Jan 29, 2015
Q&A with Aaron Nelson

By Mike Phelps

The Phoenix Suns are off to quick start this NBA season and Head Athletic Trainer Aaron Nelson has been an integral part of the team’s success–and many around the country are starting to take notice. Nelson, MS, ATC-L, PES, CES, CSCS, in his 16th season with the organization, was recently named by the NBA Athletic Trainers Association as the Joe O’Toole NBA Athletic Trainer of the Year for the 2008-09 season. Here, Nelson discusses the honor, life in the NBA, and corrective exercise strategy.

T&C: What did it mean to receive the NBA Athletic Trainer of the Year award?

Nelson: It was a huge honor. Any time you’re honored by your peers is a big deal. I’m very appreciative and humbled by it. It’s just a great honor.

How did you end up working with the Suns?

I did my undergrad at Iowa State University. The Suns owned a few indoor teams–the Arizona Rattlers, Arizona Sandsharks, and indoor team tennis–and between my junior and senior year I did some work with them. After my senior year, I came back and started grad school at Arizona State University. I got hired by the Suns after my first semester at Arizona State.

It was a career goal I had to be an athletic trainer for a professional team, particularly basketball. When I got the opportunity I was pretty excited about it.

What are the best and worst parts of NBA life?

The best part is just trying to keep the guys healthy, and watching them play. It’s good for us as athletic trainers, the team, and the fans to see the players healthy and on the court.

The tough part is probably the travel. There’s a lot of crazy days and nights. This year in particular has been very brutal. From October to early December we were on the road almost the entire time. The travel catches up to you, especially when you have a family.

What has been the key to keeping so many of your veteran players healthy?

Our approach is the same whether it’s a rookie or a veteran. The only difference with the veteran guys is probably that they spend a little more time with us, whether it’s work on the table, manual therapy, stretching, or soft tissue work.

With the veteran guys, they know their bodies so they’re a little more apt to tell us right away that something isn’t feeling right and we can address it a lot quicker. But with everyone from our rookies to the oldest guys on the team, we start with our preseason assessment and build out a corrective exercise strategy for each player. Again, with the veterans and guys who are playing more minutes, we pay very close attention to make sure their bodies keep moving the way they’re supposed to be moving and that helps us keep them on the court.

What is involved in corrective exercise strategy?

Basically, we’ll do an assessment to figure out which muscles are tight, which muscles are weak, and then put together a solution around that. For the muscles that are tight, we put together a flexibility and manual therapy program, and for the muscles that are weak, we build a corrective exercise strategy around that.

Every player does both. It’s easy for a guy to lie on the table and have me manipulate his muscles and do different things with them because they don’t have to put forth a lot of effort. But the corrective exercise part is just as important. If I’m loosening one area, we want to make sure the opposite is strong. They know I’m not going to do anything on the table with them unless they do the corrective exercises with my staff.

Here, we implement the optimal performance training module. You start with stabilization and the corrective piece and build from there. We build corrective, then stabilization, then strength and power. A lot of people jump right into getting players stronger and faster. We want to make sure they’re moving efficiently and correctly so they’re not predisposed to an injury. It’s like putting a bigger, stronger engine on a car with the same bad brakes. You want to make sure the brakes are good then build the engine after that.

You’re a member of the Arizona Athletic Trainers Association and serve on the performance advisory board at the NASM. Is it important for athletic trainers to be involved in organizations like these?

I think so. I felt very knowledgeable and good about myself as a certified athletic trainer when I came out of college, but I’ve really changed my total philosophy and approach after working with NASM.

Now, I look at what’s causing the injury rather than looking at the actual injury. If one of my players comes in with a sore knee, I’m not looking at just the knee and saying you have some inflammation. I’m looking at what’s causing that. It could be coming from the hips, a foot, an ankle, or somewhere else, so there’s a lot of different things you have to look at. We look at the entire body and try to pick out the dysfunction or what’s causing the issue and then correct it and hopefully prevent it from happening in the future.

For athletic trainers, the corrective exercise specialist is a great model to look at and implement. There’s a lot of different credentials and certifications out there, but this is really something you can implement to make a difference in the performance of your athletes.

What rehab from your career that sticks out to you?

A recent one is probably Amare Stoudemire’s microfracture rehab. It was time consuming. It was months of work. Trying to keep the athletes engaged and focused and reassured that they’re going to do well when they’re done is a challenge.

To view a T&C feature describing Nelson’s work with Stoudemire, click here.

Mike Phelps is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

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