Jan 29, 2015MS, ATC … DAD
For some athletic trainers, taking care of hundreds of athletes gets a little more complicated when their own children show up in the athletic training room.
By Larry Cooper
Larry Cooper, MS, ATC, is the Head Athletic Trainer at Penn Trafford High School in Harrison City, Pa., where he also teaches health and physical education and sports medicine. He can be reached at: [email protected].
Being an athletic trainer allows me to regularly witness incredible athletic feats, observe great teamwork, and watch countless students grow and develop as athletes and into adults. I get to do all this on a daily basis, and I have a front row seat. These perks are a big reason why I enjoy being an athletic trainer, and they became even more significant when my daughters started coming to the school where I am employed.
My two oldest daughters, Sara and Molly, spent all four of their high school years here at Penn Trafford High School in Harrison City, Pa., and my youngest, Delaney, just started this year. As the head athletic trainer and a teacher at the high school my daughters attended, I have been fortunate to spend more time with my children than most parents could dream of. Watching them grow, develop, mature, interact with their peers, and compete has been among my greatest rewards as a parent, teacher, and athletic trainer.
But it hasn’t always been easy. I’ve overheard parents say that my daughters made the team only because I was the athletic trainer. I’ve also seen other students accuse my daughters of getting preferential treatment in the classroom or in the athletic training room. Of course, none of those things were ever true, and my daughters and I knew that, but the words still stung.
Regardless, the ups heavily outweighed the downs. I figured out rather quickly that the right thing to do was to keep quiet when someone made a careless comment within earshot. I made sure that I stuck to my principles and beliefs at home, in the classroom, and in my role as an athletic trainer–no matter what challenge I was facing.
AS AN ATHLETIC TRAINER
Without a doubt, my most difficult time as an athletic trainer-parent was when one of my daughters suffered a serious injury. When she was a junior on the cross country team, Molly sustained a tibia stress fracture and severe overuse syndrome of the other tibia. She ended up wearing two walking boots for six weeks.
Before her formal diagnosis, I was there for all of her practices and meets and could see her slowing down, a change in gait, and increased frustration. I saw first-hand the changes in mood, depression, withdrawal, and alienation that injured athletes go through. It was difficult to watch Molly become unable to do something she absolutely loved.
But it also gave me an entirely new and different perspective on what it’s like for a high school athlete to be injured. I know that my daily interaction and discussions with all of my injured student-athletes changed after Molly’s injury. I became more compassionate and understanding of what they are going through–physically, mentally, and emotionally.
And I started to think outside the proverbial box in respect to treatment methods, psychology, and return-to-play protocols. During her rehab, Molly saw both my co-worker and I for treatments on a daily basis. She was also an athletic training student aide and it was neat to see her practice as a patient what she preached. She was very compliant and motivated. Her willingness to work and be consistent with treatments made me investigate and research newer as well as traditional treatment protocols to help expedite her recovery.
For example, the experience prompted me to adjust the way we handle shin splints. It also forced me to read up on devices that were being used to treat and manage pain associated with shin splints, stress fractures, and other overuse conditions.
AS A TEACHER
In addition to being the head athletic trainer at Penn Trafford, I also teach health and physical education and a sports medicine course. The sports medicine class meets during the school day, and I see the students again after school when they serve as athletic training student aides at practices and games.
I was lucky enough to have both Sara and Molly serve as athletic training student aides all four years they were in high school. This gave me a chance to see first-hand what sort of students they were. It was very rewarding and refreshing to watch them develop and grow in the classroom and on-field settings. It was incredible to see how easily they were able to grasp and apply their knowledge because of their exposure to the athletic training room, practices, games, and just plain observing me as an athletic trainer prior to entering high school.
When I assigned homework in our sports medicine class or scheduled a test, I treated my daughters the same way as any other students in the class. And when the girls came home from school and practice, if they were having difficulty understanding a concept, finding the location of a bone, figuring out the function of a muscle, or understanding an injury or illness, they would ask for my help. It really was no different than if they were having problems in math or science class.
However, when Sara or Molly did well on a test or assignment, some classmates assumed that they had ready access to study guides, tests, and extra help from me. These students did not realize how little time I actually spent with my daughters at home. I was providing athletic healthcare after school every day, sometimes late at night. When I was home, I actually found myself wishing they would ask for my assistance more often–but I understood their desire to achieve on their own, too.
