Oct 20, 2016
Secrets of a Long-term Career
Mike Matheny

The title of this article is a bit of a misnomer, as I don’t think anything I will tell you here is a secret. I can, however, provide five pieces of advice that have enabled me to be happy at the same institution for 30 years.

1. Develop relationships. I am fortunate to count NATA Hall of Famer Gary Delforge, EdD, ATC, as one of my early mentors in my athletic training career. One of the many lessons I learned from him during my graduate education at the University of Arizona wasn’t about modality use or injury assessment — it was about relationships. Gary taught me it was important to form relationships with coaches that were based on something other than giving them bad news about an athlete’s injury or participation status. Even if it was just a brief visit to their office, asking a quick question about their kids, or congratulating them on a big win, Gary felt it was important to not always be the bearer of bad news. Having an established positive relationship with my coaches at Ithaca College makes it a bit easier to tell them something they probably don’t want to hear.

2. Know how to keep your cool. Another NATA Hall of Famer, John Spiker, ATC, PT, taught me many, many things during my time at West Virginia University — from how to tape an ankle to how to deal with an athlete who had just sustained a season-ending injury. Mostly, he taught me how to maintain an even temperament. In many years of working with John, first as a student and later as a staff athletic trainer, I can’t recall ever seeing him lose his temper with an athlete, athletic training student, or coach. I’m sure he did get angry, but he never lost his cool. When confronted with a frustrated coach or athlete, staying calm and allowing them to vent before reacting is usually an effective strategy to defuse the situation. I think that type of composure goes a long way toward ensuring a positive work environment and longevity in your job.

3. Be diligent in hiring. If you are fortunate enough to stay in one place for several years, you will probably become the head athletic trainer and periodically need to hire staff. You certainly need to hire competent people, but beyond that, I’ve always considered three other factors to be extremely important when evaluating potential employees. They are: 1) Hire good human beings that you’ll want to work with every day; 2) Hire people who will be a good fit with the rest of your staff; and 3) Hire people who can bring new skills that no one on your current staff already possesses. Once on board, their new skills can be passed on to the rest of your staff, which not only benefits your athletes, but also helps you and your staff maintain enthusiasm for the profession. As head athletic trainer, you become more involved with administrative tasks and have less time for learning new skills. Doing as much as you can to stay engaged and excited is time well spent.

When confronted with a frustrated coach or athlete, staying calm and allowing them to vent before reacting is usually an effective strategy to defuse the situation. I think that type of composure goes a long way toward ensuring a positive work environment and longevity in your job.

4. Know when to take a break. Burnout among athletic trainers is always a concern because of the job’s long hours, unpredictable schedule, and sometimes stressful working conditions. I think avoiding burnout requires an individual approach, as what works for one person won’t necessarily work for everyone. However, one lesson I learned long ago was that the entire IC athletic training operation wasn’t going to come to an ugly end on those rare occasions when I needed a few hours or a day away from work. In fact, I found that things mostly functioned just fine without me. Staff members stepped up, and athletes and athletic training students all adjusted. If you’ve hired competent staff and prepared them well, they’ll often welcome the additional responsibility that comes with your absence.

5. Do something for you. Another tip to prevent burnout is to prioritize some amount of time in the day for yourself, doing an activity that you enjoy. That activity will vary with the individual — for some it might be exercise, but for others it might be playing an instrument or volunteering. The important thing is to choose something and prioritize it. For me, it’s exercise. I know that if I plan to exercise in the middle of the day, something will come up that will prevent me from working out (e.g., an unexpected meeting or injured athlete who really needs treatment). The best way to avoid this was to become a morning person and work out first thing, so I’m often out the door and on my bike by 6 a.m. It’s amazing how that sense of accomplishment and those good endorphins generated during a hard morning ride with friends will carry over through the rest of the day. It doesn’t matter what you choose to do with your “me” time, as long as it adds balance to your life.


Mike Matheny, MS, ATC, is Head Athletic Trainer and Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences at Ithaca College. He can be reached at: [email protected]


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