Jan 29, 2015Q&A With Chris Hirth
By Kyle Garratt
In his first season as men’s basketball Head Athletic Trainer for the University of North Carolina, Chris Hirth, ATC, PT, PES, inherited national title expectations and the pressure of filling the shoes of a man who held the position for over 30 years. Hirth helped the team withstand injuries to key student-athletes early and late, including star guard Ty Lawson, who played through a painful turf toe injury during the 2009 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Title aspirations didn’t subside after early-season injuries hit the University of North Carolina Tarheels, including a broken foot for starting forward Marcus Ginyard, a fractured wrist for highly-touted freshman Tyler Zeller, and a stress reaction in All-American Tyler Hansbrough’s right shin.
After spending the last 13 years as an athletic trainer for men’s soccer, gymnastics, track and field, and women’s lacrosse, Hirth is adept at dealing with multiple injuries. He was athletic trainer for the 2001 men’s soccer national championship team and has also served as a lecturer in the Exercise and Sport Science Department, a supervising athletic trainer at the Smith Center, and a physical therapist for UNC’s Campus Health Services.
In addition to basketball, Hirth is the Head Athletic Trainer for swimming and diving. In this interview, he discusses the national title season, taking over for a long-time athletic trainer, and treating Lawson’s turf toe.
T&C: What was it like to win the national title?
Hirth: It was a once in a lifetime experience that athletic trainers who work for 30 years may never get. Words can’t describe it.
How did you approach the rash of basketball injuries, considering the team’s lofty expectations?
You can only control what you can control. As injuries popped up, we dealt with them on a daily basis from a medical, sports medicine, and athletic training standpoint. Other people set the expectations for the team–I just did my job, which is all I can control.
We took a one-day-at-a-time approach. We looked at the type of injury and talked to the coaching staff about managing the situation in the best interest of the athlete and the team. That’s all we could do.
Did you think the injuries would jeopardize the team’s season?
Sure, I think that’s natural. I took over the job from Mark Davis, who was in this position for over 30 years. One thing he taught me was that in order to win a national championship you must have three things: you have to be good, healthy, and lucky. There were times when the health of a lot of important players was compromised significantly.
What was it like to take over for someone as respected as Mark Davis?
Relatively smooth, thanks to Mark and the staff. Mark has taught me a lot in the 13 years I have been here. In the months before and after this transition, he gave me a lot of help. The coaching staff, the administrative staff, and the players were accommodating, friendly, and easy to work with, so they made it easy, too.
What advice did Davis give you?
We had a lot of injuries in preseason, but we also had a trip to Maui that he reminded me to look forward to. I would come in and say, “We have this injury and that injury,” just letting Mark know what was going on. Every time, he would tell me, “Just remember, you’re going to Maui.” That was an extremely enjoyable trip for a variety of reasons, one of them being we were in Maui in November, and the team was doing well. It’s the one piece of advice I will always remember–you’re going to Maui, so appreciate the good aspects–and he was right.
What advice do you have for other athletic trainers taking over for someone of that stature?
Do what has worked and don’t try to change a lot right away. I would do what the players and coaching staff are comfortable with. When you have a chance to sit back and evaluate things, make some small, incremental changes and see how they’re taken. You can only be yourself and do your job. Even under adverse conditions, you just do what you know and control what you can because there are a lot of things you can’t control.
How did you treat Ty Lawson’s turf toe?
We tried to get pain and swelling under control. We protected the toe with different tape jobs and by stiffening the shoe to make sure it wouldn’t bend. We had to limit how he practiced and keep him out of practice altogether at times. Meanwhile, he did a lot of deep-water running and bike workouts to maintain some level of fitness.
What was it like to deal with such a highly publicized injury?
I don’t want to make it sound like I wasn’t aware of all the media attention, but we just focused on rehab, treatment, and communicating with the coaching staff, because that’s all we could control. We knew there was a lot of media attention, especially when he was making a return to activity, but we just did what we normally do with this type of injury.
