Bobby’s profession: Protecting the athlete

Bobby’s profession: Protecting the athlete
Bobby Weisenberger

Bobby Weisenberger

If you’ve spent any amount of time watching the Charleston Battery at Blackbaud Stadium or on livestream, you’ve most likely noticed a tall man in a ball cap talking to players at every break.

That’s Bobby Weisenberger, the team’s Athletic Trainer. And while he’s a certified medical professional, his contributions extend into areas both tangible and intangible. In addition to overseeing players’ health, he’s also a mentor to young men beginning their adaptation to professional sports, an alert second set of eyes for Coach Mike Anhaeuser, and, by multiple accounts, a big part of the Battery’s team personality.

March is one of the most intense months of the year in the Battery calendar, with training camp and a high-tempo schedule of preseason matches leading up to the season opener on March 22 at home against Orlando City Lions. But it’s also National Athletic Training Month, and as good a time as any to talk to Weisenberger about the profession he so clearly loves.

CHS: How did you get your start as an athletic trainer? Why this and not something else?

BW: I got my start in Athletic Training when I was in high school. I was always athletic, and played sports from the time I was old enough to be on a team.  While playing soccer, I was injured and had to see the athletic trainer who covered our high school.  I was lucky that my injury occurred on one of the two days she was on site at the school. 

As a result I had to spend a lot of time with her doing rehab at their clinic daily before practices. I had many interactions with her and the physical therapist at the clinic. I started to express an interest in Athletic Training and began asking questions. They told me if I was serious about learning I could start to come into the clinic to shadow and learn from them. Since I graduated high school before schools had sports medicine classes or programs, they were a huge help. I was ahead of the game when I got to college.

I chose Athletic Training because I wanted to continue to stay in sports. I wanted to be out on the field and not confined to an office. I also wanted to work with athletes and not the general population.

CHS: What’s your job at MUSC? How long have you been there? And with what teams are you associated?

BW: I am a Certified Athletic Trainer at The Medical University of South Carolina. I have worked at MUSC since December 2006. While I have been associated with many teams and different sports, I am starting my fifth season as the Head Athletic Trainer for the Charleston Battery.

ED2G0160CHS: When did Athletic Training move out of the realm of kids wrapping other kids’ ankles before games and become a true profession? And just how far has that transition spread?

BW: Athletic Training became a true profession in 1881 when Harvard University hired the first individual to work on conditioning their football team. At the time the title “athletic trainer” meant one who worked with track and field athletes, and ended up transitioning into the job title we have today. The Athletic Training profession has transitioned into a Professional Allied Health Medical Degree and was finally recognized by the American Medical Society in 1990.

Today’s athletic trainers are trained medical professionals and have come a long way from those who simply pass out water or wrap an ankle.  Today’s athletic trainers work in a variety of job settings ranging from on field sports coverage, working in rehab centers, assisting MDs in clinics or surgeries, and even military positions.

CHS: Describe what it is that you do. Is it more than front-line diagnosis and knowing how to treat and prevent injuries? 

BW: I am responsible for the day-to-day health and wellness of the team. I am on call to the players 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I have taken calls for just about everything health-related you could imagine. 

A typical day for me starts an hour before players arrive. I get in early to make sure I have water, ice, and supplies for practice set up before players arrive.  Injured players arrive an hour before practice starts, so I have time to do rehab and treatments on them before the rest of the team comes in. When the rest of the team arrives, I spend time taping, stretching, and helping the players get physically prepared for practice.

Just before practice starts, I discuss injuries with the head coach. I give him the progress of those doing rehab, and inform him of any players who will be held out of practice and why. During practice I am on field with the team looking out for injuries and attending to any possible medical needs of the team. After practice I go through another round of treatments for the injured players and assist the rest of the team with recovery after the physical demands of practice.

I round out the day doing paperwork. I write progress notes on any players doing rehab, and injury reports for any new injuries. A daily injury report goes out to our team physician, team physical therapist, and head coach. I also have to communicate injury status with our workers’ comp administrators. 

ED2G0239CHS: Where did you get your training? How many years did it take, and how rigorous was it?

BW: I got my training at the College of Charleston. Athletic Training is a four-year Bachelor of Science degree. Many Athletic Trainers go on to get master’s degrees in other related areas of study.

The Athletic Training program itself is very labor intensive. While you must complete the required classroom work, the majority of your training comes from hands-on work with Certified Athletic Trainers in a variety of settings. You gain knowledge working in the college training rooms and clinics, along with working out on the fields with the athletes in their sports setting. 

When I graduated, Athletic Training students were required to obtain 1,500 hours of on-field or clinical experience, with 500 of those hours spent working with collision sports, like football or ice hockey, before they were eligible to sit for the national certification exam.

CHS: What kinds of subjects should a student emphasize if they’re interested in pursuing this as a career?

BW: Students seeking a career in Athletic Training from high school should focus on the sciences and math classes. It is important to learn as much as possible about how the human body works. Anatomy and Physiology from the high school level, if offered, would be very helpful. Many high schools are now offering introductory sports medicine classes that are being taught by the school’s athletic trainers.

