Last Updated on January 21, 2022
Athletic Trainer Degree | How to Become an Athletic Trainer
Athletic trainers (ATs) are the front line of sports medicine. As any current or former competitive athletes can attest, ATs are the heroes behind the scenes when injuries happen in the sports world, helping athletes and active members of the population manage injuries and recover to full strength.
Athletic training is one of the few professions that works to prevent injuries before they happen while also being first responders on the scene to manage the treatment of injuries once they occur. The job can be demanding at times, but there is no question that helping individuals get back to doing what they love as quickly as possible is incredibly rewarding. The powerful nature of the work and the passion of those who do it has created an amazing professional community of athletic trainers in the US and beyond.
In this Guide:
For former athletes and those who are passionate about both sports and medicine, it is easy to understand the draw of athletic training.
“If you want to stay around sports, you like working with people who are highly motivated, and you are interested in health care, I think [athletic training] is a really good fit”
…according to Dr. Laura Kunkel, Director of the Athletic Training program at the University of Texas-Arlington, who was recently interviewed by Sports Degrees Online.
Not long ago, a bachelor’s degree in athletic training was enough to earn certification and practice throughout the US, but now a master’s degree in athletic training is required to practice in every state except California. While a master’s degree may be viewed by some as a significant investment, the field is growing in new and exciting ways. This guide will help illustrate why there has never been a better time to pursue a career in athletic training.
A Dyanamic, Meaningful Career Path
Many aspects of careers in athletic training are quite positive when compared with similar occupations in health care. Since ATs spend a significant amount of time with active people, it makes living a healthy lifestyle very accessible. For those who enjoy the refreshing energy of young people and student athletes, the fact that most ATs are employed at high schools and universities will certainly be a plus as well.
ATs help people recover from injuries and get back to being their very best, making the nature of the work that ATs do incredibly meaningful. Speaking with Sports Degrees Online not long ago, Professor Tina Davlin-Pater, Director of the Athletic Training at Xavier University, Professor Tina Daviln-Pater had this to say about the field,
“It’s a pretty unique health profession in that we get to work with patients when they are actually healthy. We get to care for them and try to prevent their injuries, which is very unique in the health care world.”
While working with healthy members of the population who are also very motivated to get better wouldn’t seem unique in the world of medicine, it can be quite different than the patients that physical or occupational therapists work with on a daily basis.
For individuals who are seeking a career that is dynamic and not monotonous, athletic training certainly checks that box as well. Professor Tina Davlin-Pater of Xavier University describes how the life of an athletic trainer is quite unique:
“Our day-to-day is often very different – it’s not just going into a cubical every day or going into the exact same setting. Things change and we get to adapt and change with them. Traveling with teams is fun and exciting – you get to see different parts of the country and experience those things with a team of people. So that is very rewarding.”
A bright future in a growing field – Jobs in the Athletic Training Field
The future job market for athletic trainers is projected to be very strong in the coming decade and beyond. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the field is expected to grow about 23%, a growth forecast that is up 7% from last year and much faster than average. This increase likely reflects the increased demand for athletic trainers in a wide range of work environments.
Median Salary (2020)
Projected Job Growth
Estimate Total Number of Jobs
Athletic Trainer [source]
Licensed Practical Nurse
Exercise Physiologist [source]
Physical Therapist [source]
Athletic Coaches [source]
Health Science Teacher [source]
The vast majority of athletic trainers work with athletes on-campus at high schools, universities, and professional organizations. However in recent years, ATs are finding work opportunities in a variety of emerging settings far away from the sidelines of athletic events. This added demand is making the field even more appealing for young people who are considering a career in sports medicine.
As the costs related to workers’ compensation and insurance have skyrocketed in recent years, companies and organizations have been scrambling to find ways to curb their spending in these areas. This has brought increasing focus on preventative strategies which can help reduce expensive incidents before they happen.
Simply by doing so, they naturally achieve their goal of minimizing their spending on healthcare and workplace injuries while also keeping their workers on the job. Investment in these strategies have been very effective in limiting injuries and curbing costs, and athletic trainers have proven their value a key part of this approach.
Since athletic trainers are trained to work in dynamic situations on the very front line of healthcare, they are now being recognized as the ideal on-site safety team leaders for large companies and organizations. Being trained to both prevent and treat injuries makes them qualified to triage a wide variety of situations.
