By: Mitch Toda - Orlando City Soccer Club
Reframing the Athletic Trainers' Role in Patient Care: Guiding the Hero’s Journey
We work with people who happen to play soccer for a living, and it is of utmost importance to always consider the human side of the people we interact with every day.
Throughout my career as an athletic trainer, I have had the opportunity to work in various levels of soccer in the United States, from professional and collegiate to high school and youth club. The development of the MLS Next and MLS Next Pro systems has established a league-wide structure where all these levels are housed under each club’s umbrella. At Orlando City Soccer Club, we take a “one club” approach in which all teams from the First Team through the Academy are housed within the same training facility campus. This affords our staff the unique opportunity to interact with players at each of these levels, often seeing our youth academy players rising through the pathway to becoming a first team player (We currently have 6 homegrown players on our First Team roster!). Having worked in multiple levels of the sport prior to joining Orlando City, I have often pondered on what factors set certain players apart and set them up to succeed at the professional level, and I have been in a fortunate position to be able to see the entire process play out.
Soccer is the same game regardless of age or skill; the speed of play just gets faster as the level gets higher. This is not to say that all players run faster in the pros, but the best players can THINK faster. They have a better understanding of the game and their individual roles within the team so they can make the best decisions quicker. The ones that make it to the very top also tend to have an extremely strong and resilient mentality that sets them apart as the elite. Physical and technical abilities can take a player so far (VERY far in certain players) while mental, emotional, and psychological capabilities can take a player to the next level. We refer to those players, who grasp the concept that it takes more than just sports ability to elevate their performance, as “a pro” or “having a professional mindset.”
Being a true professional is not a status or a label, but a lifestyle. These individuals make a conscious decision to do what it takes to prepare their bodies and minds to maximize their level of performance day in and day out. They understand and appreciate that the work they do off the pitch can augment their production on the pitch. These individuals are likely to arrive early to training for activation work in the gym, do a little extra at the end of training sessions, watch their individual video clips to analyze their game, eat and sleep properly, etc. They are also likely to let our medical staff know about little things that are nagging at them before they become bigger problems. These individuals all possess the following key habits/characteristics:
- Daily self-care, physical and mental preparation
- Early and frequent communication
- Commitment and dedication on and off the pitch to perform their job well
The main role for us as athletic trainers is to support our players’ individual journeys, particularly by guiding them through their injury recovery process. We are not the heroes in the individuals’ narratives, but rather the guides. Building a strong rapport with these individuals is vital to yield positive outcomes. To do this, we cannot define these players by their injuries; to go a step further, we cannot define them only as soccer players. Our players are someone’s child, and some are a spouse or even a parent. We should always treat them as people first without the label of a soccer player. What does this look like?
- We create a safe space for these individuals to express themselves through their ups and downs.
- We provide guidance to help these individuals develop and support their “professional mindset,” while facing adversity of a setback due to injury.
- We communicate with the coaches/technical staff to advocate for the individual.
- We collaborate with other members of the high performance department to maximize recovery, taking a multidisciplinary approach. What else can this individual work on to improve as a person and as an athlete while having to step away from the playing field? (see figure below)
- We contribute to these individuals reaching their maximum potential by returning them back to the field ready to compete.
“High Performance Wheel” demonstrating a multidisciplinary approach to player care
How do we do this? Here is what we strive to do every day as a staff:
- Do not judge, do not blame; be there to support. Be a sounding board, and only offer advice when warranted.
- Setting expectations throughout the injury recovery process, having honest discussions about risks and outcomes.
- Leading by example. Showing up prepared. Taking ownership of your area of expertise and recognizing other experts who will join the journey.
The bottom line for our department is: Do what is best for the player as a person.
We, as athletic trainers, are involved in the worst part of athletes’ careers, after devastating injuries that may be season-ending or sometimes even career-ending. It is important to have empathy and let them know that we are with them every step of the way.
We are careful not to take a cookie cutter approach for our injury rehabilitation process. We create a plan, but we are adaptable based on individual needs of whomever we are working with. Sometimes it takes a different staff member delivering the same message to have the desired impact, which is a luxury we have as a staff constructed of people with different personalities and qualities. We treat no two players the same, because no two people are the same. The most important job we have as support staff is to make sure our players feel heard and valued as people, so that they are comfortable with allowing us to be an active part of their journey.
In a fast paced and high pressure world of professional sports, we can easily get lost in a cycle of “patching players together” to make them available for competition every week. It is important to keep life in perspective and recognize our priorities. The relationships we develop with the people we work with everyday are what makes this experience special.
Athletic Therapist, Orlando City Soccer Club