Jan 29, 2015
Q&A with Darryl Conway

University of Maryland

Though a lot of people would balk at the amount of responsibility Darryl Conway, MA, ATC, EMT, has as Assistant Athletics Director for Sports Medicine at the University of Maryland, he says he has the best job in the world. Conway oversees the day-to-day operations of a staff that includes 17 athletic trainers, two physical therapists, and nine physicians, and coordinates coverage for the Terrapins’ 27 athletic teams and 750 student-athletes. He also stays active clinically, assisting with coverage for the Maryland football team.

And his responsibilities as an athletic trainer don’t stop there. When he isn’t busy running the Maryland sports medicine department or working with the football team, Conway’s schedule remains full. He volunteers as an Athletic Trainer/EMT/Tactical Medic with the City of Laurel Police Department Emergency Response/SWAT Team and as an EMT with the Bladensburg Volunteer Fire Department. He also sits on the advisory board of the Center for College and University Sports Medicine Appropriate Medical Coverage & Risk Management.

While the vast majority of Conway’s clinical experience has come at the NCAA Division I level, he started his career as an Assistant Athletic Trainer with the New York Jets, a position he held from 1993 to 1996. From there, he made stops at the University of Delaware, Morgan State University, the University of Northern Iowa, and the University of Central Florida, before arriving at Maryland in 2004. In this interview, Conway discusses the keys to being an effective manager and leader, adapting to a changing athletic department, and how his experiences with the SWAT team help him in the athletic training room.

T&C: How would you describe your management style?

Conway: I’m usually very laid back. I try not to interfere with the clinical aspects, because everyone on staff is a certified athletic trainer. If you have that certification, you know what you’re doing in the athletic training room and on the field. I just try to make sure we’re organized and running efficiently.

What is the key to staying organized?

First and foremost is communication–making sure all parties are on the same page and everyone is talking with each other. I’d say 95 percent of the issues I deal with involve a communication breakdown. Whether it’s coaches, student-athletes, parents, or other administrators, somewhere along the line somebody hasn’t been communicated with appropriately or doesn’t understand what they’ve been told. If my staff has good communication skills, whether written, verbal, or non-verbal, that avoids a lot of issues.

Is there a form of communication that you’ve found works best?

In this day and age, there are so many ways to communicate. My rule is, if you text or e-mail somebody, follow it up with a phone call or in-person conversation to make sure the recipient understands what you sent them. I basically use e-mail as my task list, so if somebody wants to remind me to do something, I tell them to e-mail it to me. I’ll have it sitting in my inbox, and then as I finish things, I delete the messages.

Why do you continue to work with the football team?

It allows me to stay involved clinically and going to practice gets me out of the office. I think I have the best of both worlds. I get to be in charge of the department, but also work clinically.

Maryland’s athletic department has seen a lot of turnover this past year, with a new athletic director as well as new head coaches for both football and men’s basketball. How has that affected you?

My job hasn’t really changed, but there’s a lot of new energy and focus, which has been great. I speak directly with the new athletic director more than I did with our previous athletic director–not that I didn’t get along with the previous one, but it is a change in management style.

Everything new takes some getting used to, but I enjoy the challenge. I see it as professional development. If you work under one boss your whole life, you don’t really know what else is out there. Having the opportunity to work under somebody who’s been different places, knows different people, and comes in with different ideas is something that can help me improve at my job.

What is your philosophy on hiring athletic trainers?

First and foremost, I look for someone who’s a team player. I can’t have an individual on the sports medicine team. I’m also looking for someone who’s a good communicator. I’m a firm believer in communication skills. Even if you’re not the absolute best athletic trainer clinically, you’ll be successful if you can communicate well.

Finally, I look for someone who’s going to bring a different skill set than what is already here. Whether they have different experiences, are from a different part of the country, or have different mentors, I want someone with a unique perspective.

What advice would you give to others who strive to work at a large school like Maryland?

