Apr 8, 2016
From The Field

This article first appeared in the April 2016 issue of Training and Conditioning.

Tragedy on the Strip

When Eric Pitkanen, MS, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer at Pacific University, accompanied the school’s wrestling team to a tournament in Las Vegas last December, he was, of course, prepared for any injury that might occur on the mat. He had no idea that his emergency response skills would also be tested during a tragedy that drew attention nationwide.

Walking along the busy Vegas Strip with the team one evening, Pitkanen had just ended a phone call with his wife when a car driven by Lakeisha Holloway deliberately plowed into the crowd just ahead of him. As bodies hit the car and rolled over the roof, many hysterical bystanders ran away from the scene.

Pitkanen ran toward it.

“It took me a few seconds to really understand that I wasn’t in a movie or video game,” he says. “One gentleman in front of me flipped over the windshield and roof, hit the back of the car, and landed on the ground. That’s when I processed what was actually happening.”

As the car pulled away, Pitkanen quickly assessed the man, who had a dislocated knee, a potentially broken femur, and a gash above his eye. A few feet away, the man’s son had sustained a concussion.

“I stabilized the man’s knee and kept his son conscious and aware because he was floating in and out of shock,” Pitkanen says. “I knew that my role was to keep them safe and free up the EMTs and paramedics to work on the more seriously injured. It took about an hour to get all the wounded off to the hospital because there was so much chaos.”

Eventually, Pitkanen helped paramedics load the father and son into an ambulance. In all, one person was killed and 37 were injured in the hit-and-run. It wasn’t until Pitkanen was leaving the scene that he learned four members of his group from Pacific-two recent graduates, one assistant coach, and one wrestler-had also been hit.

“I thought the driver just left, and it was over, but apparently she drove back onto the Strip and hit another group of people, including our guys,” Pitkanen says. “At that point, I headed to the hospital. Our athlete had to stay overnight because he had a severe concussion-he had been thrown 30 or 40 feet and had five staples in his head. Two others were released that night, and the last one, who’s built like a tank, bounced off the car and was okay. We finally got back to the hotel at around 2:30 a.m. and started to process everything.”

Because the incident occurred at the start of winter break, the four Pacific victims were able to go home for an extended rest. But unfortunately, their trauma didn’t end when they left Las Vegas. Sometimes the most difficult aspect of experiencing a tragedy, Pitkanen says, is the aftermath.

“The hardest thing for all of them has been the emotional side of it,” he says. “I spent a lot of time that night in the hospital just trying to tell them, ‘There’s no rhyme or reason for this.’ Even to this day, I’m trying to provide an outlet for their frustration and anger.

“That’s something athletic trainers don’t get enough credit for,” Pitkanen continues. “We deal with so much more than just the physical side of injuries. There’s a mental component as well, and we’re on the front lines. I have a couch in my office so kids can come in and cry on it if they have to, which has happened a number of times.”

Those affected by the incident in Las Vegas have also been provided professional resources at Pacific to help them heal. “I made sure we had counselors waiting for them when they got back to campus and that our school paid for all the treatments,” Pitkanen says.

Since the hit-and-run, the three non-athletes have been able to resume daily activities. The concussed wrestler, however, suffered symptoms into February.

Upon reflection, Pitkanen credits his education and experience for preparing him to help when the car first hit. “Being an athletic trainer means you’ve been trained in trauma management,” he says. “You see it happen, and your brain kicks into a different mode that doesn’t let you be scared. When I was kneeling on the concrete and holding the man’s dislocated knee, I couldn’t let myself freak out because he and his son would have gone off the deep end. You may not know until an emergency happens, but your training works.”

One thing Pitkanen’s training didn’t prepare him for was the media attention in the wake of the accident. It made national headlines, and everyone from the local news to the Los Angeles Times wanted to hear Pitkanen’s story. “The whole thing was surreal,” he says. “You don’t get into this business to have your name in the newspaper. You get into it to help athletes.”

Rewarding Rehabs

The most coveted postseason honor on the Dartmouth College football team isn’t Most Valuable Player or Most Improved. Rather, athletes strive to earn the Hard-Nose Award, presented annually by the athletic training staff to a player who overcame injury to make an impact on the field.

Initiated in 1970 by then athletic trainer Fred Kelley, the award was designed to change the perception surrounding injured players. “When I was growing up, some coaches would jokingly give out ‘awards’ to the guys who suffered frequent injuries,” says Dartmouth’s current Head Athletic Trainer for Football Mike Derosier, MEd, ATC. “I think Fred wanted to shift that attitude and instead honor the guys who battled back from an injury.”

