Jan 29, 2015
From ATC to AD

More and more athletic trainers are taking the leadership, communication, and managerial skills they’ve developed in the field and applying them to athletic administration. The people in this article did, and they explain how you can, too.

By Kenny Berkowitz

Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: [email protected]

Not too long ago, it was virtually unheard of for athletic trainers to move into the ranks of athletic administration. But as the athletic training profession continues to evolve, so do career opportunities. Today, it’s not uncommon to find high school athletic directors who began their careers as athletic trainers, and though fewer examples exist in collegiate athletics, that’s beginning to change, too.

For some, like Jeff Cassella, MS, ATC, Athletic Director at Mentor (Ohio) High School, the door to athletic administration opened suddenly, when the previous athletic director retired. For others, like Stevie Baker-Watson, MS, LAT, ATC, Assistant Athletic Director and Senior Woman Administrator at North Central College, landing a job in athletic administration was a career objective years in the making.

Many of the necessary skills are already part of every athletic trainer’s toolbox. “As athletic trainers, we’re constantly thinking ahead, planning for upcoming events, and looking at the big picture,” says Cassella. “We’re always multitasking and communicating with a wide range of student-athletes, parents, coaches, administrators, and community members. Those organizational and people skills translate very well to work as an athletic director.”

To build on that foundation, athletic trainers can attend administration workshops, create a network of mentors, and learn from colleagues and supervisors. And like most major changes, the process of shifting your career begins by asking the right questions.

“First, you have to look at your journey as an athletic trainer,” says Cassella. “Are your greatest strengths in rehabilitation and getting student-athletes back onto the field? Or are they in dealing with people and managing day-to-day operations? Which parts of athletic training excite you most? And if you really want to move into administration, are you ready to walk away from athletic training?”

NEW CHALLENGES

In the summer of 2007, as Chris Warden, ATC, was about to begin his seventh year as Athletic Trainer and Athletic Training Instructor at Ohlone College, his athletic director retired. A vice president asked Warden to consider the position, and after taking a week to weigh the pros and cons with his family, he decided to apply.

“I’m all about new challenges,” says Warden. “Like everyone else in this profession, I entered athletic training to help people. But even as an undergrad, I thought about getting a doctorate and going into curriculum development, program management, or athletic administration. I saw this as a chance to grow, extend myself, and help people in a very different way.”

For Warden, there were too many plusses to pass up. Along with new challenges, the position would mean an increase in salary, greater flexibility in hours, and more time with his two-year-old son. But before landing the job, he needed to convince administrators that a background in sports medicine was an asset, not a disadvantage.

“Some people assumed that as an athletic trainer, I would know a lot about sports medicine but hardly anything about coaching,” he says. “I had to help them realize that athletic trainers know the coaches in every sport on campus. The people who originally thought my focus might be too narrow learned that athletic trainers have a much wider perspective because we work so closely with everyone.”

Even before he was hired, Warden made sure to enlist the support of administrators around him, including the previous athletic director and the vice president responsible for overseeing the athletic department, who committed to meet with Warden weekly during his first year on the job. “From the outset, I was confident I had the communication and management skills to do the job well,” he says. “But I also knew I didn’t have much experience looking at student enrollment and crunching the numbers. There’s no class called Athletic Directing 101, so I made sure my vice president was willing to train me on the job.

“Having a boss who’s also willing to be a mentor has been a huge advantage,” he continues. “He’s been my sounding board since day one.”

At the start, Warden had a dual appointment as Athletic Director and Curriculum Chair for the Athletic Training Education Program, with equal responsibility for each. A year later, he stepped down as chair to focus full-time on managing athletics, physical education, and kinesiology. Now in his third semester, he’s grown more proficient in the areas he was worried about, like creating budgets, organizing schedules, and setting department priorities.

The job has come with some surprises, too. Warden is struck by the amount of time he spends on personnel issues, the challenge of responding to copious amounts of e-mail, the struggles of getting 13 varsity programs to share a single gym, and the variety of questions he’s called upon to answer in a single day.

