May 8, 2019Lasting Impressions: Mentoring your fellow athletic trainer
An unwritten part of an AT’s job description, mentoring has a long tradition in the profession. Here’s how to provide the right guidance.
“Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”
My interpretation of this famous Martin Luther King Jr. quote is that established professionals have a responsibility to give back to their industries. For those of us in sports medicine, this can mean mentoring athletes, athletic training students, and our younger peers.
Athletic trainers are often encouraged to “be a mentor,” but this advice is rarely accompanied by an explanation of what that entails. To me, mentoring is a cultivated, collaborative relationship between two individuals that promotes career and personal development. Sometimes a mentor can serve the role of a teacher, assisting the mentee with performance-related skills. In other instances, the mentor can protect and advocate for the mentee, providing sheltered direction. Regardless of the dynamic, a mentor should be a positive role model and offer social and emotional support.
Mentoring’s benefits are not solely reserved for the mentee, however. The relationship can also reenergize mentors, exposing them to fresh perspectives and giving them a chance to expand their networks. In addition, it can increase mentors’ awareness of their own clinical skills, enhance their leadership abilities, and provide a sense of satisfaction from giving back to the profession.
I can certainly attest to all the perks of serving as a mentor. Throughout my career, I have made it a point to engage athletes, athletic training students, and young professionals to help them grow as individuals. Along the way, I have picked up a few ideas on how to best build these relationships, lead by example, and prepare mentees to become mentors in their own right.
While athletes might not be the first group you think of when it comes to potential mentees for athletic trainers, we can have a significant impact on this population. In fact, I have developed mentoring relationships with athletes that have spanned years and even decades.
One reason young athletic trainers leave the industry and move on to other career fields is that experienced professionals do not mentor them.
Athletes are used to interacting with their coaches as healthy individuals, but they often struggle to communicate once they become injured. We can serve as liaisons to smooth things over.
For instance, several times in my career, I worked with coaches who did not want injured athletes around their healthy teammates. This attitude can be debilitating and isolating for the rehabilitating athlete, impairing their ability to recover. When I encountered this behavior, I scheduled time with the coach to discuss how they were negatively impacting the athlete’s healing process, both mentally and physically, and described ways the athlete could be a positive influence.
Athletic trainers’ mentoring roles can also carry over to guiding players through the rehabilitation process, which requires patience, empathy, creativity, and a sizable amount of encouragement on our part. In most cases, the athletic trainer is the only person who sees the athlete through the entire journey from injury to recovery, so we become a confidant and sounding board for their concerns. Many athletes view the athletic training facility as a safe place where they can air their frustrations without judgment, and we are crucial in fostering this environment.
At the same time, athletes can view rehab as never-ending, and it can become its own source of frustration. It is important to assist them in setting realistic, attainable, and timely short-term goals and help them visualize how to achieve their long-term ambition of returning to participation. Whenever I encounter athletes who have lost sight of their end destination, I meet with them and give them gentle reminders of the steps needed to get there.
Developing mentoring relationships with athletes can even influence their career paths. During my early days as a high school athletic trainer, I worked with a football player who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. As he recovered from surgery and started the long rehabilitation process, we spent a tremendous amount of time together. He became very interested in the field of athletic training, and even though he was cleared to return to football the following season, he chose to become a student sports medicine aide instead.
His time as a student aide led him to pursue a career as a biomedical engineer. We both ended up at Wright State University, and even though he was not directly affiliated with our athletic training program, he often referred prospective athletic training students to me.
Class is in session
College is where athletic training students learn many of the ins and outs of their future field, but not everything about the industry can be learned from a book. Unless they had strong role models in the past, many do not understand what it means to be a health care professional.
As an educator and mentor, my job is to guide them. This begins by modeling professionalism in the classroom. I strive to display a positive attitude, organizational skills and preparedness, passion for and involvement in the field, and respect for my colleagues and students.
However, my pupils and I don’t always see eye-to-eye on what it means to be professional. One area we often clash on is the importance of professional attire. Some students simply do not view their appearance as an issue.
In order to illustrate where I stand on the subject, I refer to the scenario our local EMS captain uses when preparing athletic training students for their ride-alongs: “Imagine that you are at home, and your father is exhibiting signs of a heart attack. Two men show up to provide care. One is dressed in dark dress pants, with his shirt tucked in and a clean-shaven face. The other is wearing tattered jeans and a T-shirt and has long, unkempt hair. Who would you think is the EMT, and who would you want to assist your father?”
Numerous studies have shown that injured people gravitate to professionally dressed individuals for assistance during emergency situations. I tell my students that they do not have to be in a suit and tie when they run out on the field to treat an injury, but khaki pants and a polo shirt will go a long way in earning the trust of athletes and coaches.
Mentoring of athletic training students also extends to preparing them for the stressful situations that can occur on the job. As sports medicine providers, we are often in the public eye, so we have to respond professionally no matter the circumstance. It is my job as a mentor to make sure my students receive this message loud and clear.
