Nov 2, 2018
In the Know: Prioritizing continuing education for strength coaches, ATs
By P.J. Gardner

Continuing education is necessary for athletic trainers & strength coaches. However, choosing the right avenue can make the process much more enjoyable.

It’s been said that knowledge is power. For athletic trainers and strength and conditioning coaches, knowledge is also the key to providing the best possible care for athletes.

Acquiring this knowledge requires a lifelong pursuit of education. As the years go by, new research changes the way injuries are evaluated and training is prescribed. If you do not make the time to keep up, your lack of up-to-date skills and techniques will become obvious to your athletes and peers.

Don’t put yourself in that situation, especially with all of the opportunities available for professional development. Options include obtaining multiple certifications; networking; taking courses; attending state, regional, or national conferences; and pursuing advanced degrees.

Some might view continuing education as a challenge, but I find it incredibly rewarding. I enjoy knowing the latest information about sports medicine and sports performance, and I’ve enriched my knowledge of evaluation techniques, concussion management, shoulder therapy, ankle rehab, and sports training and conditioning over the years. These efforts have heightened my self-confidence and made me a better overall professional.

As athletic trainers and strength coaches, none of us knows it all-there’s just too much information out there. Once you embrace that fact, it opens a door to all the continuing education possibilities that can enhance your practice.

Officially credentialed

For many athletic trainers and strength coaches, the first chance to continue education is obtaining additional certifications beyond what is required by your industry. This can be very informative and helpful for career advancement. However, be very selective about which certifications you pursue. Ask yourself, “Which ones are worth it?” and “Which ones will benefit me the most in my field?”

Before I became an athletic trainer, I was an exercise specialist working in clinics and a part-time strength coach for various high schools. I decided that only certifications specific to weight training were relevant for me, so I pursued the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) credential from the NSCA. Once I became an athletic trainer, I wanted the Performance Enhancement Specialist (PES) and Corrective Exercise Specialist (CES) certifications from the National Academy of Sports Medicine to gain further knowledge. The PES deals with training and conditioning progressions, while the CES educates about corrective exercise programs for specific physical conditions. To this day, I maintain all three of these credentials because it shows that I am interested and educated in my fields.

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There’s a big debate in strength and conditioning circles about what certifications strength coaches should have. The NCAA requires Division I strength coaches to receive credentialing from a “nationally accredited strength and conditioning certification program” but provides no further guidance. For those unsure of what to pursue, I recommend Michael Boyle’s Certified Functional Strength Coach Certification (CFSC), the CSCS, and, if you’re in the college ranks, the Strength and Conditioning Coach Certified (SCCC) from the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association.

For athletic trainers, there are too many additional certifications to choose from beyond the ATC. I believe some of the most useful pertain to massage therapy, dry needling, Positional Release Technique, Positional Restoration Technique, and kinesiotaping. However, check with your state practice act before obtaining any of these, as there can be limitations on what rehab techniques athletic trainers are allowed to use.

Keep in mind that with any certification, there are expenses involved. Most certifying exams come with a fee, and most credentials require a cost to maintain. For example, becoming certified in Muscle Activation Technique costs around $10,000, plus additional expenses to stay current.

Peer to peer

Photo: KA Sports Photos

Chances are, once you start collecting additional certifications, you’ll encounter many athletic trainers and strength coaches who share the same credentials. These and other peers can be great resources for continuing education in an informal way. You can learn so much simply by talking with them and discovering what works best for them.

To make the most of their insight, be open to different ways of improving the assessments and evaluations you use. This is especially important if you work independently in a school, where it’s easy to always do things the same way.

Personally, I’ve learned a great deal from peers. If I see another athletic trainer practicing a new taping or manual muscle assessment, I may start using it. For instance, in assessing the integrity of the subscapularis muscle, I have always used the Gerber Liftoff test. At a recent football game, an athletic trainer showed me a different method called the “bear hugger” test. Now, I use it frequently as an alternative way to examine the integrity of the muscle.