The award is open only to seniors who have returned from an injury-or injuries-suffered at any point in their careers to become key contributors. “We limit it to guys who have made a meaningful difference on the field,” Derosier says. “That way, it really validates the work they put in to get back.”

Although the award honors those who’ve overcome injuries, there are rules to ensure players don’t go to extreme lengths to win it. “We’re not going to recognize a guy who played the whole season with a concussion and thinks it makes him tough-that’s a dangerous mentality to have,” Derosier says. “We want to reward the guys who know that going through a difficult rehab is tougher than playing through a serious injury.”

Players can’t campaign for the award on behalf of themselves or their teammates, but Derosier says coach input is occasionally considered. “The position coaches don’t stump for their guys, but they may know about off-the-field challenges a player has faced that we’d benefit from hearing about,” he says.

To determine the winner, Derosier and his two assistant athletic trainers go through the list of eligible players, debate, and cast votes. “Sometimes, it’s very hard to decide,” Derosier says. “We may each pick a different player and then have to debate some more. We’ve selected two guys some years, and other times, I almost find myself apologizing to guys who didn’t win. It’s a tough call.”

Winners have their names inscribed on a plaque and receive a sterling silver mug that displays their name, the team logo, the school crest, and the year they won. “I think the award confers a certain honor for a lot of players,” Derosier says. “You can be an All-American and still not be tough. But coming back from a series of injuries, that says something about the kind of person you are.”

Many recipients continue to hold the award in high esteem well after they graduate. “One of our 2011 winners, John Gallagher, considers the mug a prized possession, and it’s one of the few things he displays on his desk at work,” Derosier says.

But the award doesn’t only benefit the winners-its impact is felt throughout the Dartmouth program. “We keep the plaque in our athletic training room to serve as inspiration,” Derosier says. “Current injured players see it, and they realize that other guys have made it through tough rehabs, so they can, too.

“The football coaches love the award, as well,” he continues. “When a player from their position group wins it, I think they take it to heart. They feel like it validates the hard work they’ve done to make that player a contributor again.”

Shifting Gears

Few strength and conditioning coaches rise as high in the profession as Tasha Weddle, CSCS, SCCC. Even fewer decide to leave the elite athletes and top-of-the-line resources behind in favor of working with an underserved population.

Weddle’s career as a collegiate strength coach included stops at Kent State University, Purdue University, the University of Tennessee, and Vanderbilt University. She worked with the Volunteers’ women’s basketball teams that won back-to-back national titles in 1997 and 1998, and in 2011, she was named a Master Strength and Conditioning Coach by the CSCCa. Two years later, however, she left Vanderbilt to start a personal training business and a nonprofit wellness center for lower-income women.

“I was tired of the bookend days, the constant travel, and being underpaid and unappreciated,” Weddle says. “I believe there is a glass ceiling for women in the college strength and conditioning profession. Since I didn’t want to work with football, there wasn’t anywhere else for me to move up to. I realized I was 40 years old, and I wasn’t going to progress any farther. I wasn’t okay with that, so I left.”

Weddle had done personal training on the side at several points during her career, and one of her clients was Chris McCarthy, then the CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Nashville. The two talked about Weddle’s options outside of the collegiate strength setting, and their conversations often drifted to the underserved populations in the area.

Wanting to bring her strength and conditioning knowledge to those who needed it most, Weddle decided to pair a for-profit training business with a nonprofit wellness center that caters to low- and moderate-income women in Nashville. Called The New Beginnings Center, it shares facility space with the for-profit training service, TNB Fitness, which helps to underwrite scholarships for needy New Beginnings participants. Other funding for the nonprofit comes from donors and local foundations.

The services at New Beginnings are similar to the ones Weddle offers her private clients, including fitness classes, individualized workout programs, and nutritional counseling. However, the New Beginnings clientele is mostly made up of women in their 30s and 40s. Many are overweight or experiencing chronic health problems, and some have never participated in a fitness plan in their lives. Despite their backgrounds, their results have been impressive so far, with participants losing between 15 and 35 pounds on average and seeing improved overall wellness.

Weddle says her coaching style has largely remained the same despite the different population. “I have not changed the way I coach or lowered my expectations,” she says. “It’s still about teaching the basics of fitness and exercise, motivating the clients to achieve more, and helping them change behavior. While they aren’t approaching the loads my college athletes did, they’re working just as hard.

