Jan 29, 2015
In It Together

Working with your spouse can be tricky for many reasons. Athletic trainers Steve and Cara Ashby are figuring out how to make it a positive–on the job and at home.

By R.J. Anderson

R.J. Anderson is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: [email protected].

When they first met in January 2005, Steve Ashby, MS, LAT, ATC, CSCS, Head Athletic Trainer at Mount Pleasant (N.C.) High School, thought Cara McAllister, LAT, ATC, was after his job. She wasn’t, and Steve’s negative thoughts turned to positive ones fairly quickly. A year after Cara was hired to teach math and work as an Assistant Athletic Trainer in the Cabarrus County School District, where Mount Pleasant is located, she and Steve were married.

For over six years, the two have worked and lived together through long hours covering Mount Pleasant’s teams and newlywed ups and downs. In January 2011, the birth of their first child, Emma, pushed them to re-evaluate their career goals and think about work-life balance.

We talked to Steve and Cara about their unique partnership and how they’ve continued to thrive as co-workers who are husband and wife. They also reveal what they’ve learned from each other and their thoughts on the future of athletic trainers in the high school setting.

T&C: When did each of you start working at Mount Pleasant? Steve: In 2002, I came to MPHS as the Head Athletic Trainer and an unlicensed teacher in science for grades 9-12. Over the next three years, I completed my teacher licensure in science and moved into the physical education department, where I taught for four more years. As the economy worsened, my physical education position was eliminated and I was relocated to Central Cabarrus High School to coordinate the Choices Program, a version of in-school suspension. I spent a year and a half at Central Cabarrus, and then came back to MPHS in the same role. All along, I remained the Head Athletic Trainer at Mount Pleasant.

Cara: In December 2004, after finishing up at Elon University with a double major in mathematics and athletic training, I accepted a job teaching math at Mount Pleasant High School and being the Assistant Athletic Trainer at Northwest Cabarrus High School. The next school year, which was fall 2005, I began working with Steve as the Assistant Athletic Trainer at Mount Pleasant.

How are your positions structured? Cara: All of the athletic trainers in our school district are also employed as full-time teachers, so the majority of our salaries come from the teaching pay. We receive a stipend for our athletic training services–similar to how a coach is paid. And Steve and I have at different times both taught sports medicine classes at Mount Pleasant.

How did you two meet?

Cara: It’s actually a funny story. When I was hired, Steve thought I was being brought in to take his position. On my first day, I was in my math classroom and Steve stopped by. I thought he was there because of our backgrounds as athletic trainers and that he wanted to befriend me. Eventually he did do that, but initially, Steve was there to check out what he thought was his competition.

Steve: I was caught off guard when Cara was brought in. She was hired to teach in the school and be an athletic trainer, so I was very much on the defensive, thinking they were going to get rid of me. I found out later that my principal thought our county Director of Sports Medicine had filled me in on Cara being an assistant athletic trainer at another school. Meanwhile, the Director of Sports Medicine thought the principal had filled me in. But in reality, neither had said anything to me at that point.

How did that first meeting go? Steve: I introduced myself and asked her how everything was going. As athletic trainers, we’re a small group, so when we run into each other we try to be cordial and talk shop a little. It wasn’t contentious, nor was it love at first sight for either of us.

When did you start dating? Steve: Our first date was an awards banquet at the school where Cara had done her student teaching. She asked if I wanted to go with her. That was two weeks after we met. At the banquet, I received the third degree from coaches, student-athletes, and parents! After that, we started hanging out more, mostly at school, and our relationship grew from there.

As co-workers, what was your initial approach to dating?

Cara: I did have reservations at first. We weren’t working as athletic trainers at the same school at that point, so it wasn’t a big deal. But I thought there was some potential for it to backfire–both professionally and personally. So we kept it quiet and were good about being discreet.

