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Athletic Trainer or Athletic Therapist: What Do You Think?

Some colleagues of mine and myself have recently been discussing the upcoming changes that will take place as a result of the mandated entry-level Masters degree. While, I still disagree with the changes made by the ECE and believe they are premature, it was done in an effort to advance the profession of athletic training. In addition to this conversation with my co-workers, I began thinking about the quickly approaching NATM and what we could do to promote our work and increase the level of understanding that surrounds our responsibilities. Many would agree that the lack of public information about the knowledge and capabilities of an athletic trainer is a limiting factor to this profession. With continued efforts to advance into physician extender roles, out-patient clinic settings and mandating an athletic trainer at all high school sporting events, I've wondered, "how else can we, as ATs, make people aware of how important a role we play as health care professionals?" Let's think about the possibility of a name change and what effects in could have on our profession.

For the record, I am newly certified athletic trainer working as a graduate assistant. It was during my undergraduate career that the announcement was made by the NATA and the ECE white paper was released explaining the progressive change to the entry-level Masters degree. During the time, my classmates and I had many conversations about the possible advantages/disadvantages that could come from it. Additionally, we also discussed the possibility of a name change from 'Athletic Trainer' to 'Athletic Therapist,' which to my knowledge, was once a proposal brought to the NATA. After pondering this name change further, it is my opinion that this is a proposal that should be evaluated and researched further. Ah, but what's in a name, right? Well, I think a name change could have more to offer than initially believed.

In a profession that is continually growing and trying to expand, first impressions are important. My girlfriend is often the poor victim of my late night thoughts, and last night she was lucky enough to be posed with the same question I'm asking you right now. "Athletic trainer or athletic therapist?" Her first response was that she doesn't believe it makes a significant difference. My girlfriend is a nurse, so I asked her, "Would you prefer to be called a nurse or a patient caretaker?" Now, obviously this may be an extreme example but speaks to the level of respect that is given by simply being called a nurse as opposed to something more remedial such as a patient caretaker. We do this with every single profession: "garbage man" or "waste disposal manager," "mail man" or "postal service carrier," even Starbucks calls their cashiers, "baristas." My point is that if we can increase the level of respect and understanding that is taken at face value by the public and by the recipients of our services then perhaps it could help to advance the profession in addition to other changes.

Okay, but how does a name change really increase understanding about the profession? By changing the name from 'athletic trainer' to 'athletic therapist,' there is already a slight hint or indication as to what type of services an athletic trainer can provide. Instead of responding to the blood-boiling insinuation, "Oh, so you're a personal trainer," the public and recipients of AT services can now gather from the 'athletic therapist' title that this is a health care professional that provides some type of therapy services to athletes and others. Additionally, whether we as health care professionals like to admit it or not, there is a "customer" and "productivity" component to the care we provide similar to our counterparts in PT/OT. It is my opinion that by switching from the 'athletic trainer' title to 'athletic therapist,' there is a more immediate, face value understanding of the profession as a whole which could help advance us towards these alternative models outside of the college/university/school setting by appealing to potential "customers." This is a proposed change that is directly related to the push by many others to switch to a medical model, as opposed to an athletic model, and obtain an NPI number.

Finally, just a few other numbers to consider. The average salary of an athletic trainer working in the U.S. is $44,000/year ranging from $28,000 to $64,000 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By comparison, Canadian athletic therapists' earn an hourly wage ranging from $27.83/hour to $38.01/hour which equates to a yearly salary range of $58,000/year to $79,000/year for a 40-hour work week (which we all know rarely happens in this profession) with a median wage of $68,500/year. Now, I may be a newly certified athletic trainer, but I think these numbers at the very least should encourage further research to be done to determine what type of effects a name change may have. Do I think a name change will be solely responsible for the advancement of the athletic training profession? Absolutely not. But this profession is in an era of change and growth, and I think it would be "reasonable and prudent" to explore all changes that could benefit that growth.

To conclude, I am merely writing this to provide some food for thought. I am very eager to hear the thoughts and opinions of everyone, especially veterans of the profession. I did not share any counter arguments (push back/turf ware with PTs, etc.) but ask that you share all of your opinions on the matter.