“All day long, people come to my office looking for answers–from students who were dropped by their teams to coaches who need new equipment,” he says. “It’s all part of being a middleman between the coaches I supervise and the administrators who supervise me. Having patience is the first key to doing this job well, and the second is empowering all those people to make decisions on their own. I want to help people solve problems for themselves.”

Warden’s greatest concern–that he would have difficulty transitioning from peer to supervisor–has turned out to be a non-issue, and he’s now convinced he made the right decision. “I’ve had some tough moments, but I haven’t regretted the move for one day,” he says. “I needed a new challenge, and I found it.”

BLAZING A TRAIL

Since arriving at the University of Texas-Arlington in 1981, Pete Carlon, MSEd, ATC, has filled several roles, including Head Athletic Trainer, Associate Athletic Director, Director of Sports Medicine, and since 1996, Athletic Director. A member of the NATA Hall of Fame, he has served on the NATA Board of Directors, the Southland Conference Executive Committee, and the NCAA Division I-AAA Athletic Directors Association Executive Committee.

Carlon didn’t just learn about the path from athletic trainer to athletic director–he helped pioneer it. “I was one of the first, if not the first, to move from a certified athletic trainer position to an athletic administrator position,” he says. “When I started here, I was the only athletic trainer on staff, and I never dreamed of ending up in this role. It’s only because my institution started moving me into administration that I’ve spent the last 13 years as athletic director.”

Carlon’s first promotion came in 1984, when he began working a dual role as Head Athletic Trainer and Assistant Athletic Director. He served as Interim Athletic Director from 1991 to 1993, when he was named Associate Athletic Director/Director of Sports Medicine. In 1996, he began his second term as Interim Athletic Director, and was formally elevated to Athletic Director later that year, where he has remained ever since. Along the way, Carlon also moved up the ranks of the Southwest Athletic Trainers’ Association (SWATA), working as a task force member, committee co-chair, convention host, district director, and executive board president.

Without any academic training in athletic administration, Carlon credits the support of fellow administrators for giving him the confidence to grow on the job. He learned to lead with his strengths, surround himself with people who were strong in areas where he was weak, and absorb as much as he could from everyone he met along the way.

“My experiences as an athletic trainer taught me to practice good time management, be well-organized, deal with different kinds of people, build bridges, and work through problems in a non-confrontational manner,” he says. “Participation in SWATA taught me how to conduct meetings, speak to groups of people, and get comfortable in a leadership role. In making the transition to administration, I also needed to overcome my weaknesses, like fundraising and fiscal management, which I’ve done by working with good business managers and providing effective documentation for everything I do.

“The first time I served as Interim Athletic Director, I thought I was ready, but I really wasn’t,” he continues. “The experience helped a lot in preparing me for the position, and after that first time, I had the opportunity to work closely with the new athletic director. I needed to continue maturing as an administrator and learn about making the best choices. After I served as interim AD for the second time, I felt much more comfortable. I felt prepared to take on the full responsibility.”

In the 16 years since his last job as an athletic trainer, Carlon has maintained his certification and occasionally provides event coverage. He misses the interpersonal relationships athletic trainers have with players, but is proud to be on a first-name basis with all the university’s student-athletes, and encourages other athletic trainers to consider administration as a career goal.

“If you have a passion for athletic training, you can carry that same passion over to administration,” he advises. “Before starting my move, I thought long and hard about the decision, because athletic training was my first love. I decided that this way, I could advance the respect people have for the profession of athletic training. I’ve tried to be a role model, and that’s what made me move in this direction full-time.”

BEATING BURNOUT

By 2006, when Jeff Cassella was named Athletic Trainer of the Year by the Ohio Athletic Trainers’ Association, he had already begun thinking about athletic administration. In his 15th year as Head Athletic Trainer and Health and Physical Education Instructor at Mentor High, he was working long hours and the routines of the job had started getting old for him. He wondered whether he was burning out.