Steve: Once we found out Cara was going to be the Assistant Athletic Trainer at Mount Pleasant the next fall, we both went to our athletic director and principal to disclose our relationship. They appreciated it and said it wouldn’t be a problem if we didn’t make it one. They were supportive and happy for us.

Was it ever awkward to date someone with whom you were also in a supervisory relationship?

Cara: On paper, Steve is the Head Athletic Trainer and I’m the Assistant Athletic Trainer, but we’ve always taken a team approach to the athletic training program. Steve does not treat me like he is my supervisor. He’s always been a colleague. We’re not afraid to point out when each of us could do something better–and I’ve never felt like he was my boss.

Have there been any disagreements along the way?

Cara: A big one was at preseason football camp when we first started working together. It was over the amount of taping Steve did with our football players. He went to school at Appalachian State University, where any athlete could have their ankles taped daily. I attended Elon University, where our athletes were put in braces instead. It frustrated me that we were taping so many athletes who I felt wanted to be taped for the “cool factor.”

Steve: Both of us were somewhat stubborn about the right way to do it and we butted heads for a while. But once we both got over being bull-headed, we sat down and talked about how we didn’t want our professional disagreement to impact our personal relationship. Ultimately, you could probably say she won because we don’t tape as many athletes now. But we’ve always had a rule that if you think you need to be taped, you have to do rehab first.

Did you ever consider not working in the same athletic training setting? Cara: No. I love working with my husband. I like being able to say on a Tuesday morning, “I’ve got a lot of stuff to do at school and I’m going to need some extra time after classes end, so can you cover basketball practice?” If I wasn’t working with my husband, I don’t know if that would work as well.

What was it like working, living, and spending so much time together?

Steve: Up until Emma was born, we worked as many events as possible together. When we were first married, it was a joke among the coaches that our school had the best coverage in the state because there were two athletic trainers at every game. Even if only one of us was on duty, we would both be at the game. Being together at work was better than being alone at home.

Have you ever tried to separate your personal and professional lives? Steve: No. We talk about what needs to be talked about wherever we may be. When I remember something I need to tell Cara, I do so immediately. It doesn’t matter where we are.

Cara: Until our daughter was born, dinner conversations consisted of catching up on what we missed while covering different sports. We could have easily taken the time to talk about that after practice was over and been delayed an hour going home, but instead we choose to talk about it while we were making dinner and going about our evening at home.

For example, I can describe what I saw with an injured athlete and ask Steve if he has any ideas about their injury. Or I might have looked at an athlete with a back injury, and Steve knows that those are not my strength, so I’ll ask him to take a look at the athlete the next day. It’s nice to have a sounding board.

How do you communicate effectively with each other? Cara: For me, having strong communication comes down to setting aside time to sit down and really listen. Sometimes that would happen on the sidelines–we were a captive audience for each other and it was a good place for us to talk.

Steve: Communication is the absolute key to making our relationship work, especially when issues or disagreements arise. I’m big on working through an issue right when it comes up. Cara, on the other hand, prefers to think things through on her own first. Over time, I’ve learned to back off a little on the talking, and she’s learned that once she’s ready and feels up to talking about something, we can come together and work things out.

How did you divide up athletic training duties?

Steve: We try to complement each other in our work setting. For example, Cara doesn’t like doing long-term rehabs, while I enjoy them. She likes working football, while I don’t really want to stand around at practice every day. I love wrestling and she can’t stand it. I like soccer, she doesn’t. We differ on those preferences and it helps us in making decisions about coverage. If we have a soccer and a baseball game going on at the same time, we know who will be where without too much discussion.

Cara: I also handle the majority of the paperwork and filing because I can’t stand to see it pile up. Steve tells me I’m better at it. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do end up doing most of it.

What have you learned from each other?

Steve: Cara is much more organized than I am. Being able to see the structure she adheres to and learn how to do it has been great for me. Also, before Cara joined our department, I was more apt to shy away from conflict. Not that she goes out looking for controversy, but she’s not going to ignore it, which I might have done in my early years. Now I’m more likely to address it. I’ve learned from her that it’s better to nip something in the bud than wait for it to become a major problem.

