Jan 29, 2015
Meeting in the Middle

Although many athletic trainers cringe at the thought of negotiating, learning the art can help you get more staff, more pay, and more respect.

By Dr. Chadron Hazelbaker

Chadron Hazelbaker, PhD, MPE, ATC, CSCS, NSCA-CPT, is an Instructor at Eastern Washington University, Head Athletic Trainer at Liberty High School in Spangle, Wash., and NATA District 10 CIC Representative. He recently completed his doctorate in Leadership Studies at Gonzaga University and can be reached at: [email protected].

This spring I was fortunate to be in Washington, D.C., for joint meetings of the NATA’s COE, COR, CIC, and GA task forces. During one session, the groups discussed obtaining professional level salaries for certified athletic trainers.

A comment by a highly respected NATA member, who is in an executive position at her clinic, has stayed with me since. Explaining that she has hired and set salaries for healthcare professionals for many years, she said, “Upon offering a job to an athletic trainer, I have never had one of them negotiate a salary. All other professionals have negotiated their pay and position. Athletic trainers have taken what I’ve offered.”

Being an athletic trainer means we have to be talented in many areas. Negotiating is obviously not one of those areas. Or is it?

When working with coaches, athletes, physicians, and administrators, we often need to discuss and reach decisions on a wide variety of issues. This is certainly a form of negotiating. Maybe it’s just when we negotiate for our own needs that we become hamstrung. In this article, I’ll take a look at how the business world tackles the art of negotiation and how the methods they use can help us become better at our jobs and more effective at the bargaining table.


Negotiations come into play in any relationship where two parties want seemingly conflicting outcomes. One example that immediately comes to people’s minds is setting a salary. On one side, the worker wants to get the most money for his or her work. On the other side, the manager or business owner strives to keep operating costs down.

Both parties have desires. Both parties have vested interest in the outcome. Negotiations are the way that process comes to a close.

Another typical example involves negotiating prices with a vendor. Many athletic trainers order supplies to keep their athletic training rooms running. This consists of working with companies you trust and want to continue a relationship with, while still getting a price that best serves your athletic department or clinic.

When a topic involves financial gain or loss, it’s easy to see how negotiating is important. But when else in an athletic trainer’s workday does this skill present itself? Actually, it occurs more often than you might think. In fact, all of us negotiate without even thinking about it.

Consider what happens when you’re working with an athlete on a rehab. Let’s say you feel a cautious approach is needed in this particular case, but the athlete wants to do “whatever it takes” to get back in the game. You suspect he may start doing additional workouts on his own if he doesn’t feel pushed hard enough. So you educate him on what happens if he overdoes it and increase the intensity a bit so he feels challenged. You negotiate an outcome that works for both of you.

Return-to-play decisions also require a form of negotiation. There are some cut-and-dried criteria and goals that must be met before an athlete is allowed to safely and fully return to participation in a sport. However, the athletic trainer must communicate and negotiate with the coach as part of the work leading up to this total return. The coach wants the athlete back as soon as possible, while you focus on serving the interests of the athlete’s long-term health.

Working a wrestling tournament a few years ago, I was asked to evaluate an athlete on another team who injured his shoulder. In this situation I had a certain amount of expert power due to my training and skill sets, but no real authority to keep the athlete out of competition that day. I could only give advice after completing my evaluation of his shoulder.

The athlete, wanting to please his parents and coaches, was determined to get back on the mat and compete in the tournament. I felt he should not, but had to negotiate with the athlete and his coach. I listened to why he wanted to compete and explained what long-term problems could arise if he did. I helped him understand that a preseason tournament was not as important as his long-term health, and that rushing back could hurt his chances for future athletic success.

As you can see, athletic trainers practice the art of negotiation every day. You actually already have the skill set. But how can you extend this expertise to other contexts where negotiating may not come as naturally? And how can the art of negotiation help in your daily work?


Most people imagine negotiations as a contest. Two sides wrestle over an issue and the conquering side takes all at the end of the day. Because we work in an athletic setting, I think this idea of negotiating as a win-lose proposition is especially true for us. In most sports medicine settings or athletic departments, we help athletes overcome obstacles or conquer competition. We help them win.

In an athletic contest, there is a winner and a loser, and athletes learn to leave the emotions of the game in the locker room. In most cases, there are no hard feelings afterward.