He already had a master’s degree in sports management, so to expand his options, he finished his licensure in educational administration, which meant doing a semester-long internship with his principal. Every day, Cassella spent time in the principal’s office, taking on a wide range of administrative tasks and working closely with his mentor. One year later, when the athletic director suddenly retired, Cassella was the obvious choice to replace him.

“I grew up around athletics–my father spent 30 years as a high school athletic director–and I felt pretty confident I’d enjoy the job,” he says. “Interning with my principal helped showcase my skills and develop my leadership style, and when the athletic director job opened up, the timing was right and I was ready.

“The hours and the time commitment are close to what I expected, but after 17 years, to go from working alongside coaches to being their boss felt very different,” continues Cassella. “I still approach them as a co-worker–someone they can come to with questions, just like when I was an athletic trainer. But there’s no denying that I evaluate them, handle their budgets, and ultimately make decisions that affect their jobs. And the hardest part of the transition is having to look somebody in the eye and tell them ‘no.'”

In his toughest day on the job, Cassella had to fire a coach he’d worked with for years. It wasn’t easy, but he was as straightforward as possible, just as his mentors had advised. In two years at his new job, Cassella has relied on the support of past and present athletic directors in the region, along with his administrative assistants, coaches, the principal, and his father and family.

“I took over at a very busy time of year, and those first two months were a blur,” says Cassella. “On my first full day, I walked into our league meeting and met a roomful of athletic directors for the first time. They began rattling off information while I filled up four pages with notes.

“By the time I left, I knew I had the support of every other athletic director in my league,” he continues. “Whenever a question came up, I knew I had the principal’s ear, and that the previous athletic director was glad to be my lifeline.”

Cassella expects many more challenges in the future, but the second year on the job has proven much easier than the first. He added bowling as the school’s 22nd varsity sport, and though he doesn’t plan to make a lot of major changes, every day he works is another day the athletic program comes closer to his vision.

“I miss having contact with student-athletes and the camaraderie of the athletic training room,” says Cassella, who continues to maintain his athletic training certification. “But I don’t miss the daily grind of working three or four hours after school every night. I’m running one of the biggest high school athletic departments in Ohio, and my goal is to make it the best I can. I love my job, and I can see myself staying here until I retire.”

BEST OF BOTH WORLDS

In 2004, Todd Fuhrmann, ATC, NASM-PES, arrived at Indian River High School in Dagsboro, Del., as Head Athletic Trainer and Strength and Conditioning Coach. Three years later, when the athletic director stepped down, Fuhrmann proposed creating a new job that would allow him to keep his athletic training responsibilities while also taking over as Athletic Director at Indian River and Selbyville Middle School, located nine miles away.

It took five months for Fuhrmann and the school district to finalize the agreement, and in November 2007, he went to work juggling his new duties–plus teaching three sports medicine classes and a weightlifting class at the high school. “Combining athletic administration and athletic training is something I’ve always wanted to do,” says Fuhrmann. “When the position came open, I hardly had to think about it. The combination feels very natural to me.”

The keys to wearing so many hats, says Fuhrmann, are time management and organization. He keeps a master schedule on his PDA, completes his athletic director responsibilities by 3 p.m., and focuses on athletic training for the rest of the afternoon and evening. He works about 15 hours a day, five days a week, and is helped by student athletic training aides and a former athletic trainer who teaches at the middle school.

Now in his second year as athletic director and his sixth as athletic trainer, Fuhrmann is growing used to following district protocols, attending meetings, scheduling games, supervising coaches, responding to parents, and maintaining budgets. He’s spent much of the last year attending workshops, asking for help from other athletic directors in his region, and reading books and magazine articles about athletic directing.

“The best advice I got on doing this job is to just be myself,” says Fuhrmann. “I’m very strong-willed and organized, and I know how to gain the respect of people around me. And when roadblocks come up, I’m creative enough to find ways around them.”

