In recent weeks, life has been tough for many. The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down the sports world throughout the United States, leaving athletes wondering when they’ll play again.
Despite the loss of sports for a while, it’s important to remember and support the key contributors to the everyday life of athletes, one of the biggest positions being athletic trainers. Every March, they are honored during National Athletic Trainers Month.
Despite local athletics being paused for the time being, Niagara Falls High School athletic trainers Fernando Pineda and Tony Surace said the month means a lot to them and their profession.
“I think NATM puts a headlight on the profession to help people understand what athletic trainers do as a profession,” Surace said. “Providing injury recognition, prevention and rehabilitation of the physically active. We enjoy working with student-athletes. We appreciate the opportunity to talk about our profession and educate the community on what we exactly do for the Niagara Falls City School District.”
Additionally, Pineda said the month gives them a chance to show that they work with more than just one person.
“I really enjoy working in the medical field with athletes as my No. 1 clients. It gives us the opportunity to share with the general public that we are not personal trainers. We are health care providers, most with masters degrees, who provide medical assistance to an athletic population,” Pineda said.
At NFHS, Pineda and Surace work side by side to provide coverage during games and practices for all sports. Additionally, Surace oversees the sports medicine program at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, as well as the Summit PT location at the Summit Healthplex in Wheatfield.
Pineda said he is usually the first person an injured athlete would see. From there, he evaluates the severity of an injury, refers them to higher medical assistance, if needed, and, in most cases, is the last person an athlete sees in preparation to return to their sport.
Both agreed that helping and interacting with kids through their injuries and guiding them in the right direction is one of their favorite parts of the job.
The importance of athletic trainers at events also leads to some challenges for the profession. Pineda and Surace said it’s ultimately their decision whether an athlete returns to play following an assessment, and sometimes tough decisions must to be made.
“Unfortunately, our job requires us to hold athletes out of competition. This is extremely important because we have an unbiased opinion on our athlete’s health,” Pineda said. “For example, a coach or parent may throw a child back into a game with symptoms of a concussion, because they want their team to win. An AT will always look out for the safety of the athlete and pull them from the game. We are not always liked, but we are essential.”
With concussions being a major topic of discussion in athletes, Surace agreed that it adds to the importance of their job.
“With the challenges of recognition and management of concussion injuries in sport, I think it has become critical to have an AT present for all practices and games during sports seasons. Recognition is key with concussions on the coaches' and AT’s part to recognize that mechanism of injury and make sure that athlete is immediately pulled out of practice or a game and is screened for a concussion injury,” Surace said. “We see a number of student athletes that are hit during a practice or a game that need to be screened. Some are symptomatic for concussion, some are not. You need that healthcare professional on the front lines to screen and manage these injuries.
“NFCSD Superintendent Mark Laurrie, NFHS Athletic Director Joe Contento and the NFCSD School Board have been big supporters of athletic training for many years that I have been with the district. They have provided us with everything we have needed over the years along with building us an additional training room in the new field house as part of the sports complex for the district."
Surace added that kids never want to be taken out of their sport, “But when they are, it is our job to make sure they receive the best care in a timely manner so we can return that student-athlete safely.”
In these times, Pineda and Surace said they understand frustration of athletes who are not playing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, the two felt it is best to hold out on sports for now, and that there are ways athletes can still prepare themselves for whenever sports return.
“I work with a young high school population. I would tell them they have a lot to look forward to. Work independently to get better for next season,” Pineda said. “Go for a jog on your own and do workouts from home. It is very unfortunate about this spring season, but I feel it is for the best.”
Surace added, “I understand that many student athletes around Western New York have been very upset on the loss of this spring season. My son is a senior at Grand Island and was entering his senior season with the lacrosse team and now that has been cancelled at least until April 20. I feel very disappointed for him as a senior in high school and for many student athletes from NFHS.
But we know that this is the right thing to do now to prevent massive community spread of COVID-19. If we do this now in the short-term, we will all come out of this thing at the end much more fortunate in the long-term if all follow the guidelines put forth by the CDC. I hope that young people are following the recommendations and that will help the spread of this dangerous disease.”
In true fashion of what the month stands for, Surace and Pineda promoted the athletic training field and encouraged others to give it a shot.
Surace said, “Students interested in the field of athletic training should shadow an athletic trainer to see if the profession is for you. Spend time and interview multiple ATs before making the decision to pursue a degree in athletic training. Students must complete a five-year program now which is a master’s degree in athletic training. It must be from an accredited program through an organization called the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education.”
Additionally, they agreed an AT must be motivated, have good communication skills, be a team player and work together, good time management skills and, most importantly, a passion to help people.
“My advice would be to have a passion for orthopedic healthcare for this profession. It is a tremendous feeling to return an athlete safely to their respected sport,” Pineda said.
“(It’s important to have) the willingness to go that extra mile to help someone who may not know the proper path or the advantages that others may have. All student-athletes deserve the same care whether they are in seventh grade just starting out, or an athlete who is experienced and looking to excel his or her senior year. Everyone deserves the same care,” Surace said.
For more information on National Athletic Trainers Month, visit www.nata.org.