“We’re the first line of defense when an injury occurs,” explains Lufcy, who got her bachelor’s degree in athletic training from UCF’s College of Health and Public Affairs (COHPA) in 2005, going on to get a master’s in health services administration two years later. She now works as one of three athletic trainers at the central Florida high school, where she also teaches biology.

“There’s a misconception that athletic trainers are personal trainers. People don’t understand the time that goes into getting your degree and becoming board certified,” adds Lufcy.

“Think of me as an athletic therapist. I can treat all kinds of athletic injuries and do all kinds of rehabilitation for anything that doesn’t require surgery.”

Athletic training is one of the fastest growing professions in the nation, with the federal government predicting this allied health career will jump 37 percent by 2018, much faster than average for all occupations.

The UCF program at COHPA is one of the largest, if not the largest in the country, with 56 students working toward the bachelor’s of science degree.

“It’s a profession that combines medicine, which a lot of people like, with helping people, which a lot of people like and sports which a ton of people like,” says Kristen Schellhase, who directs the popular athletic training program at UCF.

“Another reason it’s growing is litigation. With everybody suing everybody there are some states now that have made laws that you cannot have an athletic program unless you have medical coverage and some of those specify a certified athletic trainer.”

The profession is relatively young, tracing its roots to the 1950s and not taking off until the late 1970s. Schellhase was inspired to pursue the career in the late 1980s when her high school employed a full-time, female athletic trainer, rare for a woman in those days.

She’s proud that her students now gain experience working alongside professional female athletic trainers who are leaders with the university’s football and basketball teams, but says the profession is growing beyond the sports world.

“We have athletic trainers in the military, in car plants in Michigan. I have a friend who is the athletic trainer for the US Airways flight attendant training program,” says Schellhase.

“Kennedy Space Center has three full time athletic trainers who work with people hurt doing manual labor. That’s the newest field and we have not scratched the surface. We have to start exposing students to these different things.”

Because of the misconceptions about the profession, the college requires prospective students to spend 100 hours observing a practicing athletic trainer, who is responsible for an athlete’s emergency care, including CPR and the split second decisions of an initial first aid response.

“You don’t know what it’s like to be on a field in 98 degree sweltering heat, hauling water, being screamed at by coaches, and dealing with sweaty, dirty people unless you’ve been there. That’s the extreme example, but if they don’t get that they’re going to quit in the first week and they’ve taken a spot from someone else,” she says.

Athletic trainers are experts in assessing orthopedic injuries and will often follow an injured athlete through surgery, recovery and rehabilitation. Preventing re-injury is a big part of their job, as well as overseeing an athlete’s overall well being.

“We handle a lot of psycho-social issues such as recognition of eating disorders and drug problems. We’re the first line of defense for recognition because the player is not going to go to the coach and announce they have an eating disorder and they’re not going to tell their parents, but the athletic trainer will pick up on it because of the signs they see,” explains Schellhase.

UCF graduate Erin Jenkins got her athletic training degree at UCF and then added a physical therapy degree and is now finishing a doctorate in that field. She works as a PT at Florida Sports & Rehab in Viera and Wuesthoff Home Care and says she often combines the two specialties when working with injured athletes.

“Typically an athlete might come in with an injury or something more chronic that’s progressed over a period of time,” says Jenkins.

“Regardless, they need rehabilitation. A great deal of athletic training is prevention because it’s one thing to get them back to standard functioning, back to walking and being pain free, but it’s a whole other thing to get them back to being able to safely play the sport they love.”

Source: Athletic Training: A Profession On The Fast Track, by Catherine Harwood, April 25, 2010 on Space Coast Medicine.