However, when negotiations have a win or lose outcome, the participants tend not to leave the emotions of losing in a locker room. Personal feelings often come into the negotiation sessions, and then the discussion becomes about sides–an “us vs. them” attitude–and getting “my way.” The hurt feelings of “losing” can remain, especially if the “loser” feels their personal position has been beaten down. The relationship between the two parties may be permanently damaged.

Think about this model in terms of the wrestler who wanted to ignore his shoulder injury. If the athlete says, “I don’t care what the athletic trainer says, I’m wrestling,” then the athletic trainer involved may feel disrespected. He or she may carry that attitude forward and resent the athlete. What if that athlete is injured again in the tournament? Does the athletic trainer carry a bit of an “I told you” attitude into the next examination? Does the athletic trainer hesitate to help the athlete a second time? The truly ethical professional may not have these emotions, but many of us will.

On the other hand, if the athletic trainer wins the negotiation by telling tournament officials to ban the athlete from competition, the athlete ends up feeling powerless. He may no longer trust that athletic trainer or any future athletic trainer he deals with, and when he is injured again, he will avoid medical assistance entirely.

In either of these situations, one side wins the negotiations. But the lasting ramifications of a broken long-term relationship outweigh the superficial victory.

Similar things can happen in negotiating a salary with a boss. I have been in a position where I felt the need to negotiate a salary increase while working in the clinical setting. When I was a young professional making the “standard pay” for an athletic trainer in the company, my wife gave birth to our first child. As I looked at this new responsibility in my life, I felt my pay, benefits, and work hours would all have to change in order for me to be the best family man possible.

Unfortunately, my personal story and emotions walked into the clinic manager’s office with me. My thoughts centered on my needs only, and my feelings came out in phrases like “you’re taking food out of my family members’ mouths if you don’t give me a raise.”

Yes, my emotions and my position were strong–I truly needed and deserved the raise. However, I failed to consider what would happen if I didn’t get the raise. In that situation, my side takes a hit, and when I come to work I would have the feeling that the company didn’t care about my family. The reality is that it did care about my family a great deal, but it also must make fiscally responsible decisions. I didn’t stop to think about how the company needed to consider its own long-term viability. This approach damaged our relationship.

But what if there is a way for negotiations to give both sides what they want? If negotiations are about getting an outcome that pleases a person when a conflict arises, can both parties come out of a conflict with the feeling that they’ve won? Can there be a win-win situation in these types of issues?

Luckily, the answer is a resounding yes. While we may work in a competitive environment where the goal is to win, if we look closer at what we do as allied healthcare providers, we can realize our role is more about helping athletes, coaches, and co-workers reach their highest potential. We work to help everyone around us win. Victory may be the goal on the field, but it is not the goal of our everyday interactions.


A wonderful book that presents the idea of win-win negotiating in an insightful way is Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton of the Harvard Negotiation Project. First published in 1981 (with a second edition published in 1991), its ideas have slowly been tested out in the business world and are trickling down to all professions.

With a little translation, I feel the concepts can be a great tool for athletic trainers in any setting. They are organized into four guidelines: people, positions, creative solutions, and objective goals.

People Bring Emotions: In conflict, we often label the other side in order to dehumanize it. The team in the visiting locker room is the enemy to be crushed. In negotiations, we use empty terms like “them” or “upper-level administrators” or “clinic owner.”

However, when working toward positive discussions, remember that the other side is made up of people, not just titles. And people have emotions. Not only do you bring your emotions, values, and experiences into the negotiations, they do too.

Both parties are also unpredictable. There is no rule book nor are there any officials. Especially in a new situation, there may be no precedent for what are appropriate or inappropriate arguments.

Third, egos tend to become involved. When people have strong emotions about an issue, winning means upholding their pride as well as their interests.

For example, in dealing with the wrestler who wants to return to competition, is the issue just about what is best for the athlete’s long-term health? Or is there a deeper issue about the athletic trainer’s pride and the athlete’s drive? Is the salary negotiation about fair wages, or is it also about feeling inadequate as a new parent and seeing the clinic owner drive an expensive sports car?

In order to negotiate successfully, you must be able to get past the emotions of the situation. You have to work at separating the people from the problem at hand and work on solutions.

