Jan 29, 2015Q&A with Tony Cox
Henry County (Ind.) Sports Medicine
For more than 20 years, Tony Cox, MA, ATC, LAT, loved his job at Ball State University. As an instructor in the School of Physical Education, Sport, and Exercise Science, he’d taught hundreds of athletic training education students. As Head Men’s Basketball Athletic Trainer, he’d built great working relationships with five head coaches, helped the team reach the NCAA Division I tournament, and traveled as far as Alaska and Hawai’i.
But in the fall of 2006, Cox decided to make a change. He found it increasingly difficult to work with new Head Coach Ronny Thompson, who had been hired six months earlier. So Cox left Ball State, retiring at 55 as an Associate Athletic Trainer Emeritus, and moved to the clinical setting at Henry County Sports Medicine in New Castle, Ind., an affiliate of Henry County Memorial Hospital.
As the Director of Performance Enhancement and Athletic Training Programs at Henry County, today Cox enjoys the new challenges of working with athletes as young as 13. Along with training athletes in the clinic’s performance gym, he provides coverage for basketball and volleyball games at Winchester (Ind.) Community High School. He’s also spending more time with his family, including his son, Kyle, who is pursuing a career as a basketball coach after playing on the Ball State team during Cox’s tenure, and his daughter, Caitlin, a sophomore volleyball player at Indiana University.
In 2004, the Indiana Athletic Trainers Association named Cox Collegiate Athletic Trainer of the Year, and earlier this year he was honored as a Mid-American Conference Athletic Trainer Emeritus. In this interview, Cox talks about the transition to clinical work, the challenges of working with a difficult coach, and new trends in performance enhancement.
T&C: What does your current job entail? Cox: As the Director of Performance Enhancement and Athletic Training Programs, I oversee a staff of two athletic trainers. During the school year, we provide game coverage to five local high schools. Year-round, we offer injury evaluation, rehabilitation, and performance enhancement, primarily for student-athletes but also for older folks who want to stay active.
We work with some of the best athletes in East Central Indiana, ranging from 13 to 22 years old. When I first came here, most kids were doing performance enhancement in the summer only, and they wanted to know, “Do I have to stop when school starts?” The answer, of course, is no, so now we’re working with them all the time, which is a big improvement.
How was the transition from college to clinic?
I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve watched this clinic grow over the last 15 years, and a lot of the athletic trainers who’ve worked here were students of mine at Ball State, so I knew I would fit in.
Before I came here, I thought that working with 13-year-olds would be very different from working with college student-athletes, but it’s not. The kids who seek performance enhancement here want to be just like the student-athletes I worked with at Ball State. So I nurture them, instill a work ethic, and focus them on their goals. I find that I get a really good effort without much prodding.
Where are you achieving the most success in performance enhancement? Basketball and volleyball are huge in East Central Indiana, so when kids first come here, they’re usually hoping to jump higher. They also say they want to get stronger. So we focus on those two areas, but really, we’re working to develop good, functional movement. If they can’t move their bodies correctly, making them stronger isn’t going to help them much.
We incorporate a lot of core strength, hip movement, and flexibility work. Once those areas have been developed, their jumping improves because they can use their hips to incorporate more power–they’re not just jumping with their legs.
The word I’m getting from their coaches is that their movements are quicker and their jumps are higher. And because they’re moving more effectively through the different planes of the body, they’re not getting injured as often. To me, that’s success.
My first few weeks at the clinic, I did more observing and studying than anything else. I wanted to discover how these kids moved, and what their strengths and weaknesses were. I realized a lot of them hadn’t worked on balance, so we focus on that. I tell them that if their feet aren’t in good balance, that deficiency transfers up to their shins, knees, hips, and lower back.
I also explain that if they don’t work on balance now, they may face problems later on. Because of my years at Ball State, I can foresee the stresses and strains these kids are going to encounter once they get to college. When they get to that next level, we want them to be ready.
Was it hard to leave Ball State? I was miserable about it. I’d graduated from Ball State and been there my whole professional life. But I felt I was fighting a losing battle with Coach Thompson, and I was getting no assistance from my administration on the issue. So I thought, “I’m going to move on.”
For 23 years, I taught athletic training students how to deal with difficult coaches, but I couldn’t solve the problems that arose in this situation. Athletic training has come a long way over the years, and we deserve to be respected, because we’ve become an integral part of coaches’ success. But if coaches don’t understand that, it’s tough.