Once prospective students get to college they will take the basic college-required courses and begin to mix in the biology, human anatomy and physiology classes.  Most Athletic Training programs require students to take an intro to Athletic Training class before applying to the Program. After acceptance into the program, students will then begin the major course studies. Major classes include Kinesiology, Biomechanics, Therapeutic Exercise, Therapeutic Modalities, Advanced Athletic Training, Clinical Evaluation of Injuries, Sports Nutrition, Athletic Training Practicum, Special Topics in Athletic Training and Sports Medicine.

ED2G0262CHS: Compare the educational investments and payoffs between a career as an AT, a career as a registered nurse and a career as an EMT. How do they stack up? Why not pursue a career in one of these other medical fields, like say physical therapy?

BW: The educational investments are different. Athletic Training is a four-year Bachelor of Science degree obtained from an accredited athletic training education program from an accredited college or university.

EMTs go through classes and receive associates degrees through technical colleges. They have the opportunity to advance and take more classes and work their way up to the paramedic level.

I choose athletic training, because I wanted to continue and make a career out of sports.  I didn’t want to be confined to a hospital, clinic, etc.  I wanted to continue to be out on the athletic fields, working with athletes. I am fortunate to be able to fulfill my dream of working in professional sports with elite athletes.

CHS: We’ve got some quirky laws in this country that govern who can diagnose this and who can treat that, not to mention insurance rules and malpractice worries. How are you regulated? How much can you do, and at what point do you pass things off to other professions?

BW: Quirky is right. They sometimes don’t make any sense, but there are many that are very good. 

The Athletic Training profession is regulated. Athletic Trainers are nationally certified and are required to obtain 50 hours of continuing medical education every two years. 

Just like many other laws, every state law is different.  Most states require athletic trainers to be certified or licensed in the state they are working in. For example, while I am certified nationally by the National Athletic Training Association Board of Certification, I am also required to be certified by South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). 

Athletic Trainers are required to work under the direction of a physician. Athletic Trainers, while trained, are not legally allowed to diagnose injury and illness.  We recognize and refer the injury to the appropriate physician. Team physicians, once they are comfortable with the Athletic Trainer’s skill level, they will often allow them to make more decisions on when to simply treat the injuries versus referring. 

ED2G0339I have been in my position, and worked with my physicians long enough, that they trust my medical decisions. If I decide X-ray or MRI may be appropriate, I can just text or call one of my team physicians and they will put the order in without having to do an office visit. For other injuries, I will just keep them in the loop and inform them of either what I have found or the athletes’ progress as they recover.

Athletic Trainers carry practice insurance. I am covered through my employer, MUSC. I have seen a few crazy cases in the “Sue first, ask questions later” world we live in. The craziest case I have seen against an Athletic Trainer was the AT was sued by the family of a high school athlete who was injured. The family was suing for the lost wages the athlete would have received if he went pro. They won the case, even though statistics show that the probability of a high school player going on to play professionally is very slim.

The way the laws work out in everyone’s favor is they regulate who can work as an Athletic Trainer. This means that only Certified Athletic Trainers can work in the position of an Athletic Trainer. This stops unqualified people from standing in and trying to fulfill the roles of the Athletic Trainer. I have seen random parents, Chiropractors, Nurses, or Physical Therapist trying to stand in as the Athletic Trainer. While some of them have advanced medical degrees, they are not qualified to work as an Athletic Trainer, in the same way I am not qualified to stand in and do some of their jobs.

CHS: Once any team sport reaches a particular level of seriousness, you’re either training or competing six or seven days a week. That’s a lot of standing around in gyms and practice fields. Do you ever get bored? And what about those long bus trips?

BW: Charleston Battery is definitely at the level you are talking about. In preseason we are training 6 to 7 days a week with many of those days consisting of two training sessions. Once the season gets started we typically train or compete 6 days a week. With most of our games on Saturdays, we will usually get Sunday off to recover.

I never get bored. While every day may look the same to someone on the outside looking in, every day is different. Players constantly need new injuries evaluated or treated. Previously injured players are at different stages of rehab. There are injuries that happen during practices that need immediate evaluation and attention. Most importantly, I am always looking out for life-threatening situations that may occur. I have no time to get bored

The travel can be very demanding. We play teams from all over the United States and Canada. The trips are long and many are on buses. There is nothing like bonding on a 10-hour bus trip. Fortunately for us, we take sleeper buses on those long trips and everyone gets a bunk. 

Not all the travel is bad. We did travel to Antigua for five days to play two games, so can’t complain about that trip.

ED2G0167dCHS: I see you working with a lot of twentysomethings. How many young ATs are you typically mentoring at any given time? 

BW: I typically have one student at a time. There are times when I may have an extra student who is just an observation student who really can’t do any hands-on work. I am affiliated with the College of Charleston in their Clinical Instructor Program, and Charleston Battery is now a clinical rotation.

I have had some great students working with me. My first student, Megan Roach, has since graduated and gotten certified. She is now working in Augusta, Ga., as a Certified Athletic Trainer for Gerogialina Physical Therapy.

