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How to Become an Athletic Trainer for a Professional Sports Team

by Jon Gjerde, studioD

Athletic trainers are hired to help prevent, diagnose and treat injuries and illnesses. They are usually among the first healthcare providers to look at players when injuries occur on the court or field. Athletic trainers typically work under the direction of a licensed physician as well as other healthcare providers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The work trainers do is especially important at the professional sports level because franchises invest large sums of money in their players. To land a job with a pro sports team, you need advanced education, certification, experience and the right connections.

Learning the Ropes

You will need at least a bachelor's degree in athletic training from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education to meet licensing requirements. Undergraduate programs include coursework in life and health sciences such as nutrition, biomechanics, anatomy and physiology, and supervised clinical training. There are two types of master's programs for athletic trainers: entry-level and post-professional. Entry-level master's programs are for those with a bachelor's degree in a field other than athletic training. To qualify for the most prestigious jobs, you must complete a post-professional program. These programs provide advanced education and clinical training and require that you meet the qualifications to become a licensed athletic trainer before being admitted. Professional experience is not necessarily a requirement for post-professional programs, but admissions officers may consider prior experience when making admissions decisions.

Earning Certification and Licensing

Most states require you to pass the Board of Certification for the Athletic Trainer certification exam to become licensed and work without supervision. You are eligible to take the exam beginning your last semester of study. The exam contains five primary topics: injury and illness prevention and wellness protection, clinical evaluation and diagnosis, immediate and emergency care, treatment and rehabilitation, and organizational and professional health and well-being. The exam includes 175 questions, which you will have four hours to complete. Some questions are being tested for inclusion in future exams and are not scored. Your score will be between 200 and 800, and you will need a score of at least 500 to pass.

Gaining Experience

Most new athletic trainers gain the skills and experience they need to work for professional sports teams by working as interns. Internships can begin after graduation from an undergraduate program or your first summer of graduate school if you choose to go straight into a master's program. Ideally, you will intern for professional sports teams during both summer terms while in grad school, go on to a seasonal internship with that team after graduation, and move into permanent position after a season or two. This was the story for Leigh Weiss, an athletic trainer for the New York Giants. But these internships are highly competitive and hard to come by. An internship with college athletic departments will also set you on the path to working as an athletic trainer with professional sports teams and is somewhat easier to accomplish.

Getting Your Foot in the Door

The National Athletic Trainers' Association has more than 35,000 members as of 2013, but the NATA estimates that only around 800 of those members work for the NBA, NFL, MLB or other major sports leagues. For the aspiring athletic trainer, this means that while skill is a prerequisite for top-tier positions, skill alone is often not good enough. What can make the difference is your ability to build and maintain good working relationships with colleagues and athletic directors. Having a recommendation from a former colleague who went on to professional sports training might help you get your foot in the door and prove your skills.

About the Author

Jon Gjerde worked as a journalist in northern California where he covered topics ranging from city, county and tribal governments to alternative transportation. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from University of California, Davis.

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