To avoid burnout, he works out regularly and spends weekends and summers recharging with his wife, who is also an athletic trainer. Ultimately, he’d like to pursue an online graduate degree in sports management, which could lead to a collegiate position as either an athletic trainer or administrator. Until then, he’s happy to stay where he is.

“If I keep a positive outlook about where I am and where I’m headed, I can keep this going for a good long while,” he says. “It’s rewarding in a different way from being an athletic trainer, because not only do you see kids succeed after injuries, you see them carry that success off the field, to the classroom, and into the rest of their lives.”

BIG DECISIONS Back in high school, when Stevie Baker-Watson worked as an athletic training student aide, no one suggested she look beyond athletic training for a career. At Ohio University, where she earned her bachelor’s in athletic training in 1996, Baker-Watson took just one course in sports administration to fulfill her major requirement. Then, after working in the profession for six years, she attended her first NCAA Gender Equity and Issues Forum, followed by her first National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators (NACWAA) meeting.

It changed her life. “I knew the ‘old boys network’ existed, because everywhere I looked, the people running athletic departments and athletic training rooms were male,” says Baker-Watson. “I had resigned myself to believe I just couldn’t do certain things in that environment. But when I became involved in NACWAA, I realized that working with a group of female administrators was about finding ways to support one another and help each other grow.

“I had underestimated the idea of creating relationships with women in the workplace,” she continues. “I was convinced that men made all the decisions, so why network with women? Instead, I found the people who have become my greatest resources.”

In 2002, her third year as Head Athletic Trainer at Aurora University, Baker-Watson took on a dual appointment as Senior Woman Administrator. She oversaw event management, coordinated the CHAMPS/Life Skills program, worked with the student-athlete advisory committee, handled gender equity issues, and supervised athletic marketing and promotion. In 2007, Baker-Watson completed her transformation to full-time administrator at nearby North Central College in Naperville, Ill., where she currently serves as Assistant Athletic Director and Senior Woman Administrator.

“I realized my passions extend beyond athletic training,” says Baker-Watson. “I saw skills that would lend themselves to the athletic department in general, and even though I miss being an athletic trainer–especially the feeling of pride when you help a student-athlete return to the field–I love being in administration.”

Today, Baker-Watson attends as many conferences as she can, where she actively seeks out mentors with expertise in finance, personnel, facilities, and academics. She’s grown used to meeting people who are surprised to hear about her background in sports medicine, and after more than a year at North Central, Baker-Watson still feels the need to prove herself every day.

“As athletic trainers, we’re judged by how student-athletes respond to our treatment,” she says. “As an administrator, I’m judged according to what I say and do, which is a change. It can be challenging, but I find that if I work through my decisions the way I always have–by gathering enough data and thinking through different points of view–people don’t care that I came from a sports medicine background.”

Ultimately, Baker-Watson dreams of pursuing a law degree and becoming an athletic director, but at this point, she’s so pleased with her job and work-life balance that she’s happy to remain at North Central. “My family is in this area, so I don’t see myself moving away any time soon,” she says. “There are times when I’m on the road quite a bit, and I know my children struggle with that, but we make up for it in other ways. If you ask my daughter what she wants to be when she grows up, she’ll say, ‘An athletic trainer,’ which makes me feel I’ve been a good role model. So while I would love to be an athletic director, I’m willing to wait for just the right opportunity.”

Her advice to other athletic trainers–especially women–who are considering the move to administration is simple: “If there’s something you want, ask for it,” she says. “Ask to do things that fall outside your usual routine. Ask if you can plan a project or be involved with initiatives that go beyond your current responsibilities as athletic trainer.

“In the end, it’s really about having confidence,” she adds. “Even if 80 percent of the people you see around the table are white males, as a woman, you need to speak up and make clear that you’re ready to sit at the big table and make the big decisions.


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