Maggi Campanaro is the only student who has worked with me for two full seasons. She is now in her senior year and currently working with the College of Charleston Women’s Soccer Team. My current student is Adam Mutz. He is also in his senior year and doing a great job with us. He is applying to and planning to attend PT School.

I expect great things from both Maggi and Adam. I think they are both going to make outstanding Athletic Trainers

CHS: What’s the job outlook? Are these young ATs getting offers? What’s the career progression for typical entry level AT?

BW: I think the job outlook looks good. More and more focus is being placed on protecting our young athletes. This movement adds more jobs to the market. The young ATs are getting offers. 

The career progression can be different. Some ATs who are going to continue and get their master’s degree will work at the college as Graduate Assistant Athletic Trainer, while some may enter directly into the work force. Those entering the workforce will typically seek employment as a high school AT, by being employed by a medical group providing clinical outreach, or hired directly by the high school. 

There is room for advancement. As young ATs gain experience, some will go on to return and work as college athletic trainers, or move to professional sports.

CHS: For a professional club, the Battery have a tiny staff. Sometimes you’re like the only person other than Mike Anheuser and John Wilson on the field who is over the age of 30, and my impression is that your role with the team goes beyond just monitoring the players’ health. Is that true? What informal roles do you take on? And is that normal for AT professionals?

Weisenberger chats with Odisnel Cooper.

Weisenberger chats with Odisnel Cooper.

BW; I do have a few unspoken roles. I am the type of person who will do almost anything to help the team be more successful.

I try to be a mentor to the young guys as they are coming in, and teach them what it is like to be a professional athlete. On the road we have Coach Anheuser, team President Andrew Bell, and myself as the only team staff. Andrew does our radio broadcast, so that leaves coach and me on the bench. Coach will often bounce ideas off me during games, and we talk about players. We discuss whether or not players are looking fatigued, or if there is someone with a little injury we may need to protect.

There have also been a couple incidents where coach was given a red card, leaving me as the only team official on the bench. He gave me a quick rundown as he was leaving as to what he wanted for the rest of the game. If I remember correctly, I think I am undefeated as a coach.

I think that’s normal for the type of club we are. I don’t get asked to do things that would fall outside of my job description, but if I can help out in little areas that make us a better club, I’m all for it. At the MLS level the ATs get to focus on the health of their players, because they have a huge staff for everything else.

CHS: I’m a parent. Why should I want a professional AT on the sidelines when my kids are at a practice? And if that’s not possible, what best practices should I look for from my children’s school or coaches?

BW: You want an Athletic Trainer in attendance for all practices or games. Every athlete, regardless of age or talent level, deserves to play in the safest environment possible.

Injuries are going to happen, no matter the precautions you take. It’s simply a part of sports that is not going to go away. However, how you manage those injuries is key. Any one play, on any given day, at any skill level, could lead to catastrophic injury. You want someone there with the training and knowledge of what to do when something goes wrong. 

Athletic Trainers know what to do when a player sustains a concussion, has a joint dislocation, has a major laceration, has a spinal cord injury, has a broken bone, has an internal injury, or falls into cardiac arrest. Athletic Trainers know when it’s safe to move an injured player, or when to stabilize in place and wait for transport to hospital.

Athletic Trainers can also intervene when they see a potentially dangerous situation, such as stopping play in extreme heat.  Last season we played a game in Phoenix at 4 p.m. on artificial turf in August. It was 160 degrees on the turf before they wet it, and 120 degrees after they wet it. I discussed the danger with Andrew Bell, and we agreed that we would not play unless they stopped every 20 minutes for water breaks. 

Coaches are there to win games, and do not always have the players’ best interest in mind when making or carrying out game plans. You need someone there to protect the players. At a minimum, coaches must be first-aid certified, but most would not know what to do if the time came for them to use it. Schools must have Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) on hand in case a player, coach, referee, cheerleader, or spectator was to suffer cardiac arrest. 

I have told coaches and schools, “If you can’t afford to have an athletic trainer, you can’t afford to have sports.” The schools should be held liable for injury or death if they knowingly choose to have sports without proper medical supervision.

 

Weisenberger and Amadou Sanyang during the 2014 preseason.

Weisenberger and Amadou Sanyang during the 2014 preseason.

CHS: Once you sum it all up, are you happy with your career decisions? What is it about your work that you find most rewarding, year after year?

BW: I am very happy with my career choices. I love what I do. I have the opportunity to work with elite soccer athletes on a daily basis. My office is the beautiful Blackbaud Stadium, the first soccer-specific stadium in the United States. The Charleston Battery is competitive year after year, and I feel like I play a significant role in the success of the team. The team has won four championships in its 20-year existence, and I was part of two of them. I take pleasure in keeping my athletes healthy, and returning those who get injured back to competition quickly.

CHS: If someone wants to find out more about an AT career, what should they do?

BW: I am always willing to talk to anyone who wants information about Athletic Training. I would be happy to answer questions for those who want to know if Athletic Training is the right career for them.

You can follow Weisenberger on Twitter, where he’s @BBW_ATC. And if you’re interested in a career in the field, follow these links to learn more about the College of Charleston’s program, the profession’s national organization, and its certifying body.