurance and not their diagnosis. I felt restricted in what I was able to do for patients, unlike in athletic training, where I can see an athlete twice a day, five days a week if I need to. As an athletic trainer, I decide what kind of treatment I want them to have as opposed to just following the dictates of an insurance company.

How does being a CSCS help in your current job?

I have a better understanding of Olympic lifts and how to cycle lifting routines. That helps me communicate with our strength and conditioning specialists, and gives me a much better appreciation of their work. We can all talk the same language, which allows me to be more effective at communicating to the athletes what they can and can’t do.

What are the most interesting rehabs you’ve done in the last two years?

I had a tight end who dislocated his hip in a motorcycle accident. It was a long haul, and he ended up having to go through additional surgeries. There were a lot of unknowns, which was definitely challenging, and unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to get back to where he was prior to the injury.

Right now, I have a defensive end with multiple sclerosis who’s trying to decide if he’s going to return to play. It’s been a more difficult comeback than he anticipated, and there’s a lot of uncertainty about how quickly the disease will progress. When he first came to UCLA, he’d been thinking about a career in the pros, but it’s no longer clear whether he’s going to able to continue with the sport, even in college.

How did you know what kind of approach to take with him?

I read what I could, but there’s not a lot of research on athletes with MS—especially high-level athletes. So I went to his neurologist appointments with him, where I learned a lot about the disease. We’re so privileged to have the UCLA Medical Center here, where we can refer athletes on a regular basis. Our team physicians are all on staff at the medical center, and when we go with an athlete to a doctor’s appointment, we’re encouraged to ask a lot of questions.

What’s it like to work at a school with 99 NCAA championships in its trophy case?

It’s a great atmosphere here. When one team is down, there are so many other teams that are up. I can recall one year in the recent past when we went without a national championship. We had two teams that came in second, but that wasn’t good enough because the standards are set so high. Athletes here are really good about supporting each other, which helps with both injuries and wins.

Do you think about becoming a head athletic trainer someday?

No, I’m not very good with the politics that are involved. I’m a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of person. I know what my strengths and weaknesses are, and I don’t think I would be an effective head athletic trainer. Having more administrative responsibilities with football has been a little challenging for me because I’m used to being the worker bee.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

I’m a very hard worker, I’m very dedicated, and I’m very passionate about what I do. I like to teach, I like to educate, and I feel that carries over, whether I’m educating coaches, athletes, or parents about what and why we do something. Weaknesses? I’m definitely a workaholic, which helps in this profession, but also makes it difficult to have the right work-life balance.

How do you juggle work and your personal life?

I’m still learning. I know that if I don’t make the time for my personal life, my professional life suffers. I have a good support network of family and friends who understand that when football season rolls around I’m pretty tough to get in touch with. But during the off-season I really try to make up for the lost time with them.

What have you learned about being a boss?

I’ve found I definitely need input from my staff, and that it’s important to build a team approach, not a because-I-said-so approach. Both of my full-time staff members have had experience in the NFL, and they provide valuable input into everything we do.

What are the keys to working with college athletes?

I like educating our athletes, because if people have a better understanding of why we’re asking them to do something, they’re going to be more compliant and heal more quickly. While I have them hooked up to electrical stim for 20 minutes, I can take the time to explain why it’s really important to not overdo their workouts: “I know you can tolerate this pain, but it’s really important that you don’t. If something is supposed to feel a little painful, I’ll let you know.”

What are your goals for the future?

I’m not really sure. This is only my second year in the lead football role. I definitely like what I’m doing, but it is a difficult job with a high stress level. Someday I’d like to work for myself, but I’m not sure when that will be or what exactly I’ll be doing. There are always more skills I can acquire, and I like taking continuing education courses in the offseason.

I juggle a lot in this job, and I’d like to be more efficient in handling 50 things at once. I’d like to learn how to run a smooth ship—although I’m not sure one really exists in Division I-A athletic training!

PROFILE: Debra Iwasaki

  • Associate Head Athletic Trainer, UCLA
  • BA/BS, UCLA, 1990
  • MA, Boston University, 1992
  • Previous Positions:
  • Staff Physical Therapist, Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic, 1993-94

    Staff Physical Therapist, TherAmerica, 1994-97

    Assistant Athletic Trainer, University of California-Irvine, 1997-99

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