Athletic Trainer: Frontline Sports Medicine Professional

Athlete standing on crutches after ATC tapes her knee.

A certified athletic trainer (ATC) assesses, evaluates, and provides treatment for acute sports injuries that happen during practice and competition. Sometimes requiring split-second decision making, the assessment stage is a crucial part of their responsibilities.

Treatment usually takes place “on-the-field” for acute injuries and in the athletic training room for stabilized and chronic injuries. As an integral member of the sports medicine team, ATCs also help injured players learn how to rehabilitate their own sports-related traumas.

Apart from exercise and other manual techniques, certified athletic trainers employ a wide range of treatment methods. For example, they may apply cold, heat, or ultrasound to the injured area. Taping, bracing, and padding may be used to protect the injured area from additional harm. The ATCs goal is to make it possible for the athlete to return to his or her sport safely.

ATC Education and Certification


Until January 1st, 2004, the academic requirements needed to become an athletic trainer consisted of either a bachelor’s of sciences degree that included athletic training courses and a 1500-hour internship in a sports medicine facility or a bachelor’s degree from an accredited program that offered a specialized athletic training curriculum. The clinical experience requirements were fulfilled in an athletic training room or sports medicine clinic under the direct supervision of a practicing ATC.

After January 1st, 2004, athletic training became competency-based curriculum offered on both the undergraduate and graduate levels with clinical training integrated into the degree program. Currently, around 41% of ATCs have earned their Master’s degree in athletic training. A doctoral degree (PhD) is the highest academic status that can be obtained in the field.


Once the student has graduated from an accredited athletic training program, he or she is required to pass the ATC Board of Certification (BOC) exam consisting of three sections – in total 175 questions.

The first section of the exam is a multiple-choice test. This evaluates the candidate’s knowledge on a wide range of information covered throughout their entire degree program. Second is the interactive section which tests practical knowledge of psychomotor skills, such as manual evaluation and treatment techniques, anatomical landmark palpation, taping procedures, and padding. The last portion is a written simulation consisting of several scenarios used to evaluate the candidate’s decision-making skills, particularly in injury management. Candidates are allowed up to 4 hours to finish the exam.

The Athletic Trainer Board of Certification provides a 28-page BOC Exam Candidate Handbook outlining pertinent information on the exam, including how to sign up and what to expect on test day.

Athletic Trainer vs. Personal Trainer: What’s The Difference?

Probably the most generalized way to understand the difference between these two roles (which are sometimes confused) is to view personal training as a “fitness” occupation and athletic training as a “healthcare” occupation.

While the knowledge and duties of athletic and personal trainers converge or overlap on certain occasions, they are two considerably distinct lines of work.

As stated above, ATCs are required to be licensed and have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree from an accredited program and comprehensive field experience, in addition to passing the extensive, standardized Board of Certification (BOC) exam.

On the other hand, personal trainers are basically exercise instructors/coaches with widely varying degrees of education. Although they’re presence is becoming more common in the clinical space, they are not considered practitioners of sports medicine like ATCs. Currently, there is no unified regulatory organization for personal training and it’s relatively much easier to obtain one of the many certifications out there.

ATC Job Requirements

There are a number of environments in which athletic trainers work, however the majority of these fall under four main categories:

  • Academic institutions such as high schools, colleges and universities
  • Outpatient orthopedic/sports medicine physical therapy clinics
  • Amateur and professional sports teams
  • Industrial/ergonomic facilities and corporate wellness centers

Ergonomics is a process of designing work areas and devices to accommodate natural human physical characteristics – in other words, “making the job fit the worker.” One aspect of ergonomics an athletic trainer can assist with is teaching proper body mechanics for lifting, sitting, bending, or any position or action that a worker may perform during the workday. The ultimate objective of ergonomics is to decrease on-the-job injuries.

Often, the first two work places mentioned above overlap when the ATC is employed by a sports medicine facility. The sports medicine facility is typically contracted by an academic institution, usually a high school, to provide athletic training services. Some ATCs may take on teaching roles in high school and provide after-school training services, similar to the arrangements that teachers who also coach sports have.

Most Common Tasks and Duties

In any of the four work settings listed above, the ATC will typically perform the following tasks:

  • Evaluate injured players to ascertain whether or not they are capable of participating in practice or competition without increasing their risk of further trauma.
  • Apply braces, tape, or other supportive aids to injured or non-injured players in an effort to reduce the risk of joint sprains, muscle strains, tissue tears or bone fractures during practice or competition.
  • Communicate assessment reports on the athlete’s condition, verbally or written, to the athlete, coaching staff, team physician, and/or the athlete’s family.
  • Carry out rehabilitation and reconditioning on an athlete.
  • Educate athletes on injury prevention.
  • Deliver prompt care for acute injuries, including icing, splinting, and emergency life support if required.

5 Key Skill-Sets an ATC Should Have

An ATC must have several key skill-sets in order to successfully perform his or her job responsibilities.

  1. Good listening skills: ATCs must know exactly how an athlete’s injury came about. This information may come from the athlete, teammates, coaches, referees, or anyone who witnessed the injury.
  2. Precise manual dexterity: The ATC must perform numerous hands-on tests to assist in determining the injury.
  3. Effective communication: Usually the ATC is the first person on the scene when an athlete is injured. Once an initial evaluation is made, the ATC must be able to communicate the information to the appropriate medical personnel. The ATC must describe the nature of the injury, location of the injury and how severe the injury is as clearly, quickly and concisely as possible.
  4. Ability to quickly think and take appropriate action: Occasionally, an ATC’s decisions will mean the difference between life and death for a severely injured athlete or in the ability of the athlete to continue playing his or her sport in the future. A quick and accurate assessment of the injury is of utmost importance.
  5. Organizational and management skills: It is important that all assessments and treatments be documented and that medical files be kept on every athlete.