In addition, I often ask other athletic trainers what evaluation techniques they like and why. At a seminar on knee injuries, I approached a colleague about what technique he liked best to determine possible meniscus injuries. He showed me a standing compression and rotation test that would reproduce pain if a meniscus injury was present. I use that test regularly now.

On the strength and conditioning side, discussions with other strength coaches are vital in communicating what programs work best with teams. Informal meetings with other coaches can also be invaluable for fine-tuning the exact practices that produce the most desired results.

Our school recently hired KC Bonnin, USAW, CES, PES, CSAC, CWPC, IKFF1, as Head Strength and Conditioning Coach, and we often discuss which lifts and teaching techniques to use. Since I am more of an assistant strength coach, I want to ensure I am teaching the lifts the same way KC does. Everyone benefits from the consistency of our efforts.

Register to learn

For continuing education that’s a bit more structured, consider taking courses or attending seminars. A number of groups and organizations offer self-paced classes, which I’ve found to be very useful. The number of continuing education units (CEUs) you get from these will vary.

This past year, I took courses in shoulder therapy and concussion evaluation through DSW Human Kinetics. Both were self-paced, so I could either study from a textbook or do the e-course online. I had a full year to complete each one and take the test.

Self-paced courses are convenient because you can take them on your own time and at a relatively low cost. Sometimes, employers will even cover the expense. To get your employer on board with this, meet with them and ask if funds are available for certifications or required continuing education.

If you choose to go the conference and seminar route, the hardest part is making the time to attend. I recommend identifying which meetings are most important to you in any given year. Be particular about where you go-there’s no sense in wasting your time or money on a convention you are not really interested in.

My approach involves planning a year ahead. I pick the slowest times of the year-usually spring break and the summer months-and see what meetings are available. I make it a point to go to my state or regional athletic training conference annually. These are convenient and offer many CEUs at one time. I also attend the NATA Clinical Symposia and AT Expo every five to six years, but I wait until it is held closer to home to reduce the cost.

When you’re at a conference, it can be tricky to decide which presentations to see. One strategy is to pick topics that you aren’t as well-versed in to strengthen any weak areas of practice. For me, that’s anything to do with hip evaluations and rehab.

Back to school

Probably the most in-depth form of continuing education is pursuing an advanced degree-whether it’s a master’s or doctorate. Although time-consuming, the benefits for doing so are numerous.

For one thing, an advanced degree usually leads to higher-paying positions with more responsibilities. It might also show your initiative and ambition to potential employers. If nothing else, having an advanced degree updates your skills, which is important as rehab and training methods evolve.

I chose to pursue a master’s degree right after my undergraduate years because I believed it would help progress my career. Some of the positions I’ve held have “preferred” a master’s degree, so I think the decision has paid off. I believe that the more education you have going into a field, the more likely it is that you will increase your chances of landing whichever job you seek.

To determine whether you should seek out an advanced degree, ask yourself: “How far do I want to go in my profession-the high school, college, professional, or Olympic ranks?” and “What are my employment goals?” Look at respected peers in the setting you aspire to and see what level of education they have.

For instance, at the high school level, a bachelor’s degree is enough to become a certified teacher and a strength coach. In college, a master’s is preferred but not usually required. And a PhD or other terminal degree is usually necessary for teaching or research at the university level.

Other factors that come into play when pursuing formal education are time and money involved. To manage the investment required, decide early in your career which degree you really need for the position you ultimately hope to obtain and how much education you have the budget to pay for.

Keep in mind, too, that most college courses will count toward CEUs up to a certain amount of credits. Years ago, I completed a bachelor’s degree in business management, and most of my courses counted as CEUs applied to my certifications. The same was true with my master’s degree.

No matter which avenue you select when it comes to continuing education, the most important part is to keep after it. All professionals should seek out the best way to pursue their own growth and enjoy the process!

The author would like to thank KC Bonnin, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Liberty High School in Colorado Springs, Colo., for his input in putting this article together.


P.J. Gardner, MS, ATC, CSCS, PES, CES, is the Athletic Trainer and a strength coach at Liberty High School in Colorado Springs, Colo. He has 25 years of experience in sports medicine and sports performance.
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