The relationship between a coach and an athletic trainer is like a marriage–you give and take. But if a coach doesn’t want you to be a part of what he’s doing, there’s not much you can do. I really wanted it to work out, but it didn’t.
I was fortunate to work with five coaches–Al Brown, Rick Majerus, Dick Hunsaker, Ray McCallum, and Tim Buckley–who welcomed me into their lives, both as a friend and a teammate. They let me do my job, and I’m still close with all of them. But no matter how hard I worked, Ronny Thompson didn’t seem to want any part of me. So when this opportunity came up at the clinic, I decided it was time to start a new chapter of my life.
I retired from Ball State, which named me a Ball State University Omega–that’s the most prestigious honor the school can give you–and became an Associate Athletic Trainer Emeritus. That was a good feeling. And after Ronny Thompson resigned the following summer, the new basketball coach, Billy Taylor, invited me to meet with him. He said, “I know what you meant to this program for all those years, and I want you to always feel welcome here.” I thought that was extremely classy.
What were the highlights of your 23 years at Ball State? Watching the men’s basketball team beat UCLA and Kansas in 2001 and getting publicity as “giant killers.” Going to bowl games with our football team and to the NCAA tournament with our women’s volleyball team were really gratifying, too, and I still have pictures in my office of all those things.
There’s nothing better than being part of something bigger than yourself, and when I look back on those years that were so successful, two things were always present: Everybody got along, and apart from some bumps and bruises, everybody stayed injury free. We worked hard, and when all was said and done, there was this wonderful sense of camaraderie.
What’s the best part of being an athletic trainer?
Fulfillment. Every time you work with an athlete, you know you’re touching his or her life. It’s about more than treating an injury. It’s about helping athletes become better people, because the way they deal with a setback has a lot to do with how they’ll overcome other difficulties down the road.
Someday, they’ll call to say, “I just got my first job,” and you’ll know you made a difference, because they still want you in their lives. When I left Ball State, I found out I had touched a lot of people, and I felt I’d done my job.
What’s the hardest part of being an athletic trainer?
Being away from family. I was fortunate that the coaches I worked with always welcomed my family, and my two kids were always involved in my life as an athletic trainer. But I was not able to spend as much time with them as I would have liked.
My son was one of the better basketball players in the state of Indiana–he’s still in the national high school record book for career free-throw percentage–and my daughter was volleyball player of the year in Indiana. Growing up, they understood when I couldn’t go to their games, but that didn’t make it any easier. Now I have more time. When I came here to the clinic, I had Thanksgiving with my family for the first time in 23 years.
What do you miss about working at Ball State? I miss rolling up my sleeves and treating student-athletes three or four times a day. I miss traveling with the team, developing relationships, and sharing a common goal. And I miss the feeling I used to get in my stomach leading up to the tip-off.
One of my former students is the Head Men’s Basketball Athletic Trainer for the University of Kansas, so when the team came to Indianapolis, he invited me to attend a closed practice. He was paying me back, just like I try to pay back my mentors, and you wouldn’t believe how appreciative I was. I got that feeling in my stomach as game time approached–my heart was racing, because I felt I was part of it. I really miss that.
Being a collegiate athletic trainer was off-the-charts wonderful, both personally and professionally. But I enjoy very much what I’m doing now. I have the best of both worlds here, because I can continue working as an athletic trainer while still having some time at home.
Do you ever talk to your daughter about the care she gets from the athletic trainers at Indiana?
Yes, we talk a lot. She’s working with Adam Clemens, who’s a great athletic trainer, and Josh Eidson, who’s a great strength coach. When she talks about what they’re doing to make her a better player, I hear the appreciation in her voice. I met Adam and Josh when we were there on a recruiting visit, and as a parent, I felt very comfortable leaving my daughter in their hands. On the drive back home, I told my wife, “She’s going to be very well taken care of.”
Before going to Ball State, what did you think you were going to do?
I wanted to be a high school or college basketball coach, and I wanted to teach. But when I was attending school at Indiana University East–before I transferred to Ball State–a friend of mine suggested I think about athletic training. He said, “It’s going to be really huge down the road.” Well, he was absolutely right. There’s nothing that would have been better for me.
What are your current goals?
I want to continue building my program here. Henry County Memorial Hospital gets a lot of recognition in the community, and even though athletic training is only a small part of the hospital, I want people to see it as a strong, positive, productive service we provide to athletes in our area. My goal is to keep giving, finish strong–and then play a lot of golf.