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April 12, 2010

Injury report - A look at how athletic training has changed over the years

By: Matt Kovatch

Jimmy LawrencePhoto Courtesy of Kip Brundage

With spring football underway and many other sports going full bore, Virginia Tech’s athletic training staff is as busy as ever. One of those athletic trainers is 31-year veteran Jimmy Lawrence, who arrived in Blacksburg as a graduate assistant in 1979 and has been there ever since. Lawrence, currently the athletic trainer for men’ soccer year-round and the man in charge of insurance correspondence for every Virginia Tech student-athlete, recently shared some thoughts on the profession and on how much things have changed during his years in the athletic training room.

Athletic trainers play a much bigger role than they previously did.

“When I first came here, we never saw a lot of the athletes in the training room. We never saw tennis players, and very rarely did we see swimmers. It was football, basketball and baseball, and those were the main student-athletes we saw day-to-day. But now, every sport has a trainer with them – either a graduate assistant or a staff trainer – full time at every practice, game and off-season workout. Everybody gets more coverage, more training room time and more access to trainers than they used to. Even though I was responsible for soccer, I never saw a soccer game for years. They would only come in if they were hurt. Now, we do preventive things with everybody. There are a lot more patients now who need a lot more care.”

Student-athletes are much better prepared nowadays …

“It used to be that the football players all went home in the summer with a stack of postcards. They were supposed to mail one in every week to the strength coach detailing what they did during the week, and then they would come back in the fall to start camp. But now, they’re here all summer. It’s made a big difference because preseason practices don’t have to be as hard as they used to be – the athletes are in better shape now and they’re ready to practice. It used to be that they’d come back from the offseason and you’d never know what kind of shape they’d be in, but with the advances in strength and conditioning, they’re ready to go. They don’t have to do two-a-day practices anymore because they don’t have to do as much conditioning. They can concentrate more on their sport.”

… but that just means we see them more often.

“I don’t think athletes were tougher before than they are now, but maybe there are more injuries now because they do more work year-round. I can remember a time when a season was finished, they were done with it until the next year. It’s not that way anymore – they take a week off and then they’re right back at it. They’re in the training room more than they used to be simply because there is more wear and tear on their bodies.”

The size of our staff has really grown …

“When I first arrived, I was the first person to receive money to go to graduate school. In addition to myself, there were three staff members, including one who was semi-retired and didn’t travel. When I became full time, we only had one graduate assistant for a while. In recent years, though, with the success athletics has had and since [assistant director of athletics for athletic training] Mike [Goforth] has been here, we’ve gone to seven full-time trainers and between nine and 11 graduate assistants. It’s just been phenomenal growth. Mike has worked really hard to get that done, and I think our administration has recognized the importance of what we do.”

… and that’s mirrored the increasing commitment to athletics.

“We need to have one trainer dedicated to each sport. The summers used to be nothing – you would have a few kids here because they had to go to summer school. Now, they’re choosing to be here both to go to school and to train. More and more kids are here year-round, so it’s gotten to be more of a year-round job that requires more staff. The expectation of care has increased as well. We expect to be able to take care of every student-athlete; they expect to be taken care of; and our administration expects them to be taken care of. As the standards have risen, we’ve had to raise our staff.”

We have access to a lot more resources now.

“Our jobs have mirrored advances in medicine. An X-ray used to be the gold standard of care, but now it’s an MRI. Who knows what the next kind of diagnostic testing will be? PRP (platelet-rich plasma) is a new thing that has come on the scene, where they take blood plasma from the student-athlete, mix it with medicine and re-inject it into the injury site. Trainers don’t do that, but the doctors do it right down the hall. It’s a huge advance. Because of our connection with the Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine, we have doctor’s office hours eight hours a day, five days a week, and doctors at just about every home event. We used to go to Roanoke for surgeries, and then back and forth for follow-ups. Now, we use physicians here in Blacksburg to do the surgeries locally.”

Physical therapy has become a big part of sports medicine.

“We have physical therapists in the training room working with post-operative kids five days a week as part of their post-operative care. They work with our staff trainers to continue their care, and that’s a big change. The trainer used to just do their rehab aided by what a physician recommended. Now, we all work under the direction of a physician. We still execute a lot of it, but we have another level of excellence to refer to.”

We see a different side of the players.

“Athletic trainers have a special relationship with student-athletes. It’s a different relationship than a coach or academic advisor has with them because we see them when they are vulnerable and injured and their parents aren’t there. They look to us to help them get better. There is quite a bit of trust there – they trust us to take care of them, and that’s a big responsibility. We’re like their parents. They can tell us things that they know the coaches won’t know, and we can give them advice. It’s a wonderful relationship. It’s a good thing.”

Sometimes I feel like a proud parent.

“I like working with the kids. It’s nice to be around 18- to 23-year-old kids and to watch them go from freshmen to adults. We see them develop emotionally, academically and athletically. That’s the thing I like about my job the most – the kids and watching them grow up.”