What were the keys for his successful return?
Giving it a chance to rest, getting some treatment and rehab, and maintaining activity in the water. Probably the biggest part was his ability to play with some discomfort while not being 100 percent. It’s an injury you can play with, but it’s very painful and uncomfortable. He was mentally tough enough to make it work.
What will you remember most about the season?
Probably first and foremost that we won a national championship and we did it under adverse conditions. It wasn’t a slam dunk. We had great players, a great coaching staff, and a lot of support, but we dealt with a lot of injuries. I will remember how the guys who dealt with injuries battled through everything, never lost sight of what they wanted, and got it in a demonstrative way. They beat a lot of good teams, beat them well, and withstood a lot of pressure in doing it.
Did they use your athletic training scissors to cut down the nets?
I gave my golden scissors to Tyler Hansbrough, and he used them to cut down his part of the net. I’m not sure what happened to them after that. They were there for a second and then they were gone. If Tyler has them, that’s fine. He deserves them.
Can you describe your career path after you graduated from North Carolina?
I worked a couple of years in a sports medicine private practice and then I came back here in 1996. I worked with men’s soccer, gymnastics, track and field, and women’s lacrosse for various periods of time. I spent three years in a lecturer position from 2005 to 2008, when I took this position. I continued to work with soccer during that time and I have also worked as a physical therapist for our campus health service the entire time I have worked here.
What has it been like to transition to treating fewer teams?
It’s nice to focus on one team because you get to know the coaches and players a bit more. Before, I had to be really good at juggling teams and giving my graduate assistants a lot of autonomy by saying, “I’m not going to be here, you’re traveling with this team, call me if you need me.” I think our graduate assistants appreciate that. When you’re with one team, you do everything and it’s a nice experience to have, but it’s also demanding.
How do you balance all your athletic training, physical therapy, and lecturing responsibilities?
I have a wonderful support network at home in my wife and my son, who are behind me 100 percent. The people I work with are very supportive and helpful. Having good support networks is important. Try to get time for yourself and take care of yourself by getting rest, exercising, and eating right so you can continue to function well. Stay healthy and keep the stress under control.
At this point I have some time to recover after the season. Take advantage of that time to be with your family while you can and recognize a time will come when work will throw everything out of balance. You have to look at your week and find time to focus on family. Make family life a priority whenever you can.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself when you graduated from North Carolina?
Enjoy the good and the bad as much as you can. Even in bad times, you need to sit back, put it in perspective, and enjoy it for what it’s worth. Take away what you can because you can learn a whole lot from tough situations that will help you down the road.
What are some of the tough situations you have learned from?
There have been situations where athletes don’t return as quickly as they and everyone else would like, and it can be very frustrating. In athletic training, we try to get people back as quickly and safely as we can. Sometimes you question what you are doing and how you are doing it because things aren’t going quickly enough simply for the fact that it’s the way that person is coming along. You can beat yourself up pretty easily, but you can’t take those things personally. When you’re younger you tend to do that. When you get more experience and a better perspective, you don’t take those things to heart as much. Especially as a young professional, you need to consider that some things won’t go by the book.
What are the best and worst parts of your job?
I may start work at 7:30 in the morning and finish at 8 at night. So the bad part is that even though I love what I do, I’m away from my family. The best part is that I get to work with a hall of fame coach and elite level athletes who are also great people in a fun and competitive environment with a lot of great resources.
What advice would you have for other athletic trainers working at highly visible programs?
Everything comes under heightened scrutiny and you just have to deal with that. Do what you’re trained to do, and usually things will work out okay. There are a lot of people who have a vested interest in the program and are watching everything you do, but at the end of the day you just need to do your job.
What is most important for others to know about you and your position?
We’re here to take care of the athletes. We treat a lot of injury and illness to make sure the athletes are able to function at the level they want and expect to function at. I’m here to make sure they are doing what they need to be doing and maintaining their health in the process.
Kyle Garratt is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.