  • I agree we need a change, I am so tired of explaining to people what I do when i say I am an athletic trainer and they say oh you train the athletes and get them in shape. I have been an athletic trainer for 25 yrs and I am tired of our profession being misunderstood. The NATA has to get moving on helping us. They need to put pressure on the states to help us. I like the word Medic, since we do have to take care of injuries when they occur, not all of our work is in rehab.
  • I also agree we need change. We also need a name to our profession that fits across all settings of athletic training. In the 14 years I've been an ATC, the public is still confused as what it means to be an athletic trainer. Working in the industrial arena I prefer the athletic therapist as it describes more of an all inclusive training and education we have that allows us to work in all types of settings.
  • Just an interesting find from a friend. This is a link to the Executive Summary found by the Nomenclature Task Force (NTF) of the NATA 10 years ago when this name change was considered. It outlines the reasons why the decision was made to not change the name.
  • New to the profession and you already understand why the name is bad. It took me a couple years of constantly explaining the profession to really understand the importance of the correct name. I now tell people, "I work in sports medicine," instead of saying I'm an athletic trainer. Now the explanation is with my specific job assignment instead of trying to explain the profession. Instead of seeing a look of confusion on faces, I see a look of interest. I was going to reference the same article you found. To me it has nothing but excuses without solid reasoning to keep "athletic trainer." Companies change product names and re-market them all the time when there seems to be a problem, they don't worry about the expense. True, there is some legal wording issues with legislation, that is easily overcome with a single simple legal statement saying the new name is equivalent to the old.
  • Great question Greg,
    How about "Sports Medical Therapist" SMT.. That has a good ring to it!
  • edited February 2016

    I think you point out something that every person in this profession wants to change--the perception of athletic trainers and the profession as a whole. As I was reading this, I was going to point you in the direction of the 2004 and 2012 Nomenclature Task Force (NTF) findings to give you some background on the reasonings of both, but I agree that 'athletic trainer' is not the most descriptive title. I think what you'll find in the 2012 NTF provides more objective reasoning. Report.pdf

    I currently represent District 3 to the NATA Student Leadership Committee and was in Dallas for the NATA Joint Committee Meeting. After speaking with members of other committees and hearing the update from Dave Saddler and Scott Sailor, there is a lot going on to advance this profession. Some can be expected to come with the degree transition, while there are several unique efforts by various committees and the NATA office. While I think this is a matter that can definitely be revisited, the energy seems to be guided in the degree transition and working to educate the public rather than changing the name. I would encourage you to email your representative on the Committee of Practice Advancement (COPA) as they are likely the most appropriate to contact and may be able to provide some more information on this. I can say that as a committee member, I wish I was contacted more from my constituents than I am. I'm sure he/she would appreciate to hear your thoughts. Here is their page:
  • Interesting points that you all make. Thank you for them! Cameron, I think SMT has a good ring to it as well. Perhaps, surveys and questionnaires should be conducted to explore numerous alternatives to "athletic trainer." Ken, I don't know if think that "athletic trainer" is necessarily "bad." I just think it's another factor we should continue to explore and research as we push the profession forward and expand into new settings. The Head Athletic Trainer at the university I attended for undergrad was explaining to me that the compromise they reached, when revisiting this issue in 2012, was to use the moniker AT. Similar to the way other professionals use PT/OT. He told me that he emphasizes "AT" instead of "trainer" especially when working with coaches and administration officials. Ty, thank you for your suggestions. They are very helpful. I will be sure to explore that website and contact my COPA rep for more info.

    Suffice it to say, we are all in agreement that changes need to be made to continue to advance the profession. As I mentioned in the original post, I do not believe that a name change is the answer to all issues surrounding the AT world. Perhaps these changes are already taking place such as the entry-level masters or push for all ATs to obtain an NPI number, it is difficult to say how such changes will affect the profession in the long run. However, it is a good thing that so many ATs are invested in the advancement.

    As they say, "The only thing that is constant is change."
  • I've been a certified athletic trainer for more than 25 years.

    I graduated from college with a degree in Sports Medicine.

    I have always believed that we should have the right to call ourselves SPORTS MEDICINE THERAPISTs.

    I cannot easily count the number of blank faces I've seen staring back at me when I tell them I'm a Certified Athletic Trainer.

    OR,,, the number of people that respond with, "Oh, you're a trainer... at a gym ?"

    But every time I say that I'm a SPORTS MEDICINE THERAPIST people "get it" and comment on how "cool" my job is.

