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What trainers do

Athletic trainers of all kinds face misconception regarding profession

Posted: July 29, 2009 10:49 p.m.
Updated: July 30, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Valencia High School Sports Medicine student trainee Gabi Xerez-Burgos, center, practices a wrist wrap on fellow trainee Marisol Guzman, left, as trainee Adam Tapia practices an ankle rehabilitation Wednesday at Valencia.

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Two simple words make a world of difference — athletic and personal.

Don’t be confused.

An athletic trainer is not the individual at the local gym or health spa encouraging you to pump out one more bench press.

That individual is a personal trainer.

Battling misconception and a lack of legal recognition in the state of California, athletic training has still found a way to help many high schools improve the quality of health care for the student-athlete.

Athletic trainers “specialize in the prevention, assessment, treatment and rehabilitation of injuries and illnesses,” according to the National Athletic Training Association’s Web site.

The NATA serves as the professional association, while the Board of Certification conducts certification tests to ensure that the would-be athletic trainer meets national standards.

The NATA estimates that 42 percent of high schools in the country have access to a certified athletic trainer.

None of the schools in the Santa Clarita Valley employ one.

However, one local school is developing a program.

Valencia Program

Valencia High began its own athletic training program in 2002, where students learn from local professionals about various fields in health care.

The goal is simple.

“To help other kids get into that field or any other health-related field,” said Joe Monteleone, director of sports medicine at Valencia.

Physical therapists, orthopedic surgeons and certified athletic trainers — to name a few — donate their time to speak with aspiring health care professionals.

Through a three-class program, students move from introductory lectures to hands-on work with the school’s athletes, taping ankles and working side-by-side with trained medical personnel.

Monteleone said he has the full support of the coaches and administration and that at the end of the day, Valencia’s athletes get back to action quicker than other schools.

Since its inception, alumni have gone on to major four-year institutions.

Monteleone has done it all amid the state’s budget issues.

“One of the things I am most proud of is that we did it with zero funding from the school — all off donations,” he said. “Since, the district has put in a little bit with grants, but it was built with hard work and determination.”

Models

When looking at involvement in the high school setting, the athletic trainers usually fit into one of three primary formats — staff athletic trainers, teacher/trainers and outreach programs from clinics and hospitals.

For the staff athletic trainer, positions tend to be primarily at private institutions.

“I’d say in Southern California, L.A. County, most private schools of large size that compete at a higher level really do have an athletic trainer on staff,” says Eli Hallak, a seven-year Stevenson Ranch resident and the head athletic trainer at St. Francis of La Canada. “If you look locally, Notre Dame (of Sherman Oaks), St. Francis (of La Canada), Harvard-Westlake (of North Hollywood), Oaks Christian (of Westlake Village), Crespi (of Encino), Chaminade (of West Hills) — the commonly known private high schools — they all have at least one (athletic trainer) full time.”

Hallak has been involved with an estimated 40 to 50 schools starting athletic training programs.

He has also been teaching for 10 years.

For the teacher/trainer, time is split up between curriculum and student-athlete wellness.

In this role, the athletic trainer generally teaches two to four classes, Hallak said, giving students a background for many different health-care careers.

Yet a staff athletic trainer or teacher/trainer is not always an option.

As such, many schools have turned to clinics and hospitals, which feature outreach programs placing medical staff into schools.

Take Athletic Physical Therapy, which contracts out to Royal High School of Simi Valley.

“As a physical therapy clinic, we are very sports-minded and athletic trainers understand that kids want to be back on the field,” said Ron Higa, the director of athletic training at the company’s Westlake Village location. “We have doctors that understand that. We have to make sure they are safe to participate. Physical therapist, doctor and trainer, we’ll work together to make sure the kid is safe and get them back 100 percent.”

Glendale Adventist Medical Center also maintains a community outreach program.

However, they do not charge for the service, one which is limited to the amount of staff maintained at the hospital’s rehabilitation center.

According to Dr. Kirk Bentzen, the manager of the therapy and wellness center, the hospital works with five high schools — Glendale, Hoover of Glendale, Crescenta Valley, Village Christian of Sun Valley and Burroughs of Burbank.

Contracted athletic trainers are limited in their access to the athlete in that they are on campus only a few days per week.

During the fall, this means their time is almost solely devoted to football, the sport that gets the most medical coverage due to its high-contact nature.

As a result, other sports are potentially neglected.

According to its official rule book for the 2008-09 school year, the CIF-Southern Section only requires that medical supervision be present at football games. All other sports are left up to the school or school district to determine.

Legal Battle

Valencia’s Monteleone is quick to point out that he is not a certified athletic trainer.

In fact, licensure is a hot topic in the state of California — one of only three states that has not even made an effort to recognize the profession.

West Virginia and Alaska are the other two now that Hawaii is moving in the direction of formal recognition.

It is a battle that Mike West, president of the California Athletic Trainers Association, said started in 1985 with its first legislative veto in Sacramento.

There has been little improvement.

“Our biggest road block is our current governor’s office,” West said. “We are still working to get this done. It’s for public protection, knowledge and awareness, that they know they are going to get someone qualified.”

Currently, anyone can theoretically occupy the same position as a certified athletic trainer.

As West points out, hair stylists require certification in California, yet athletic trainers do not.

“We feel very strong that parents and the public need to know who is working with their child,” said Judy Pulice, the national manager of legislative and regulatory affairs for the NATA.

The NATA estimates that 33 percent of high schools in California have access to athletic trainers.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has vetoed Senate Bills 1397 and 284 during his tenure, both of which would have required licensure.

Schwarzenegger cited in his veto message for SB 1397: “There is no evidence that the existing unregulated status of athletic trainers poses any threat to the public health and safety. While there may be a benefit to consumers by providing a distinction for certified athletic trainers, this bill would place unnecessary regulatory burdens on the athletic training profession.”

Feeling that there was not enough new evidence to prove contrary to his first veto, SB 284 was rejected for the same reasons.

Other rationale for the bills’ rejection is the mindset that to license would essentially be an expansion of government, West said.

Because licensure is a state-level recognition, a committee would need to be created in order to manage the process.

However, according to West, where certified athletic trainers are set apart is in their access to latest research, experience and training to deal with pressure from coaches, parents and athletes.

The consequences for sending an athlete back into a game too soon may seem dramatic — particularly when it comes to concussions — but West said the danger is very real.

“That is when you see the death and the truly legitimate brain injuries,” he said. “It is rarely on that first hit. It is usually on the return to play.”

Albeit extreme, that is the power entrusted to athletic trainers.

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