What you should know before becoming an athletic trainer

Last updated: February 27, 2024
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Eleana Bowman
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What you should know before becoming an athletic trainer
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Have you ever wondered how your favorite professional athlete prepares for a big event? From football players and boxers to Olympians, all athletes follow the support and guidance of their trusted athletic trainers.

Athletic trainers are experienced medical and sports professionals who work diligently to help athletes avoid serious injuries. When the unexpected happens, they’re on the scene, ready to use their skills and provide immediate medical attention and treatment for injuries.

But becoming an athletic trainer calls for dedication and commitment. These professionals undergo a rigorous academic program and certification exam, and they must take continued education courses to maintain their high-standing medical position.

However, it is also a rewarding job if you want to work in the world of sports.

If you’re interested in exploring the field of sports medicine and ultimately becoming an athletic trainer, here’s everything you’ll need to know.

What is an athletic trainer?

An athletic trainer is a healthcare professional who specializes in assessing, diagnosing, and treating athletic injuries. They oversee every practice, game, and workout session an athlete completes.

The presence of an athletic trainer during physical activity is crucial. If an athlete is performing exercises or drills incorrectly, the trainer will quickly correct them to prevent potential injuries.

Unfortunately, some sports-related injuries are unpredictable. When an athlete does get hurt, it’s the athletic trainer’s responsibility to immediately assess their injury and determine if the individual needs to seek emergency medical treatment.

Considering that athletes physically exert their bodies during each performance, one wrong move can severely damage their bones, muscles, ligaments, and more.

And these types of injuries can impact them for a lifetime — especially if they are not properly treated. Athletic trainers work hard to ensure that their all-star players avoid career-ending injuries — and that, when they do get injured, they heal as quickly as possible.

The job responsibilities of an athletic trainer

Athletic trainers work with various healthcare providers to help athletes meet their treatment goals and maintain their physical fitness.

Since trainers constantly observe athletes from the sidelines, medical professionals rely on a trainer’s eyewitness account to understand the nature of a sprain, tear, or any other sports-related injury.

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If a player is seriously hurt, an athletic trainer will approve or deny the athlete’s re-entry into the sport. It’s essential that players are only allowed re-entry if they have completely healed from the injury, as repeated stress and body damage can result in early retirement, chronic pain, or even life-long physical disabilities.

One of the most important job responsibilities for athletic trainers is monitoring concussions and head trauma.

Athletes in high-impact sports, like football, boxing, and wrestling, are at an increased risk for developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), an incredibly dangerous brain disease that leaves people with memory issues, personality changes, and increased aggression after repeated head injuries.

A recent post-mortem study on NFL players reported that 91.7% of players showed evidence of CTE. This staggering statistic highlights how important healthcare is for athletes — and that athletic trainers are essential healthcare providers.

How much do athletic trainers make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), athletic trainers earn an average of $48,420 a year. However, they have the potential to earn even more based on the industry and location they work in.

Public and private secondary schools, universities, medical hospitals, and outpatient clinics hire the most athletic trainers, on average. Working in one of these settings is a great place to start your career — especially if you’d like to gain employment in spectator sports.

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Athletic trainers who work in spectator sports earn the highest salaries — up to $81,490 a year. However, you’ll need to prove yourself in the exercise science field before making the leap to spectator sports.

Sports teams look for highly qualified, experienced individuals skilled in therapeutic exercise and patient care who have completed an athletic training program. So working hard in the field will help you obtain your dream job — and a salary increase!

Where do athletic trainers work?

Despite the common belief that athletic trainers work mostly with athletes in high-contact sports, like football, boxing, and wrestling, they actually work with a wide variety of people, including the following:

  • Olympians

  • Low-contact sports athletes (swimmers, tennis players, golfers, etc.)

  • Race car drivers

  • Performing artists (musicians, dance troupes, circus acts)

  • Elementary, middle, and high school students on sports teams

They can also work in different environments, including sports medicine clinics or hospitals.

With all these job opportunities, it’s easy to see why the BLS estimates the field will grow by 17% until at least 2031 — an excellent job outlook for prospective athletic trainers!

Is becoming an athletic trainer right for you?

Simply having a love for sports isn’t enough to become an athletic trainer. You also need excellent interpersonal skills, attention to detail, and medical expertise.

Since athletic trainers are healthcare professionals, you’ll need to be well-versed in common medical conditions in athletes and the intricacies of the human body. Additionally, you’ll need to be skilled in injury prevention and providing acute care to athletes.

Athletic trainers also need to maintain focus and close attention to detail while monitoring athletes. If you fail to notice and correct an athlete’s form, that individual may severely hurt themselves — affecting your reputation and their performance.

Lastly, athletic trainers should have outstanding interpersonal skills, including good communication, dedication, motivation, and leadership abilities.

If you’re confident that you have all these attributes, then becoming an athletic trainer would be a great career choice for you!

The steps to becoming an athletic trainer

If you’re eager to start your journey as an athletic trainer, here’s a step-by-step guide detailing what you need to know about this booming career field.

Step 1: Find a degree program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education

The Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education (CAATE) is a governing body that assesses educational programs for athletic trainers.