    It's real simple. Calling ourselves Athletic Trainer was the right thing to do - back when athletic training started and cars weighed over 5000 pounds and phone calls were made by telling your local switchboard operator who you were trying to reach.

    We now live in the age of carbon fiber smart cars and smart phones that can access any piece of information your heart desires in mere seconds.

    The name needs to evolve with the times. SPORTS MEDICINE THERAPIST just works better.....
  • To Bob Mayerson and others - I too work in the industrial setting and I (and my staff) do NOT do therapy. There are AT's working in physician practices who do NOT do therapy. There are emerging settings we have yet to discover of which many will NOT do therapy. Therefore - I disagree. I do not want to be called a therapist. I do not want my profession to be subservient to another profession or be anything less that what we do - provide exceptional service to the physical active individual in the United States and beyond. I used to be on the side of a name change until I spent 25 years in physical therapy working UNDER a therapist. As a healthcare professional, I, and my profession, stand alone in providing care for the physically active in numerous settings - not just physical therapy clinics or those areas where we provide therapy. Our background is much more diverse than providing therapy. We are unique and our name should be unique.

    In addition, if we were to change the name, we would have to open every Practice Act in the US (except for California) just to have a name change. I don't know about your state, but if we open up Practice Acts, we will have a whole new challenge to protect the acts themselves. It is a much bigger problem than explaining who we are and what we do.

    That said, I feel it is paramount that we - and the NATA - take an active role in explaining who we are and what we do. If we are Athletic Trainers (I feel these should be capitalized) or athletic therapists, or tapers (which I have been called), or Jack's of All Trades, we need to educate others. That's what PT's have done, That's what OT's are doing, that's what NP's, PA's, Orthotist's are doing. Every one of these groups and others are Physician Extenders and we do NOT want to be tossed into a "catch-all" term like that.

    Our profession does much more than just therapy. Instead of griping about the name (and I have been there), we need to take an active role to advertise through grass roots and example and let others know who and what we are. The NATA needs to stand up to those in the media who call us "trainers" and we need to get the word out. If we don't do it - no one else will.
  • I currently work as an Athletic Trainer in the outpatient therapy clinic at a children's hospital. To be honest, 95% of my patients' parents call me their child's 'therapist'. I would be happy with 'athletic therapist' or 'sports medicine therapist'. I whole-heartedly agree with this name change and believe this will be a perfect stepping stone to receiving the respect (and increase in salary) that we deserve :)
  • Marty, you make a lot of great points that were also made in the research conducted by the NTF. You also make a great point that ATs are capable of a lot more than just therapy. I like the stance you take that being a unique profession we deserve a unique name and I am in 100% agreement that more efforts should be made by the NATA and other regional organizations to advance this profession as other professions have done. Thank you for sharing a different perspective.
  • Greg, it's likely the nomenclature ship has sailed for better or worse. They should have made the change a long time ago and likely cost prohibitive at this time. I've been an ATC for 25 years and have watched the industry grow. This argument has been debated by all members for decades yet the outcome remains the same. It's great you are raising questions and concerns. But, it is up to the members to educate the public and we are not helping ourselves if we all use different descriptors. Yes, you will continue to get blank stares, but as I have seen more people do recognize the profession. Yet, since the industry has progressed beyond the " training room" into other areas like the clinical and industrial settings the original brand is obsolete. While they are trying to adapt I think it confuses the public more about our role.Perhaps it's time to differentiate settings by calling them by different names and set up sub-governing bodies for each of those settings? That way each setting is represented more appropriately, and branding can more focused versus a broad, catch- all message.
  • I remember doing my internship hours at a local high school and having kids say "hey trainer,....". If personal trainers did not exist, I believe we would not be having this discussion. It is very unfortunate that athletic trainers are being associated with personal trainers, but I do believe as was mentioned in a few earlier posts that to make a name change at this point is simply impossible logistically. Education, education, education, along with support from the NATA is really the only feasible option.

    "Athletic therapist" or anything with "therapist" is really a poor choice of a title. Marty stated the biggest problem with that title - that not all ATs do rehab, nor do ATs want to necessarily be associated with PTs or OTs. Which leads to the 2nd major point - that rehab is only one of the domains of athletic training. Therefore, "therapist" would be selling ourselves short on our diverse skill set. If we were set on a title change, I believe back in the 90's "athletic health care specialist" was being thrown around also. That seems to be more all-encompassing and indicative of our skills regarding our primary patient population of "athletes" or "physically-active individuals".

