Taking a Hands-on Approach to Sports

by Sharyn Kopf—Cedarville, Ohio

Americans love their sports.

We surrender two weeks every two years to the Olympics, batter up each fall for the World Series, and consistently reward the Super Bowl with some of the top TV ratings around. Fans expect the best from their teams and, more specifically, their favorite players. Being a professional — or even semi-pro — athlete can certainly bring some measure of fame and various degrees of fortune. But from Little League to the Major League, sports are replete with the potential for injury. What athletes need is someone who will devote his/her career to keeping an eye on them.

Meet the athletic trainer. Don’t let the name fool you. This is not about training athletes and should not be confused with personal trainers. It is a recognized allied health profession, focusing on the “prevention, diagnosis, and intervention of emergency, acute and chronic medical conditions involving impairment, functional limitations, and disabilities.”

“In a nutshell, we’re ‘sports medicinists,’” says Dr. Evan Hellwig, director of Cedarville’s athletic training education. “The problem is there’s no such thing as a sports medicinist. What you’ll find are orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists ... and certified athletic trainers.”

Surprisingly, the profession has been around since the turn of the 20th century, corresponding with the beginning of college football. But though it became organized in 1950 through the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (www.nata.org), it wasn’t officially recognized until 1990. And despite having its start in the college arena, athletic trainers are now found connected to programs from high school to professional sports … and it’s spreading into other areas.

“We’re on the sidelines to watch for injuries,” Hellwig says. “But part of my role is preventing injuries in the first place. So, we’re asking if the field has potholes or the lightning strikes are too close or if one of the players should have an ankle wrapped.”

So, how do you know if athletic training is for you? According to Hannah Haynes, who is a senior in the program at Cedarville, you need a sense of humor and flexibility. “You also need to enjoy being challenged,” she says, “because you will be challenged every day.”

“They need to be adaptable to their surroundings,” adds Siobhan Fagan, an associate athletic trainer at the University. “We work to serve individuals whose needs are constantly changing. Those who can adjust to the situation and make a dismal problem look brighter tend to make the best athletic trainers.”

Hellwig would assert that it doesn’t hurt to be an athlete yourself. “The hardest thing is to tell someone not to play,” he says. “It’s good to know how important it is to get back into the game. You have to care.”

Cedarville’s athletic training program has a unique place in the profession. Though there are approximately 350 accredited programs in the U.S., very few do so from a biblical perspective. And that’s an important distinction for Cedarville students. “As a Christian, I have more than just bodily answers,” Haynes says. “I can give them answers that provide eternal hope.”

Of the 102 Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, only about 25 have an accredited athletic training major. The University also stands out in that it has five full-time ATs on its faculty. According to Hellwig, for a school without a football, hockey, wrestling, or lacrosse program, that fact alone is remarkable. Add to that state-of-the-art facilities and equipment, and Cedarville offers a truly strong, unique major.

But for senior Michael Knudsen, it’s the University itself that sets the program apart. “This school has an atmosphere that is unlike any other college in America. And we have professors and other ATs who would go out of their way to help us be better athletic trainers.”

After graduating, students in the major — like Haynes and Knudsen — then have to pass a Board of Certification examination. Cedarville graduates have a 15 percent higher pass rate than the national average, and readily obtain positions at high schools and universities, as well as in clinical settings and private practices across the nation. Many also go on to pursue additional graduate studies, and some use it as a stepping stone into other careers in the health professions.

“It’s definitely tougher than it looks,” Hellwig concludes, then smiles. “But you’re also getting paid to watch sports for the rest of your life.”