|Athletic Trainer Kacey Chamness wraps junior Joey Lux’s injured ankle early Monday morning at soccer practice at Vianney High School in Kirkwood. Chamness, an athletic trainer with PRORehab, works on site with Vianney to treat athletes and watch for signs of injury and heat exhaustion. (Erik M. Lunsford/P-D)|
Kacey Chamness was watching Vianney High School's varsity football team practice when her cell phone rang.
A soccer player, one field over, had gone up for a head ball and landed on his ankle.
Chamness, a certified athletic trainer, pulled supplies from her medical bag and headed to a nearby training room.
"Whooo, that's swollen," she said as Joey Lux, 16, a junior, hobbled over to an examination table. He had a lemon-size bulge just above his right foot.
She pushed on the bottom of his foot to determine if his ankle was broken (it wasn't), then wrapped it with several layers of tape to stabilize it.
"I'll give you exercises to strengthen it," she said. "Come see me later."
In sports, playing through pain has gone the way of the public pay phone. You rarely see it.
Fatigue, stiff muscles, even oxygen deficits are all part of getting faster, stronger and more explosive. But pain is not. It means you're injured or over-trained. Athletic trainers have played a large role in changing that mind set.
They assess players' aches and pains, treat what needs to be treated, then determine when it's safe for them to return to the field. They also help with rehabilitation and prevent problems like heat stroke.
Most of what they do concerns musculoskeletal injuries such as ankle sprains and muscle pulls, said Nathan Wilmes, athletic trainer with Excel Sports Physical Therapy in St. Charles. But they also things like treat bee stings and heat illness and make judgment calls on concussions.
Professional and college teams were the first to have athletic trainers on staff. But in recent years, a growing number of high schools began hiring them, first for games, then full-time for practices.
Some high schools hire their own athletic trainers, but two local companies contract out certified trainers to schools. PRORehab, a physical and sports therapy company headquartered in Ballwin, has athletic trainers working at 15 area high schools. Excel Sports has trainers at 16 high schools.
They arrive at the schools at about 2 p.m. each day, when practices start and leave when the last practice has ended. That often includes theater, cheerleading and band practices.
The demand for athletic trainers has increased enough that St. Louis University started an Athletic Training Education Program two years ago and graduated its first three students in May. Come fall, the program will have 80 students on its rolls.
"Anyone who coached football 30 years ago and who coaches now, realizes that athletes are bigger and faster," said Tony Breitbach, associate professor and director of the SLU program. "And each time they're out there, they're exposed to injury and not just catastrophic injury but overuse injuries."
PRORehab athletic trainers have been working during games at Mehlville and Oakville high schools for about 15 years. Now they only contract their trainers out full-time, said Kim Belcher, sports medicine director for the company.
"And we don't single out any sport as more important than another," she said. "The contact sports sustain more serious injuries but all athletes can get hurt."
Athletic trainers can give injured players immediate attention and follow up with rehabilitation later. They're also a lynch-pin when it comes to knowing what's happening with the bodies of multisport athletes.
"Coaches (from different sports) aren't really talking to each other, but an athletic trainer would know that," Breitbach said. "I'm not saying we can solve all problems, but at least someone has a relationship with the student athlete who can deal with them."
He compares not having an athletic trainer on hand during practices and games to driving home recklessly night after night.
"Playing sports, especially collision ones, is inherently risky," he said. "There's a certain amount of risk students claim when they sign up to play. But in reality, when you put someone in a position like that, why not provide them with the best possible care."
Coaches and athletic directors welcome the help.
Jon Gibbs, activities coordinator at Fort Zumwalt North High School, likes that certified athletic trainers, who must have at least an undergraduate degree, are better prepared to treat injuries than coaches.
"When I was coaching, we put ice on it, called the parents and said you need to take your kid to the doctor," he said.
Dan Borkowski, athletic director at Vianney, remembers similar scenarios fueled by high doses of testosterone and sarcasm.
"Coaches used to put a Bufferin tablet (aspirin) on your leg, wrap it up and tell you to keep it there overnight," he said. "The next day, you'd be back on the field practicing."
An insurance policy
Now macho attitudes like that can lead to liability issues. Having an athletic trainer on hand is like an insurance policy, Borkowski said. And besides, coaches don't have time to tend to injured players.
"Gosh only knows number of items on a coach's check list," he said. "If they have a football team with 120 kids on their roster and a dozen assistant coaches, they don't need to be taping ankles. Athletic trainers lighten the load for them."
Not all high schools have athletic trainers. For some schools, Breitbach said, it's either not a priority, doesn't fit into their budget, or both.
"I would think every football coach would want an athletic trainer, but it's often not their decision," he said. "They don't hold the purse strings for the schools."
And there are times when coaches, athletes and parents don't want to hear what the athletic trainer has to say. Especially, when it comes to sidelining star players.
Wilmes said he's had to tell the harried coach or the overly competitive parent that no one wants the player in the game more than he does.
"But If they go in too soon, it can cause worse injuries later that are really debilitating," he said.
He emphasizes this point when it involves a head injury. Not too long ago, he said, coaches referred to a hard knock on the head as a ding, and they'd have the kid sit out for 20 minutes. Now, they don't let them go back in, because it can take 24 hours for symptoms to show.
"There's no brain injury that's minor," he said. "Most varsity football games are on Friday nights. If an athlete suffers any type of concussion, it's unlikely they'll be able to play again the following Friday. They need to go through seven days activity without medication for the pain."
In the end, he said, most coaches understand and appreciate what they're trying to do.
"They know we're not there to take their job or control an athlete," Wilmes said. "We don't offer advice on, 'Hey run this play' or 'Try this to score a goal.' But when they need us, we're there."