Cara: Steve has taught me to be a better communicator. It’s something I’m working on, and he’s constantly helping me improve. I remember having a conversation with a j.v. football parent after their son sustained a concussion. Afterwards, Steve was able to kindly talk to me about how I could have done it better. He pointed out that during most of the conversation, I talked to and looked at the athlete’s father and not the mother. He showed me what I could have done to be a more effective communicator.

Do you feel any pressure to model a healthy marriage in front of your students? Steve: I don’t know if there’s any pressure to do so, but we try to model a positive relationship and good citizenship within our school.

Cara: I wouldn’t call it pressure either. Do I feel like I need to do a good job of modeling a healthy relationship? Absolutely. Do I do it all the time? Probably not–I’m human after all. But for some of these athletes, they don’t get to see a healthy relationship at home. So if they can get a glimpse of that from Steve and me during their high school career, I consider that a privilege.

How do you see the athletic training profession in the high school setting evolving?

Cara: We both believe that we are dinosaurs as teaching athletic trainers. The current curriculum programs are not calling for athletic trainers to be teachers in the schools so I think that’s going to go away. I see athletic training going more towards outreach provided by a physical therapy clinic or hospital.

There are plusses and minuses to both models for an athletic trainer. I happen to enjoy being in the classroom with my athletes because I get to know them and they get to see me throughout the day. They can come to school at 6:45 a.m. if they were injured at a game the night before. They don’t have to wait until school is over at 2:15. It also allows me to be better engaged with the athletes and coaches.

Your positions are slated to change beginning next year. How so?

Steve: Our local hospital has picked up an athletic training position for each school in our county. That means their funds for athletic training will be combined with what the school has set aside to create a full-time athletic training position that has no teaching responsibilities. I will be employed by the hospital and outreached to Mount Pleasant. Either Cara or I could have filled that position, but we decided I was a better fit for it. So Cara will teach math and cover games from time to time as a volunteer.

I will no longer teach and can focus on athletic training. It will free up my mornings to spend with Emma and I won’t be rushing her out the door at 6:30 a.m. to get to work. Instead, I’ll be with her in the morning, then go to work at 1 p.m. and stay until athletics are done for the day.

Cara, why did you decide to give up your athletic training position? Cara: Truthfully, I didn’t want Steve’s job. I wanted to keep teaching so I would have spring breaks and holiday vacations to spend with Emma. I decided I would rather work my butt off during the school year to have summer vacation instead of working for the hospital 12 months a year. By not having athletic training duties after school, my afternoons will be dedicated to just being “mom.”

How has Emma’s arrival impacted your careers?

Steve: I spent the last couple of years doing in-school suspension, getting to know kids who may have done something dumb. One thing I’ve realized is that the parents of a lot of those students aren’t around, and without their supervision they have more opportunities to get in trouble. I don’t want that to happen with Emma and I’ve realized that I need cut back on my hours to give her the attention she needs. Cara’s realized the same thing and we both want to spend quality time with our daughter and raise her so that she doesn’t feel the need to act out in order to get attention.

Cara: I knew that once I had a child, it would change everything, and it did. I never thought I would consider leaving athletic training, and I’m not sure that I 100-percent want to, but once we had Emma I decided that my top priority was to spend time raising my child.

I don’t have any grand career goals. I don’t have any dreams of being the next NATA President or working for a pro team. But I also don’t anticipate letting my certification lapse. In five years, maybe I’ll pick up more athletic training responsibilities or cover a team. If you had asked me 10 years ago, “Will you still want to be an athletic trainer in 10 years if you’re married and have a kid?” I would have said absolutely. I couldn’t have imagined anything could take me away from this profession. But Emma’s arrival did. Will that be the case 10 years from now? I have no idea.

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