Despite hearing these unfortunate whispers from jaded classmates, my daughters didn’t stop displaying their knowledge and understanding of the athletic training profession in the athletic training room and at practices and games. In fact, my daughters’ motivation to achieve in class led to increased competitiveness and learning for all of the students. I especially remember that the competitive juices were really alive and flowing during the taping and wrapping section of the class.
Though it may not be the right approach for every parent who has a son or daughter in their classroom, my daughters called me “Dad” instead of “Mr. Cooper” in class and after school as athletic training student aides. They both came and asked me before the first class whether it was okay if they called me Dad. I assured them that because of the nature of the class, it would be fine. It fit the theme that we try to promote in our athletic training room: that we are a big family with common goals. Some of the other students ended up calling me Dad once in a while, too, and I never gave it a second thought. (On one occasion I was even called Grandpa–that one I will remember!)
The after-school portion of the sports medicine class proved to be a more difficult working situation for me than having Sara and Molly in class. I felt more pressure in this environment to make sure that my daughters were not getting preferential treatment in any way.
For example, I insisted that both girls strictly adhere to all of the policies and rules of the after-school portion of the sports medicine class. We have a half-hour rule, which says the athletic training student aides have to report a minimum of 30 minutes before the athletes are scheduled to report. And the only acceptable reasons for not reporting on scheduled days are a death in the family or illness.
Like any other student in the class, if Sara or Molly had a doctor’s appointment or another legitimate obligation, they were allowed to skip their after-school athletic training requirements that day. If Sara or Molly missed a scheduled day, other students might use that as an excuse to take a day off themselves, so I had to make sure that my daughters followed the correct procedures to the T.
For Sara and Molly, it was a good lesson in understanding obligations, responsibilities, and level of commitment to the athletic training program. When other students saw that I was not giving them special privileges, it cut down on missed days and other rules being broken.
Something I struggle with as an athletic trainer at the secondary school level is the student-athletes’ disclosure of their own injuries. It’s spotty at best. Athletes often feel that if they report an injury to me, they will automatically be held out of practices and games–so they avoid telling me when they’re hurt. Sara and Molly, and in turn the rest of the sports medicine class, have actually helped me with this problem.
My daughters felt comfortable telling me about an athlete they saw limping into their anatomy class, and the rest of the class followed suit. As a result, dialogue among all of the athletic training student aides improved. I think that, overall, it helped students in the program become more responsible and dedicated to what they were doing. And of course it helped my co-workers and I treat injuries and prevent small injuries from becoming big problems.
AS A PARENT
The most challenging role I filled while Sara and Molly attended high school here at Penn Trafford was that of an athlete’s parent. And as any father or mother can attest to, it was also the most rewarding.
I learned a lot of parenting lessons during my daughters’ high school years. The first one was that it’s important to be a good role model for your children, even when faced with a difficult situation involving other student-athletes’ parents.
When my daughters played soccer and volleyball in middle school, there was little emphasis on winning. Participation was much more about being active, developing social skills, and growing as a person. My wife and I always made sure to emphasize the fun aspects of being on a team, and I think most parents are comfortable with this approach to athletics at that level.
But playing on a high school team often means tryouts, and not every athlete can make the cut, which can lead to hurt feelings and resentment from those who come up short. These feelings led to an uncomfortable situation when both of my daughters were freshmen. They tried out for the freshman volleyball team and made the squad. It was a big accomplishment and I was very proud of them.
Unfortunately, some parents of other athletes didn’t feel that my daughters made the team on their own merits–they believed they made it only because I was the athletic trainer. They also had no qualms about expressing this opinion within earshot of myself, my wife, and even my daughters.
Sometimes the hardest part of being a parent is not getting involved in every little blip in our children’s lives. Though it was my first instinct to confront the parents and defend my daughter, I chose to remain quiet. As hard as it was to ignore the rude comments and ridiculous allegations, I tried to be a good role model by letting the ugly accusations roll off my back. This was even more important to do as an employee of the school. If I had lost my cool, I could have lost my job or at least my credibility.
I also wanted to let both of my daughters learn from the experience. I think that it helped prepare them for the future by illustrating how harsh the world can be at times.