    I believe it was posted on here that our diverse skill set is potentially our problem with finding a single title for the public to recognize us by. Perhaps, we do need to have more specific titles as each of us finds our specific roles within our profession. I liken this to graduating from law school with the JD (Juris Doctor). Many law graduates do go on to become the stereotypical "lawyer", but many go on to other professions such as "legislators", "professors", "representatives", "judges", and many more, at which point the public not longer sees them as "lawyers". Perhaps this is what we need to consider for us "ATs".
  • I was involved in the AT field for about 20 years. I used to enjoy explaining (to all the staring faces) what we did as a profession. I was initially told by my mentors that "things are going to change in short order" about our circumstances. A name adjustment/change would have worked very well at that point! AT's face a powerful PT lobby, so forget anything that resembles "therapist". There are a number of useful alternatives that I have seen mentioned, some good, some not so much. I believe the only way to change many of the other nagging issues (respect, salary commensurate with skills, etc.) is to align with health care divisions at academic institutions! To remain affiliated with "athletic departments" is akin to remaining being compensated like the Volleyball coach or fitness center attendant (no disrespect, whatsoever). I am sorry if this wandered off topic a tad- but I have wanted to get this off my chest in a forum for quite some time. I hope to see in the future, a profession free of the martyrdom that is so prevalent today. I enjoyed my time as an AT, but suffered the unfortunate "burnout" that we all hope never happens. I still enjoy reading about the advancements of the field!
  • If you watch european sports, tennis,soccer, rugby etc. the people running onto the field of play are referred to as "physios". Who are these guys? What are their qualifications? Perhaps we should piggyback on the growing popularity of soccer and combine the old with the new and try something like
    ATP (Athletic Trainer/Physio) or ATCP (Athletic Trainer Corrective Physio), AP (Athletic Physio)
    Rick Thomas
  • I am currently working at a sports medical clinic in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, with 30+ colleagues who are physiotherapists. They have an education which can be directly compared to a physical therapist. The title of "sports" physitherapist must be acheived through a master's degree. "Physio" is a legally protcted term and profession.

    If you thought professional recognition for Athletic Trainers was difficult in the USA, then I ask you to move to Europe. I was always a huge proponent of the term Athletic Trainer, but moving to Europe showed me that the term is actually stifling the understanding and respect of our profession internationally. The title does not do our profession justice and mitigates us to sport/performance trainers overseas solely based on the name and what is written on our diploma. Despite my education, experience and credentials the majority of employers and even the Dutch Ministry of Health refused to recognize me as a healthcare professional, even after reviewing all relevant materials.
  • Marty,

    First let me start by saying thank you for all that you’ve done for the profession and the service you have provided to the NATA foundation, the NWATA, and NATA collectively. I agree with you that AT’s in a particular setting aren’t therapist and see the validity in your point, however I think you will agree that in those same settings we are not trainers and don’t train patients, athletes, clients, etc. I think the argument is that the word therapist denotes someone that maintains a license to practice according to state practice acts which to all account do so under the supervision of physicians. I think simply the meaning of the word is closer, although not a perfect fit, better aligns and is easier for people to digest. In the same sense I think this lies at the root of why we take such an offense to be called a “trainer” and the subliminal explanations that follow? Do PT and OT’s take offense to be called therapists?

    I think to a degree, most if not all of us have been taught to take an active role in explaining who we are and what we do. Maybe some of us don’t advocate as much as we should however how long and at what point do we say that what we have done up to this point just hasn’t worked as much as we have hoped. There is a saying “If you do what you have done, you will get what you have got”. Change fosters growth, and I think, to a large degree, we have been trying to educate the interprofessional team and the general public for quite some time now. Grass root efforts are important, but only a part of the answer.

    Regarding practice acts, are we not already fighting state battles for change? Scope of Practice, definitions? Is it not worth trying to change our name? I’m curious, is name change perhaps more difficult? I realize it’s a battle, but it seems like were not the only one in a fight! PT's, OT's, NP's, PA's as far as I’m concerned though, are far ahead of us in terms of their battle. Do you mean to tell me that their battle is and has been the same as are’s? Salaries? Respect? Scope?

    ~ If you treat a man or women how they are, they will remain that way, the same. If you treat them as the person they can be, they will become just that!
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