One way I do this is by utilizing role-playing. Some sample scenarios include dealing with an irate coach or administrator; calming a hysterical, injured athlete; talking to a frustrated parent; providing information to a booster organization; and interviewing for a job. For the latter, I will bring in athletic training coordinators from several local sports medicine clinics and set up a group mock interview. One student is interviewed at a time, and the coordinators provide valuable positive and constructive feedback.
» ALSO SEE: Managing stress in the athletic trainer position
Over the years, I have mentored dozens of athletic training students, and I always strive to continue the relationships after they graduate and become health care professionals. In particular, I have two mentees with whom I continue to share a pretty special bond — Ashley Minnick, MSAH, AT, ATC; and Katie LaRue-Martin, MPH, AT, ATC. Ashley graduated in 2004, and Katie followed in 2007.
Since then, I have watched with tremendous pride as they have gone on to take active leadership roles and become mentors in their own right. Ashley is an athletic trainer at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, where she directs its internship program, mentoring athletic training students in their capstone educational experiences. Katie works at Kettering Sports Medicine Center in Dayton and oversees several of our graduates who work with her. She also serves as a preceptor for our athletic training program. Both have been honored as an Ohio Athletic Trainers’ Association (OATA) Athletic Trainer of the Year.
Ashley and Katie call me their “second mom,” and we have stayed in contact now for more than 10 years. We keep our relationship going by discussing ways to handle difficult situations, challenging workplace issues, and juggling levels of professional involvement.
One reason young athletic trainers leave the industry and move on to other career fields is that experienced professionals do not mentor them. Consequently, I firmly believe it is every athletic trainer’s responsibility to mentor their junior peers. Not only does it help them gain experience, but it is also vital for the continued growth of the profession.
When I got my first job as a high school teacher and athletic trainer nearly 30 years ago, I felt a little lost out on my own. Within my first week, a local athletic trainer reached out to me and invited me to join our local professional organization — the Greater Dayton Athletic Trainers’ Association (GDATA). I quickly developed a network of mentors and friends there who helped me grow professionally and personally. I also became more confident in my clinical and leadership skills, which positively impacted my teaching and athletic training.
The same athletic trainer who welcomed me into the GDATA nominated me for the position of Vice President a few years later. I eventually held other leadership positions in the GDATA and later the OATA, Great Lakes Athletic Trainers’ Association, and the NATA. The more I networked with colleagues, the more I wanted to give back and become a mentor to athletic trainers who were just starting out in the profession.
A mentor must assist young athletic trainers with developing the skills necessary for career advancement. I do this by regularly inviting new athletic trainers to GDATA meetings and asking them to be part of special projects or committees. This allows them to meet others in the field, share ideas and concerns, and become contributing members of the sports medicine community.
Another important function of a mentor is to help young athletic trainers expand their networks. Our profession is built on connections, and advancing in the industry is often directly related to who you know. I introduce my mentees to as many colleagues as I can and frequently reach out to veteran athletic trainers to make the first contact on their behalf.
At times, young athletic trainers can be hesitant to step outside of their comfort zones and dive into the profession headfirst. The mentor can help ease this apprehension by encouraging participation in low-risk volunteer activities, such as joining a local or regional organization or assisting with educational programs.
Making it work
The key to any successful mentoring relationship is active participation from both parties. However, sometimes athletes, students, or young professionals do not immediately see the benefit of such a relationship. When I encounter a resistant potential mentee, I work with them to identify their goals and explain how I can help them get where they want to go.
For example, by the time athletic training students start their last year in our program, they have a pretty good idea of what setting they want to work in, and they might not think I can be of much help anymore. But this is where mentors can be valuable resources, providing contacts and avenues to explore. Our faculty members meet with each senior to discuss their plans and concerns. Then, we tailor their clinical assignments and capstone internship projects to match their individual ambitions.
Another challenge arises when the mentor and mentee have very different personalities. Sometimes it can have a positive outcome, and the relationship can help the mentee develop new skills or learn to see things with a new perspective. Yet this type of relationship can quickly turn counterproductive if both sides cannot find common ground. When this occurs, both parties should decide whether to explore other opportunities, which may include working together to find a more suitable mentor.
The biggest challenge for me to overcome has been the time commitment that mentoring requires. Even though it can be difficult, I have found creative ways to fit my mentees into my schedule. For instance, I will ask them to lunch and use that time to discuss what’s going on in their lives. Or I will invite students or young professionals to carpool to association meetings, which gives us a chance to catch up.
I know that time is definitely in short supply for athletic trainers, but I always tell potential mentors that they should not pursue the relationship if they cannot fully invest in it. Mentoring requires ample one-on-one interaction, and it is not fair to either the mentor or mentee if this need cannot be met.
Despite the occasional challenge, mentoring has been incredibly rewarding for me and has helped me grow in a number of ways — most notably, in my communication skills. Early in my career, I simply provided advice to mentees and told them what to do. However, I have learned that it is better to guide their decision-making process by actively listening to what they say, summarizing it for clarification, and providing resources as needed.
Mentoring is truly a win-win-win situation. The mentor gives back by sharing their wisdom, the mentee becomes more confident and competent, and the field of athletic training benefits from the development of well-rounded, knowledgeable health care professionals who can go on to mentor the next generation.