Given that these professionals are a major part of an athlete’s healthcare team, it’s crucial that they receive a comprehensive, well-informed education.

If you plan to work with athletes in the exercise physiology field, you must attend a CAATE-accredited academic program.

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Students who do not graduate from a degree program with accreditation will not be eligible to sit for the board certification exam — meaning they won’t be permitted to work as athletic trainers.

In the past, an athletic training student would be able to start their professional career with a bachelor’s degree.

However, as of fall 2022, CAATE has changed the college degree requirements for athletic trainers. Prospective athletic trainers must now hold a master’s degree in athletic training to enter the field.

The extra clinical experience and academic requirements ensure that athletic trainers have ample healthcare knowledge to assess and treat sports-related injuries.

Step 2: Take the Board of Certification exam for athletic trainers

Once you’ve completed a CAATE-accredited program, you’ll be eligible to sit for the Board of Certification (BOC) exam for athletic trainers.

According to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, an athletic trainer certification shows that the individual is skilled in the following areas:

  • Injury and Illness Prevention and Wellness Promotion

  • Examination, Assessment, and Diagnosis

  • Immediate and Emergency Care

  • Therapeutic Intervention

  • Healthcare Administration and Professional Responsibility

The BOC exam covers all of these areas over a four-hour testing period and 175 questions. Study hard and make sure to focus on challenging topics from your athletic training curriculum so you can pass the exam on your first try.

Step 3: Apply for an athletic trainer license in your state

After you pass the BOC exam, you can apply for state licensure. The application requirements vary from state to state, so it’s important to look into your state’s conditions for licensure.

To find out more about your home state’s licensing policies, visit the BOC website.

Step 4: Start applying for available athletic trainer positions

When you’ve completed steps one through three, it’s time to apply for athletic trainer jobs!

Look at a few athletic trainer job descriptions to guide you through writing your cover letter, resume, and curriculum vitae (CV). Taking this extra step will help you understand what athletic trainer jobs are looking for in their pool of applicants.

Don’t know the difference between a resume and a CV? A resume covers your work history and experience, whereas a CV details your academic development and certifications. Since becoming an athletic trainer requires extensive secondary schooling, you’ll want to submit both while applying for jobs.

If you’re ready to start applying, head over to Jobcase’s job board and search for available athletic trainer positions in your state or desired location.

Step 5: Follow the requirements for maintaining your athletic trainer certification

Athletic trainers must renew their certification every two years. Here’s what you’ll need to do to maintain good standing as an athletic trainer:

  • Maintain compliance with the BOC standards for professional practice

  • Complete emergency cardiac care programs

  • Pay the $39 recertification fee (an additional $20 is charged for late submissions)

  • Complete continued education programs

For specific information on emergency cardiac care and continuing education programs, see the BOC Certification Maintenance Requirements. The requirements will vary depending on the type of academic program you complete and the year you recertify.

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During each recertification period, the BOC randomly selects applicants for auditing. If you are selected for an audit, you must submit original documents to prove that you have your continuing education credits and have completed emergency cardiac care courses.

FAQs about athletic trainers

Can you make a living as an athletic trainer?

Absolutely! However, it’s important to investigate the average annual salary in your desired location and setting.

States like Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, and Nevada have the lowest-paying athletic trainer positions, where professionals earn an average of $41,000 to $52,000 a year.

On the other hand, trainers working in California, the District of Columbia, Illinois, or New Jersey can earn anywhere from $66,000 to $77,000 a year.

It’s also important to consider the cost of living when determining where you want to work. In California, for instance, the cost of living is high, but athletic trainers are paid more. And while Alabama pays these professionals less, the cost of living is lower. It’s all about finding the right financial balance to fit your needs.

How do you become an NFL athletic trainer?

The NFL looks for top-notch athletic trainers to help train their professional athletes, so you’ll need to work hard to demonstrate your skills and knowledge before getting hired.

First, find a highly rated CAATE-accredited program. Here, you’ll need to study and receive excellent grades to qualify for the best clinical experiences. Excelling in the classroom can help you secure glowing letters of recommendation from your professors.

Next, obtain high-quality clinical experiences in sports medicine. If possible, apply to facilities that work with professional athletes.

Keep in mind that even with all of this great experience and hard work, there’s no guarantee you’ll secure an NFL job. With infrequent openings, you may have to wait for someone to retire or transfer positions — and at that point, you’ll still need to stand out in the large applicant pool.

Are NFL waterboys considered athletic trainers?

Surprisingly, yes. Most NFL waterboys hold a degree as a physical therapist or an athletic trainer. Waterboys are present during every game and practice session, so this is a great opportunity to work your way up to becoming an official NFL athletic trainer.

Start your career as an athletic trainer today!

Becoming an athletic trainer is a rigorous process that includes obtaining a master’s degree, passing the BOC exam, and maintaining your certification with continued education credits. If you complete all these tasks, you can start a career in the booming field of sports medicine.

When you’re ready to start looking for your next job opportunity, join the Jobcase community to find immediate positions available in your area. Just input your desired position and location to start your search!

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