Advance with MUSC Health

Athletic Training Settings: Secondary School vs. Collegiate

The two most popular settings for athletic trainers are in the secondary school and collegiate athletic settings.  I became a certified athletic trainer in 1985. I spent the first half of my career in college athletics from NCAA Division III to Division I. I am currently working in the secondary school setting. I can sincerely say that I enjoy this setting the best.  I will break my reasoning into two categories.

A. Pay and Benefits: To the surprise of many, high school athletic trainers usually have higher yearly salaries than those in college with the same years of experience. Also, there are many collegiate assistant ATs without benefits such as health insurance and matching retirement plans. Many college athletic directors put athletic trainers (especially the assistant ATs) on the bottom of their department salary charts. Some college athletic directors (AD) perceive athletic trainers as a necessary evil when it comes to budgets. In public the athletic directors talk about the importance of the athletic trainer but in private they complain about the expense. Once I asked a college athletic director for raises for my underpaid assistant athletic trainers. He replied “Let them go. We can hire younger (athletic) trainers for less money.” I had many other similar conversations with college ADs over the years. In short, the athletic training department is the least concern of many college ADs, however this has improved some since in the past handful of years. Don’t get me wrong; there are some ADs who support ATs both emotionally and fiscally but there are many who do not.

B. Quality of Life Outside of Work: This is a no brainer. High school athletic trainers have a much better quality of life; however, the high school AT who teaches a full load and then has to cover practices and games until 10:00 has it much tougher than those who do not. Overall the high school athletic trainer doesn’t have to work seven days a week often. Since I switched to high schools I worked seven days a week a few times during the busy spring seasons. In college it is not uncommon to go a month without a day off. I remember in college working three to four months without a day off. Even when there is a rare day without any practices or games the college coaches expect the athletic trainers to come in for treatments. The daily grind for college ATs is also more difficult. It is common for an AT to get to campus for early morning conditioning practices then have morning/afternoon treatments and then cover afternoon/evening practices or games. Also, there is no more off seasons for college athletics. There is really nothing optional about the “volunteer” conditioning and individual practices. If the athletes want to keep their scholarships and playing time they better show for the “volunteer” practices. Lastly, in high school when an injured athlete leaves practice/game the athlete goes home to a parent or guardian. The AT will communicate with the parent or guardian giving instructions and then follow up when necessary. In college the AT serves as the parent and guardian and must check up the athlete either at the dorm or at an off-campus apartment. This also applied to post surgery home care of athletes. In college I spent many hours going to the dorms or apartments checking on concussions and other injuries. Now I just call the parents/guardians the day(s) after the injury or surgery as a courtesy. High school parents and guardians really appreciate this.

There are other aspects that can be discussed but I wanted to concentrate on two major aspects. In summary I will quote Bob Behnke (NATA Hall of Fame). He was head athletic trainer when I attended graduate school at Indiana State University. He told my graduating class “If you want to eat prestige sandwiches work in college. If you want to make a comfortable living work in high school.”