Jan 29, 2015
Q&A with Mike Harrison

Allen (Texas) High School

In Texas, the saying goes, football is king. Sports medicine professionals might argue, however, that athletic training shares the throne in the Lone Star State, which was the very first to implement licensure and has one of the highest percentages of high schools with athletic trainers.

Epitomizing both sentiments is Allen (Texas) High School, where Head Athletic Trainer Mike “Doc” Harrison, ATC, LAT, PES, CES, has reigned for two decades. The football team was crowned national champs by High School Football America after the 2013 season, in addition to winning Class 5A Division I state titles in 2012 and 2013. The athletic training program boasts a team of four full-time staff members and 76 athletic training students–who undergo a rigorous application process to join the group.

Harrison arrived at Allen in 1995 and has witnessed the tremendous growth of the school district, with enrollment at the main high school (grades 10 through 12) just over 4,500. His athletic training team is spread out across the school’s expansive campus, and Harrison works hard to keep morale high by emphasizing cohesion and maintaining a welcoming atmosphere. Here, he talks about how he’s upgraded his student athletic training program, handling short-term rehabs, and working with physicians, parents, and teachers to manage concussions.

What has kept you at the same school for so many years? Allen is a unique environment. The high school gets dubbed the “University of Allen” because it is so big and the campus is set up so differently, with the freshmen in a different building. But despite the school’s size, there is a strong sense of community. That’s why I’ve stayed.

The faculty and staff are friendly, we have great facilities, support, and resources, and the kids and parents make it a wonderful place. To me, Allen is the pinnacle of the high school setting. I would be going backwards to move somewhere else.

What is it like working at a football powerhouse?

The team’s success has been fun, and everyone at our school works together to accomplish the football program’s goals. What thrills me the most is seeing players who have worked extremely hard doing well on the field, especially those who have returned from injuries. With such a high-profile program, there are some pressures to quickly return athletes back to their fullest potential. But it is manageable. As long as we do a good job informing our coaches of what is going on with the athletes, they are fine with how we bring them along.

How has the student athletic training program evolved at Allen?

When I took the program over 20 years ago, it did not have much structure or a great presence. I made sure we put a group picture on the athletic training room wall, and I began handing out a student athletic trainer of the year award.

The program has been growing steadily, and it’s really exploded in the last two years–so much so that we’ve added an application process. We consider each candidate’s grades and teacher recommendations, and have them write a short essay that reveals their personality.

Last year, we had about 100 applicants, but we took only 17 new kids. Usually, you would take more to allow for attrition, but we don’t see students drop out. The individuals who we select are quality students who have a genuine interest in the profession. They find their place at Allen through the sports medicine program, and it becomes an important part of their lives.

How is the program structured? We run it like a college program. Every student’s goal is to become a varsity student athletic trainer, which is a designation we give to the top 15. The criteria we use is taping proficiency for thumbs, fingers, and ankles, and their ability to perform minor treatment evaluations while we watch over them. We take their grades into account as well. We don’t weigh one aspect of the criteria over the other, but look at every part.

After choosing our varsity student athletic trainers, we assign sports. A lot of them want to cover football, of course, but we tell them they can’t all do that. That’s not what this program is about–it’s about sports medicine. And there are some kids who actually don’t want to cover football. Usually it’s because of the competitive nature of the environment, or they don’t feel comfortable in the spotlight. When we won last year’s state championship, for example, we played in front of 54,000 people. Some kids don’t like that kind of pressure or the fast pace, and they prefer to work with other sports.

One of the most important things about the structure is that I give the students ownership of the program. I have them vote for two or three head student athletic trainers, who are charged with creating and distributing the job assignments for each game. The students do a great job with this, and I can’t remember ever having to change any of their schedules.

What type of education do you offer the students?

We have athletic training as a class period. In the fall, we start by teaching CPR and first aid, and then students learn tape and grip proficiencies and wound dressing. In the spring, we introduce an athletic training textbook and have a more structured class.

We also provide as many sports medicine experiences outside the classroom as possible. For example, our team doctors allow our students to observe surgeries. They’ve even had the chance to see repairs of a total knee dislocation and a torn hip labrum.

Because we now have four certified athletic trainers on staff, we’re hoping to expand what we offer to include lab sessions and more observations at local clinics and hospitals. We want it to be a structured sports medicine pathway for our students.

Over the last 10 years, we’ve developed the reputation of having well-trained students. We know that at least two schools–University of North Texas and Baylor University–will recognize that a student is from Allen, and they want them. However, whether they pursue the profession after high school or not, we try to give them lifelong learning opportunities they can take with them in whatever they choose to do.

What have you found are some of your most difficult rehabs?

I think that trying to get athletes who have hamstring injuries back in action is the toughest part of my job. With things like ACL tears or shoulder injuries, everyone is aware of the long rehabilitation time frame, and it’s easier to slow the athlete down when we need to. But with more minor injuries, you really have to protect the kids from themselves. When they tell me, “It’s a big game. I have to play,” I say, “We’ve got other big games.” I’m lucky that our coaches trust our judgment and allow us to take our time. That’s especially true with concussions.

How are concussions handled at Allen? If we suspect a concussion, we take action immediately. We go through a protocol, and our evaluation is based on numbers so we can show parents exactly what we’ve found. Next, we refer the athlete to a physician, who will hold them out of school for the first several days. We also tell parents to take away all electronic devices for 24 to 72 hours.

Communication is key during concussion recovery. The athletic trainer who worked with the athlete e-mails the principal, guidance counselor, attendance clerk, school nurse, and the rest of the athletic training staff so everyone is in the loop. The guidance counselor will then forward that e-mail to all the student’s teachers so when the student comes back to school, academic modifications are in place. Once the athlete is cleared to return to class, we take them through a five-day return-to-play progression before they can practice.

How have you ensured the faculty at Allen are responsive to the needs of students returning from head injuries?

We have one of our team doctors, who is an expert on neurocognitive testing, speak to teachers and staff at the beginning of every school year. He explains neurocognitive testing and return-to-learn and return-to-play procedures, educating the teachers about some of the symptom triggers found in schools, like interactive whiteboards and loud hallways.

We also talk with faculty about how to communicate with the student and find modifications he or she may need. For example, a teacher might turn the kid’s desk sideways, away from a glowing screen, or let her put her head down and just listen. Sometimes, the student is simply not ready to return to school. Our teachers have been very receptive to learning about concussions and helping the student-athletes get through them.

How do you manage your full-time staff?

This school is unique because the campus is spread out and we’re all stationed at different locations. For instance, one assistant athletic trainer and I work out of the main athletic training room at the football stadium, while another is at the freshman building, and the fourth is located in the school’s main gym. But we’re cohesive and work together as a team to get things done. If you can’t work well with your staff and you’re always at odds, all you’re doing is playing tug of war and nothing will get accomplished.

We also support and cover for each other to make sure everyone gets time off when they need it. We work a lot of hours, but we take care of our families first and foremost.

Another key is spending time together away from the school. During football season, we get together every Friday before the game at a local restaurant, and everything is fair game for discussion. It’s a great tradition and a lot of fun for all of us.


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