Having a qualified professional on site leads to better compliance with regard to best practices and risk management, which in turn leads to fewer emergency room visits and lower workers compensation and insurance premium expenses.
The emergence of athletic trainers in new situations is great news for the entire industry, as it is creating more options and improving the working standards for everyone. A well-known occupational hazard for athletic trainers in traditional settings is that they sometimes have to deal with demanding schedules, including work on weekends and holidays as well as time away from home.
Many of the emerging work settings offer athletic trainers better schedules and a more favorable work-life balance while still keeping many of the positive aspects of the job. These new, more structured opportunities, are offering ATs the chance to still do the work they love while also making their schedules more predictable.
Organizing and standardizing for the benefit of all
Understanding the ways that the field is growing and evolving, the National Association of Athletic Trainers (NATA) is working hard to stay ahead of the emerging professional contexts where athletic trainers are now working.
NATA’s mission is “to represent, engage and foster the continued growth and development of the athletic training profession and athletic trainers as unique health care providers”, and it is a big part of the positive direction of the field of athletic training today.
Tiffany McGuffin, a practicing industrial-occupational athletic trainer who is a member of the Committee on Practice Advancement (COPA) division of NATA, recently spoke with Sports Degrees Online about how NATA has organized itself to be sure it is advocating for each new area of the industry.
“COPA itself is a council of volunteers in NATA. We have several committees within that council, [including] performing arts, industrial/occupational, military, public safety, physician practice, community outreach, health care administrators and entrepreneurs. Those areas are what we focus on and that’s where we believe the growth is [within the field of athletic training]”.
– Tiffany McGuffin, COPA member.
Responsibilities and work environments can be very different for athletic trainers in these different settings, but through COPA, NATA is doing what it can to ensure that working conditions and standards continue to move forward for the benefit of every member. Tiffany McGuffin again explains,
“[COPA] identifies the need and gaps in those emerging settings, and then gets resources and opportunities built to advocate for more jobs and advocate for higher standards of care in these new emerging settings.”
With increased demand leading to more jobs in these emerging contexts, ATs have more career choices than ever before and the future of the field looks brighter than ever.
Join a welcoming community of health care providers
Athletic training is much more than a job – it is a lifestyle. The professional community of ATs is passionate, committed, and supportive. Of this community, Professor Davlin-Pater says “I would say that athletic training is a really rewarding career. It’s a difficult job, so the people who do it tend to love it – otherwise they would probably be doing something else. It’s a profession filled with people who are passionate about what they are doing… which makes for a really great professional community.”
Through continuing education, regional and national conferences, and professional publications, Athletic Trainers stay connected to each other professionally, intellectually, and socially. It’s a great career choice for people who love sharing ideas and supporting their colleagues.
The National Athletic Trainers’ Association hosts a national conference each year, attended by thousands of practicing ATs as well as students and presenters from related industries.
If you are employed by a sports team, you will find that the passion, team spirit, and camaraderie extends far beyond the players and coaches. Everyone from the front office to the facilities crews, and of course the ATs share in the highs, support each other through the lows, and work together to make each season a success.
Becoming an Athletic Trainer – Getting There from Here
If you love helping people, have a passion for human movement, and an interest in science, you are probably the kind of person who would find a career in Athletic Training very rewarding.
These days, nearly every state requires all aspiring athletic trainers to have a Master’s Degree in Athletic Training to sit the BOC exam and become a licensed AT. Bachelor level students planning on a future in Athletic Training have a number of options at the undergraduate level, so long as the following prerequisite courses are included:
- Kinesiology, Human Movement, or Biomechanics
- Intro to Psychology
- Introduction to Public Health
Bachelor’s degrees which commonly have all of the above courses include Pre-med, Exercise Science, Kinesiology, and Biology. Students who have chosen other undergraduate majors should expect to complete any missing prerequisite courses prior to beginning the AT graduate program.
Next, you’ll need a master’s degree specifically in Athletic Training. While bachelor’s degrees used to be deemed adequate to pursue certification in many states, those days are essentially over and master’s degrees will soon be the minimum degree level to take the BOC exam everywhere. It should be noted that these changes do not affect anyone who has already passed the BOC and is currently a licensed AT.