“The biggest change, though, is that most of the women are around my age, so our relationships go beyond coaching and wellness,” Weddle continues. “I have become friends with many of them, which I really couldn’t do with my athletes, and it’s very rewarding.”

Although her role as strength coach is pretty much the same, the rest of her daily schedule is far different. Weddle estimates she spends 85 percent of her time outside the gym, working on fundraising, networking, and business management. While guidance from an experienced nonprofit CEO has helped, Weddle says her strength training experience has also been an advantage in making the transition from coach to entrepreneur.

“Managing a business isn’t as scary as it seems, as long as you’re willing to work your tail off,” she says. “As a coach and athlete, I learned how to compete and win, and I take the same approach now. I figure out what needs to be done, I set up a plan to do it, and then I execute the plan.

“I’ve certainly made a lot of mistakes along the way, but you learn from those mistakes and move forward,” Weddle continues. “The hardest part has been marketing. As a strength coach, you’re usually behind the scenes, but I’ve had to become comfortable selling myself and my services.”

One of the most surprising aspects of opening New Beginnings was how much it reinvigorated her passion for learning, Weddle says. She estimates she has spent about $30,000 on continuing education, adding certifications in nutrition, strength training, and barbells.

“I was a college athlete and coach for 20 years, but I was stunned by how much I still could learn about barbells, for example,” she says. “College strength training is really just a small part of the broader strength and conditioning world, and it’s easy for college coaches to get stuck in their silos.”

For those coaches who might want to broaden their horizons, Weddle’s advice is to be open-minded. “Cast a wider net and start networking outside the college world,” she says. “Go to social events, volunteer for something you’re passionate about, or attend a workshop outside the NSCA or CSCCa. There was a whole world out there I wasn’t aware of.”

With her experience as proof, Weddle says strength coaches have a lot to offer outside the bubble of collegiate athletics. “We don’t always give ourselves credit for the skill sets we have,” she says. “We’re more than just weightroom coaches. We’re teachers and leaders-and those are valuable traits to have wherever you go.”

Well “Liked” Concussion Program

Today’s student-athletes are on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram almost constantly. In 2011, the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) attempted to harness this obsession with social media by modeling its concussion education course on these popular sites. Still going strong five years and 300,000 students later, the move seems to have paid off.

Dubbed “Brainbook,” the e-learning program was launched in partnership with the Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital. The curriculum is divided into separate sections on topics such as recognizing the signs and symptoms of concussion and the importance of reporting a suspected head injury.

What separates Brainbook from other concussion education programs is its Facebook-like design, which allows athletes to “like” sections and leave comments on the content. Athletes can even reply to each other’s comments and start a dialogue.

“The kids love that aspect,” says Bart Peterson, MS, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer at Palo Verde Magnet High School in Tucson, Ariz. “They’ve grown up with social media, so it comes naturally to them. Any time you can have something interactive instead of simply forcing them to watch a long video, you’re more likely to keep them engaged.

“What I’ve seen, anecdotally, is that the athletes who are leaving comments and utilizing the social aspect of the program tend to be more invested in the material,” he continues. “As a result, they are paying closer attention to the information we’re presenting to them.”

Another critical way Brainbook keeps athletes engaged is by combining the educational component with video testimonials of student-athletes, as well as players from the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Cardinals, explaining how concussions have affected them.

“For example, after an educational video on why they should report all suspected concussions to their head coach, the next segment might be a video testimonial from an athlete talking about how they hid a concussion and then suffered another one,” says Peterson. “For the student-athlete taking part in the program, hearing from others who have gone through these issues-especially professional athletes-has a major impact.”

The AIA requires all student-athletes in the state to complete Brainbook before taking part in any athletic competitions. When they complete the program-which takes about 50 minutes-they answer a series of questions about the content. To become eligible to participate in a sport, they must score at least an 80 percent and print out a certificate to give to their athletic directors. Student-athletes only need to pass the test once during their high school careers, and their results are kept on file in case they change schools.

Overall, Peterson believes Brainbook is having the desired effect. “The feedback we’ve received is that Brainbook is engaging and interactive, and the student-athletes have embraced it,” he says.

The program has been so successful in Arizona that other states are looking to implement it. At the end of January, it was launched in four San Francisco-area schools and is expected to expand to 34 additional schools in California by mid-2017.

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