I have also been on the other side of the fence when one of my daughters didn’t make a team. I watched one of my daughters perform well and show the necessary skills, and I thought she was unfairly cut. I felt she should have made the team and was devastated for my daughter, but chose to take the high road and not say anything to the coach about the situation.
However, the incident prodded me to examine my own practices to make sure that nothing I was doing on a daily basis–involving any student-athletes on campus–could be misconstrued as me being unfair or inequitable. Fortunately, I have a great co-worker who I was able to discuss the issue with at length. We got together and looked at things from an objective perspective. In the end we both felt like I was doing a good job in being a fair teacher, athletic trainer, and school employee. I think that doing a self-evaluation at that point in my career also made me a better parent.
As our children grow up into teenagers, one of the aspects of parenting that is hard for any of us to get comfortable with is the dynamics of the high school dating scene. My wife and I joked that it was great for us that I worked at the high school because I could “spy” on our daughters if I wanted to. But I’m sure that Sara and Molly would admit that having their father around school grounds wasn’t necessarily a benefit for them when it came to dating.
I will never forget one incident from a few years ago. I was working football practice and the cross country runners were running by the hydration station close to the field where I was working. Molly was on the team and she and a group of her teammates stopped for a drink.
After they continued on their run, a new student on the football team who had recently transferred in came up to me and said, “Hey Coop, do you know that blonde?” My reply was, “Yeah, very well. Why?” He said, “Do you think you could get me her phone number?”
Caught off guard, I didn’t know how to react other than to just say, “No.” He looked at me and asked why not, to which I replied, “Because she is my daughter.” He turned crimson red, said “No way!” and walked back to the team. The entire football team and coaching staff were laughing at the exchange.
Working at a high school means I am exposed–much more so than the average parent–to how high school-aged boys think. It’s helped me to communicate with Sara, Molly, and Delaney as they reach a new level of maturity. Because of our conversations, they started to see dating and social situations from an adult perspective early on. It made them more skeptical of certain classmates’ motives and they saw that some people are not as sincere as they may appear on the surface.
I have learned to be patient and tried to let my daughters live their own lives without being an overbearing father. I like the saying, “Everything truly special in life requires a certain amount of sacrifice.” When Sara and Molly entered high school here, I had to take a step back from where I was most comfortable in my role as a father.
Instead of my worst fear that we would become distant from one another, I got to share their growing experiences every day. That is truly special in my eyes and something I would never trade or take for granted. I’ve been fortunate to see Sara and Molly come through and leave the doors of Penn Trafford, and I look forward to more of the same as Delaney has started here this year.
Sidebar: FAMILY VALUES
My family has been a part of my work since my children could walk. This has been possible due to a number of circumstances, but mostly because it has been a focus of my wife and I since day one.
My wife is very supportive and understands my job and the time commitment it requires. When our daughters were very young she brought them to the athletic training room so we could all spend time together. The athletic training room and gymnasium became like a second home to them. Eventually, the girls thought nothing of spending time helping with cleaning, stocking tables, and just hanging out in the athletic training room.
One of my favorite family traditions is held before Friday night home football games. For the past 20 years, our family has gotten together for pizza outside of the athletic training room before I do treatments and taping. Then my daughters work on the sidelines handing out water cups, making ice towels, and helping to clean up after the game. They have even witnessed some suture work by our physicians.
My daughters have told me that they truly understand what I do for a living and that a lot of their friends have no idea what types of jobs their parents have. They also understand my nights away at athletic events, early morning treatments, and a lot of the other time-intensive parts of my job.
Being involved in my work has also given my daughters the opportunity to meet parents, coaches, former athletes, officials, and other adults at young ages. Their exposure to all of these groups has given them the ability to carry on a conversation with anyone. This is something I am proud of and feel will serve them well in their chosen professions. It has also helped them converse with their teachers and coaches on a more mature level. In addition, my children have a huge network of athletic training friends and acquaintances, both students and adults.
The experiences that my children have had at the high school have also encouraged my wife to become active in the athletic department by running the scoreboard at all junior high and varsity wrestling matches. This has allowed us all to spend more time together and it gives my wife the chance to see the girls the same way that I do.
I can thank the high school administration for allowing and fostering this type of atmosphere. It is a direct reflection of our community’s and my family’s values. All in all, I’m very fortunate to work at a high school and in a school district that understands and supports family values so well.