These are rigorous programs, generally requiring somewhere between 50-65 credits. In comparison, master’s programs in other disciplines often require 30-36 credits to complete, so get ready to hit the books, stay motivated, and give it your all. You’ll attend Fall, Spring, and Summer semesters, participating in clinical rotations and an internship in the process of completing your coursework.
A number of colleges and Universities offer “3+2” programs which allow students to earn both their bachelor’s and master’s degrees in as few as 5 years. This can be a very cost effective and efficient way of earning your master’s degree, but you must be very focused and prepared for a rigorous schedule.
Once you’ve completed your undergraduate and graduate degrees, you’ll be ready to sit for your BOC (Board of Certification) exam, which is the only recognized certification credential in the United States for Athletic Trainers. It’s best to take the exam as soon as possible after graduation as it becomes more difficult to study for and pass the more time that passes.
Finally, diplomas and BOC certification in hand, you are an ATC, or Certified Athletic Trainer. From your clinical rotations and internship, you’ll already have the beginnings of a professional network that will help you find a job.
Whether you want to live in a big city and work for a professional team or live in a small town and work with college, high school, or amateur athletes, by attending conferences and staying in touch with others in the industry, you’ll be able to find opportunities that meet your needs. You’ll need to complete continuing education credits in order to maintain your certification, and you’re sure to find these courses engaging, informative, and directly relevant to your work as an AT.
Important Professional Resources for Athletic Trainers
Here are a number of online resources that will be very useful for Athletic Training graduates:
- National Athletic Trainer Association (NATA.org) – NATA is the governing body that is responsible for defining the role of athletic trainers in health care and regulating the work places where athletic trainers work. The vast majority of all athletic trainers are NATA members, and the organization works in a variety of ways to improve the present and future for all athletic trainers. NATA’s Career Center is an excellent resource that helps certified athletic trainers find work opportunities. NATA also has an excellent BOC study guide for students who are preparing for this all-important exam.
- Board of Certification (BOC) for the Athletic Trainer – This website is your one-stop-shop for information about the BOC exam and all things related to continuing education and specific state regulations. Athletic Training graduates should get familiar with the many resources houses in the BOC site to discover how it can be leveraged to improve your qualifications and marketability.
- Caate.net – The Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education (CAATE) website is another excellent resource where Athletic Trainers can explore a resource library that includes Recorded Webinars from industry leaders, information about Residencies and Fellowships, and extensive details about CAATE accredited programs.
- For the latest information on statistics and trends for athletic trainers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov) is home to some excellent resources about employment trends, wage data and more for athletic trainers.
Athletic Trainer Careers FAQs
Speaking with Sports Degrees Online, Professor Kate Liesener shared her opinion on why she chose athletic training, “Athletic training is a great way to combine a passion for sports and helping people. If you go on to work in the sports setting, it can be very dynamic, challenging, and rewarding. And, let’s be honest, watching sports for a living is not a bad gig at all!”
Athletic training and physical therapy degrees do have a significant overlap with regard to coursework, however there are a number of important differences. Physical therapists help individuals from all walks of life recover from injuries to get back to their normal lives. Because athletic trainers often work with teams and athletes–sometimes with military units, police academies, or factory workers–they generally work with a very active part of the population. Athletic trainers provide initial care and treatment in addition to helping people recover from injuries. Athletic trainers and physical therapists do work together while helping athletes recover from injuries.
Another difference is the work environment. Physical therapists work in private offices, nursing homes, hospitals, and private residences. Athletic trainers work in a wide variety of settings, ranging from athletic events at the high school, university, and professional level to police and fire departments.
The last key difference is with average salary. Physical therapists make an median wage of $91,010 per year, whereas athletic trainers make a median wage of $52,230.
For those looking for an exciting, non-standard work environment, some athletic training positions can involve a lot of travel, both domestic and international. Professor Tina Davlin-Pater’s work took her to Japan to work with a football team, Alaska with a baseball team, and the National Figure Stating Championship. She explained to Sports Degrees Online what she enjoyed most about being an athletic trainer, “Our day-to-day is often very different – it’s not just going into a cubical every day or going into the exact same setting. Things change and we get to adapt and change with them. Traveling with teams is fun and exciting – you get to see different parts of the country or the world and experience those things with a team of people. So it’s very rewarding.”