Jan 29, 2015
Q&A with Kathy Schniedwind

Illinois State University

Lecturing at schools on behalf of the National Center for Drug Free Sport. Teaching a course in Illinois State University’s athletic training education program. Serving as an athletic trainer at Special Olympics events. Volunteering twice a week at the local humane society. This hardly sounds like a life of leisure, but for Kathy Schniedwind, MS, ATC, this is what retirement looks like.

After three decades as an athletic trainer at Illinois State University, Schniedwind stepped down at the end of the 2005-06 season. Serving as Head Athletic Trainer for the final 17 years, she coordinated care for 19 sports with primary responsibility for the football team, and taught in the Department of Kinesiology and Recreation.

Schniedwind earned a master’s degree from Indiana University in 1976, and then took a job as Illinois State’s first Head Women’s Athletic Trainer that fall. Six years later, the men’s and women’s athletics programs merged, and she served as Assistant Athletic Trainer before taking over the department in 1989.

Over the next 17 years, Schniedwind gained national recognition working on the NCAA’s Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports, where she focused on drug education, and on the NATA College/University Athletic Training Student Committee. In 2004, she was inducted into the NATA Hall of Fame.

In this interview, she talks about retiring at 54, how the profession has changed, difficult rehabs, and the importance of properly balancing work and life. T&C: How are you enjoying your retirement?

Schniedwind: It’s been a great challenge. I miss the people I worked with and I miss the ability to make a difference every day with student-athletes, coaches, and athletic training students. But it was time for me to try some new things, and it was a good decision. On the one hand, I’m still involved in athletic training through teaching, but on the other, I’m also able to do things I never had time to do before, like volunteer at the humane society. And I’m spending more time with family and friends. It’s the best of both worlds.

How has athletic training changed since you started in the field?

When I began as the head women’s athletic trainer in 1976, we had a much smaller full-time staff and far fewer graduate assistants. We had separate men’s and women’s athletics departments, which were housed in two different buildings. Since then, the departments have merged, facilities have grown, and we have a new athletic training room, which I helped design.

Technologically, the modalities we use to treat athletes have improved tremendously. Educationally, we’ve seen immense changes. As a profession we went through some growing pains, but I think our students are much better prepared now, with much closer supervision.

Why did you become an athletic trainer?

My undergraduate degree was in physical education and health, but after spending a year as a high school health and physical education teacher in Norfolk, Va., I knew that wasn’t for me. I’d always loved athletics and medicine, so when one of my mentors suggested I look into the athletic training program at Indiana, it sounded like the perfect way to combine the two.

Was it difficult being a female athletic trainer for a football team?

No, not really. Whenever you work with a coach for the first time, you have to prove yourself, whether you’re male or female. If you have the skills and communicate well, gender shouldn’t be an issue. Once people saw I could do my job, it wasn’t a problem.

There were situations where it would have been easier if I were male. When I had to go into the locker room, someone had to call out, “A woman is coming in.” But that’s no different for male athletic trainers working with a female team. Plus, I’m 5’2″, so there were times when I’d have to stand up on the locker room bench to look a player in the eye. And sometimes, I’d intentionally do goofy things, like dancing to the radio—I’m not a good dancer—so we could all laugh together.

What was your most difficult rehab?

A football player totally dislocated his knee—not the kneecap, the entire knee—when it was hit straight on at full speed. He tried to run off the field and almost made it to the sideline before he collapsed. I literally had to hold his knee together, or it would have flopped around like a rag doll. We spent over a year rehabbing, and this young man worked extremely hard. He was in the athletic training room two or three times a day year-round, and ended up playing again, which was really impressive.

Then, not even two years after he graduated, he was killed in a car accident. When you spend as much time with someone as I did with that young man, you get to know that person pretty well. It was devastating.

Are there other rehabs that stand out in your mind?

Anybody who’s gone through a surgical ACL repair—that’s always a long process. Those are the athletes who need the most encouragement, because most of them just want to know, “When do I get to run?” They don’t see results quickly, and as athletic trainers, our biggest challenge is to keep motivating them.

There’s a lot of psychology in this job. On a long-term rehab, I would tell athletes they’re going to have good days and bad days, and just because they go backward one day doesn’t mean they can’t go forward the next. The key is letting them talk and listening to them.

Why are you a proponent of drug testing?

It’s not necessarily the drug testing itself, it’s the message we’re sending to student-athletes: Do not try things just because someone says they will help you. One reason we started drug testing at Illinois State was to deter student-athletes who might want to experiment or feel pressured to use a certain drug. If they know they might be tested, they won’t try it.

It’s also important to educate them about supplements. A lot of athletes will say, “I bought this at the nutrition store, so it’s okay.” But they don’t understand that the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate all supplements. They figure if they can buy it at a store, it has to be okay.

What’s the hardest part of working as a collegiate athletic trainer?

I have to admit that sometimes I got tired. I am a high energy person, but late in my career, I didn’t bounce back as easily as I used to, especially after working late nights. There were times I thought I was burning out, mostly when I was really tired or things weren’t going well. But when I stepped back and talked about it with friends, I realized this was what I want to do—I love it. I always tell athletic training students that if they have a problem, talk about it. If you just keep it bottled up, it’ll get worse.

What have you learned about balancing work and life?

Early on in our careers, my generation of athletic trainers made the mistake of thinking we needed to be in the athletic training room 24/7, whether anybody walked through the door or not. We had to learn that it’s okay to leave our assistants in charge. By delegating work, you give ownership to your staff. It took a long time to get over feeling guilty about not being there when my assistants were. But once I did, I was able to take full days off, even when the sport I covered was in season.

What are you proudest of from your 30 years in the field?

That I was there to help people. Early on, I learned from my parents that it’s important to give back to the community. That’s why my involvement with the Special Olympics is so strong.

I’m also proud that I led by example and never asked anybody else to do more than I was doing. At the same time, I tried to be thankful and tell people when they did a good job. It always frustrates me when people say, “I don’t have to compliment them for doing their job.” So I ask my students, “How does it feel when someone says you’ve done a great job? Is there a quickness in your step? Does it put you in a good mood?” We don’t always give enough praise, but hopefully they will.

Does working with the Special Olympics make you a better athletic trainer?

I think it makes me a better person because it helps me appreciate all the things we take for granted on a daily basis. It takes me outside myself and teaches me things I might not normally learn as a collegiate athletic trainer.

It’s a different kind of care. We have more seizure issues with Special Olympians, and we can’t always communicate well with athletes or know their full history. But it’s really fun to be part of it and help the athletes compete. They’re so excited to participate, even if all they win is a seventh-place ribbon. It gives me a different perspective on things.

What are the most pressing issues facing the profession?

Athletic trainers need to keep working with other health professions, because the bottom line is that we’re all trying to do the same thing: rehabilitate physically active people. I would like athletic trainers to be able to bill for services through Medicare, regardless of setting. I’d like to see us treated the same as other allied health professions. And I’d also love to see every high school athletics program have an athletic trainer. That would be a huge change.

What are your next goals?

To stay healthy and have more time for friends and family, which is one of the main reasons I decided to retire from the intercollegiate athletic setting. I’m keeping an open mind. I don’t want a full-time job, but if someone approached me with a new opportunity, I might just give it a try.

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