What Does An Athletic Trainer Do?

By Jennifer Gallant, MS, LAT, ATC, Shawn Petrucci, MS, LAT, ATC, & Michael Wadsworth, MS, LAT, ATC

athletic trainer treating athlete on football field

March is National Athletic Training Month, so we wanted to shed light on what an athletic trainer can do for a high school or college sports team and how they work with physical therapists to support their athletes.

First Responder/Evaluator of Injury/Referral Health Team Resource

Specializing in emergency care, athletic trainers (ATs) are highly qualified and multi-skilled healthcare professionals that are usually the first on the scene to provide care for athletes at all levels of skill development. Under the direction and in collaboration with a Team Physician, ATs initially evaluate and decide the best course of care after an injury occurs, as knowing the severity of an injury is imperative to receive the best care possible. This may include requesting the assistance of EMS for transportation to a hospital, a specialist referral for further evaluation and care, or a referral to physical therapy. ATs work with their organization’s health team to provide the best care for that athlete. By choosing the right options for treatment, athletes give themselves a better chance at longevity in their sport or activity.

Athletic Trainers & Physical Therapists Complete The Sports Circle of Life

Athletic trainers focus on injury prevention and immediate needs, while physical therapists come in for rehabilitation and long-term care after an injury. Both are advocates for injured athletes and work in conjunction for the benefit of the athlete.

At Performance Physical Therapy, understanding the path to recovery helps put patients’ minds at ease, improves satisfaction, and allows them to receive the best care. An athletic trainer ensures the patient understands the PT/PTA's instructions and is available for follow-up questions. In addition, an athletic trainer’s care will include assisting the patient through their exercises and home exercise plans to increase their confidence.

As a valuable part of the health care team, ATs provide injury and illness prevention, wellness promotion and patient education, examination and clinical diagnosis, therapeutic intervention, and rehabilitation of both injuries and medical conditions.

Prevention & Proactive Care

Athletic Trainers are known to be ready for anything. The best ATs are proactive and have learned how to respond to the unexpected. Injury prevention is at the top of the list when it comes to an AT’s priorities and this is exhibited through effective communication with their medical team, ongoing strategizing and updates to an Emergency Action Plan, patient education about health and wellbeing, and involvement in the daily strength and conditioning of their student-athletes. Taking steps to promote injury prevention keeps student-athletes healthy and playing the sport they love.


Nutrition is an important part of many sports training regimens. The performance of, and recovery from, sporting activities are enhanced by well-chosen nutrition strategies. A planned, nutritious diet should meet most of an athlete's vitamin and mineral needs and include enough protein to promote muscle growth and repair. Athletic Trainers help by discussing athletes’ routines and making suggestions specific to that individual's needs based on their body, injuries, allergies or personal preferences, and the level of activity that they are performing at.


Getting enough sleep is crucial for a great athletic performance. Athletic Trainers are advocates for the “whole athlete” and sleep is a vital component. When treating an injury or just taking the time to educate the team/individual about ways to be the best they can be, sleep should be part of the conversation. Poor sleep schedules may mean that the body does not have enough time to repair after the stress of training, which can lead to injury, poor performance, or sickness.

Physical & Mental Health Balance

Athletes perform at their best when they are healthy – both physically and emotionally. Athletic trainers are not only trained to recognize physical injuries but can also recognize when an athlete may be suffering mental distress. An injury itself can be a significant trigger, especially if it means missed playing time or the end of a career. Additionally, severe concussions can potentially lead to mood disorders, depression, or a sleep disorder. Athletic trainers can help athletes make a full recovery, both physical and psychological, by recognizing the issues and utilizing the available resources.

When athletes rehabilitate an injury, athletic trainers can implement strategies to prevent mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression or fear of reinjury. This is done using positive self-talk, short- and long-term goals, imagery, and keeping their athletes involved in their teams. This is important for an athletic trainer to do as athletes suffer from mental health disorders as often as non-athletes and the athletic trainer will see their athletes more often than a mental health professional can see them.

Return To Play Following an Injury

Return To Play (RTP) protocols provide structure to guide an athlete who is recovering from an injury in a gradual way by allowing participation in increasingly difficult physical activities. The overall objective of a return to play protocol is to increase the athlete's physical activity gradually and safely after an illness or injury. This is done by designing a safe plan to progress the athlete at their own pace to full recovery and specific to both their needs and the activity they participate in. This is all done under the supervision of the athletic trainer.

Athletic Training in Rhode Island and Massachusetts

Athletic trainers are a vital and valuable part of both their communities and the health teams they are involved with. An AT's skills range from emergency care, proactive care, prevention strategies, rehabilitation of concussion and other musculoskeletal injuries, and most importantly the health and wellbeing of the whole athlete.

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