Interests vs. Positions: Part of the work toward productive negotiations then becomes what Fisher, Ury, and Patton call focusing on interests instead of positions. This idea completely reframes the negotiation from a competition to a creative process that takes into consideration both parties’ interests. Each side strives to understand the other’s interests, so together they can find a mutually agreeable solution.

Say you are buying supplies for the upcoming football season. The vendor sets a price for athletic tape that is considerably higher than the year before. You are angry at how this will affect your already too tight budget and assume the dealer is trying to make a quick buck. When you complain, the dealer assumes you are cheap and unrealistic. This negotiation will quickly break down and cause hurt feelings and bruised relationships.

However, by considering the interests of both parties, the situation is framed in a more understanding way. The athletic trainer may not be cheap, but rather needs to find a way to provide optimal services for athletes within a cut budget. Likewise, instead of being out to make a quick buck, the dealer may only look to cover the cost of supplies and make a profit that will allow her to pay her employees a livable wage.

By looking at these two parties’ interests rather than the position of lower or higher prices, the negotiations can occur at a different level and a deeper understanding. This can lead to creative solutions where both parties walk away satisfied.

Getting Creative: I know an athletic trainer who has thought about leaving the field due to long hours and low pay. She is struggling with balancing work and family, and feels if she is going to work long and hard hours, making more money will at least allow her to afford better daycare and pay for some household help. But when she asks her athletic director for a raise, he says no. The athletic program is facing budget problems and can’t afford to increase anyone’s salary.

The athletic trainer considers leaving the field. This would be a huge loss for her athletic department, and the profession would lose a promising future leader.

What would happen if both sides understood and discussed each others’ interests and worked on a creative solution? The athletic trainer’s interest is in fulfilling her role as a parent and the department’s interest is in controlling its costs. If both parties are able to focus on these interests, the negotiations no longer focus on the win and lose of “who gets the money” but instead look for ways to find a solution that fits both parties’ interests.

Understanding this, both sides can realize that the solution may lie outside of a raise. One idea may be decreased overtime. Another may be increased vacation time. Or how about compiling comp time? Maybe other athletic trainers can assume some of her duties to lighten her workload.

Other solutions can focus on the department’s needs. Perhaps the athletic program can offer a bonus to the athletic trainer if she can figure out how to cut her budget by a certain amount.

Objective Factors: In order to successfully go through this type of negotiation process, a key point is to focus on objective factors. By focusing on what is objective, the negotiations are able to move away from emotions and egos, and focus on the outcomes based on the interests of the parties.

Bringing objective factors to the table does require preparation–the athletic trainer needs to do his or her homework before entering into discussions. For example, in a salary discussion, the athletic trainer needs to understand the market value for his or her position. What are similar people in similar positions making in their work? If the standard wage in a given area for an entry level clinical athletic trainer is $13 an hour, and you arrive with five years of experience and are offered $12, you have excellent objective data to negotiate for a higher starting salary.

You can also research objective data when negotiating for an additional assistant athletic trainer on your staff. Find out how many athletic trainers are on staff at other schools in your conference. Take a look at research articles and NATA position papers on appropriate number of athletic trainers per sport team. Also, bring to the table any factors that make your situation unique, such as practice fields that are a long distance from each other.


Sometimes, it also helps for both parties to agree on fair procedures for their negotiations. What are the options for making decisions? Who will have the final say? Is there an objective source that both parties trust? What procedures will be fair for everyone to follow and use in the negotiation process?

In the example of my own negotiation as a young athletic trainer seeking a raise, one procedurally fair process may have been to take the decision past my direct supervisor to an upper-level manager. Similarly, there might be an outside arbitrator who can examine an issue from the outside and help guide the process without emotions and egos.

These guidelines are not meant as a cure-all for negotiations, but rather to help broaden the perspectives of athletic trainers seeking to hone their skills in this area. By focusing on objective data and the interests of all of the involved parties rather than people and emotions, everybody walk away from the table feeling like they have won. Effective and efficient negotiations can happen.



This site teaches life, career, and management training skills. It also has forums to allow professionals to discuss their approach to solving career problems and conflicts.


A multi-disciplinary center for research and teaching about conflict and its transformation, the University of Colorado Conflict Research Consortium site offers articles on more than 400 topics as well as links to recommended sources.


The home page of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, this site includes the “Negotiation” newsletter as well as links to articles on negotiating.


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