Big-time Division I or pro sports aren’t for everybody. Yes, there are perks, but there are also drawbacks. First, you’re going to work more than 40 hours a week. Second, you’re going to be on the road a lot. If you work in a high school or some D-III schools, you rarely stay somewhere overnight. But if you’re working at a D-I school, you could be gone for four or five days at a time.

It’s important to weigh the pros and cons and understand what you want. If you’re working in D-I, there’s a good chance you’re going to work on a lot of holidays. In fact, if you’re working with a D-I football team, you hope you’re covering practice over Christmas because that means you made it to a bowl game.

I also advise people to look at the total benefit package that’s being offered. For someone who just graduated college, a benefit like free tuition for children might not be a big deal. But as you get older, you see more and more athletic trainers who have kids, and they would die for a job that offers free tuition at the school. Are you willing to take $3,000 less per year over 20 years to get a $200,000 benefit in year 20? That’s something you have to decide.

How have you found a balance between work and home life?

My wife and son are very understanding about my work schedule. I also try to include them in my work whenever I can. For example, my son is eight years old and plays football, so he enjoys any chance he gets to come to practice and be around our football players. It’s important to include your family in your work life if you can.

How do you find time for all your volunteer work?

I usually stay at the firehouse one night a week. The station is only two or three miles from campus, so if I’m here late for a game or some other reason, I’ll spend that night at the station. If I were to go all the way home that late, my wife and son would already be asleep. This way I’m not disrupting my family. And I actually tend to get more sleep because it takes me five minutes to get to a bed at the firehouse, versus 45 minutes to my house. I also train with the SWAT team twice a week, and go on periodic missions or call-outs.

How did you get involved with the SWAT team?

My wife works at the police station and officers were always coming to me when they got hurt. Eventually they asked me to come on missions as their medic. It’s a lot of fun for me and I look forward to going out on missions.

What have you learned from your experiences with the SWAT team?

I now have a new respect for police officers–what they deal with and how dangerous their jobs are. The experience has also greatly enhanced my concept of teamwork. When we’re out on a mission I’m not armed, but I’m around 15 or so guys who are heavily armed. They rely on me to carry equipment and take care of their injuries, and I rely on them for protection. It’s the ultimate teamwork experience.

Every mission is all teamwork, preparation, and planning. For me, it goes hand-in-hand with what I’m trying to do with the sports medicine staff. We have to be prepared for anything that happens in the field or office. And from a communications standpoint, I’ve seen how officers diffuse situations just in the way they talk to criminals. And I use those techniques in the athletic department when there’s a conflict with a coach, athlete, or parent.

The biggest thing I’ve learned is how important it is to stay calm in stressful situations, and also how to recover from those situations. You get back to the station after an ambulance run and 15 minutes later you have to be ready to go again. It’s critical to learn how to deal with those situations and not allow it to ruin your day.

Have you completed any rehabs during your career thus far that stick out?

There was one involving a football player who, had he come out of school after his junior year, probably would have been a first-day pick in the NFL draft. But in the last game of that season, he dislocated his knee. I was involved in his rehab all the way through, from being the first person to him on the field when he got hurt to seeing him run back onto the field a year later to play. I remember I even came in on Christmas day because he was feeling down about not playing and needed someone to sit with him. The experience was very rewarding.

How do you cultivate relationships with players so they’re comfortable turning to you in those types of situations?

It’s all about building trust and communicating. I think that’s where athletic trainers go above and beyond. An athletic trainer is the first person an athlete sees at the beginning of the day and the last person they see at night. They see that you really care for them and that’s where the trust comes in.

What are your future plans? Athletic administration interests me, but then I remember that if I were to make that career change, I couldn’t go out on the field every afternoon. I’d have to wear a shirt and tie and I’d be stuck in the office in front of a computer.

For now, I like what I do. I still enjoy the clinical aspect, traveling, and being around athletes. There aren’t many places you can wear shorts and tennis shoes to work and watch high-level athletics 365 days a year. I may work a 100-hour week, but it really doesn’t feel like it. For 40 of those hours, I’m standing out on the field in the sunlight watching football. There are people who pay a lot of money to do that for just a few hours every week.


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