PlaySafe trainers assist high school athletes in injury prevention, recover
By Greg Oliver
More than two million injuries occur in high school sports each year in the U.S., resulting in 500,000 doctor visits and 30,000 hospitalizations. Because of the need to treat and even prevent those injuries in a way that is affordable for parents, PlaySafe was founded.
A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, PlaySafe, strives to support essential sports medicine services to our athletic youth and community.
The trainers are seen on the various football and baseball fields and other venues of athletic competition throughout Oconee, Pickens, Anderson and Aiken counties on a full-time basis. PlaySafe states that 62 percent of injuries occur at practice and that its Certified Athletic Trainers are experts in sports related injury prevention, assessment and care.
PlaySafe executive director John Crosby said the average cost is $50,000 per certified athletic trainer — some earning a little more, some a little less. The position also includes retirement and health benefits.
“We want to make it as competitive as possible so that athletes have the best trainers possible,” Crosby said.
The concept of PlaySafe has evolved over the past 20 years. Clemson Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation employed 10 certified athletic trainers who provided sports medicine services to the high schools, and Blue Ridge Orthopaedics provided team physician services to the same schools, including event coverage and pre-participation physicals.
But increases to sports injuries as well as the economic downturn led to skyrocketing healthcare costs and increasing demand for athletic trainers.
When both Clemson Sports Medicine Rehabilitation and Blue Ridge Orthopaedics realized they needed to do something to meet the demand by raising funds and hiring more certified athletic trainers, PlaySafe was founded in 2011.
The School District of Oconee County is paying one-fifth of the costs for a certified athletic trainer in order to have trainers in all schools, while Daniel, Pickens and Liberty high schools in Pickens County also have their own trainers.
Sean Landes serves as the certified athletic trainer for Seneca High, while Chelsea Puckett at Walhalla and Tamassee-Salem high schools and Kari Williams at West-Oak High are both in their first year at those schools.
“We evaluate the injured athlete, rehab the injured athlete back (into action) and deal with everything from sniffles to an injured shoulder and knees,” Landes said. “I am the medical person for the injured athlete and the middle man for getting them to the doctor or working on them for several days.”
Landes said instead of sending injured athletes to the emergency room, he is able to examine and get them into Blue Ridge Orthopaedics — thereby saving what he calls “a lot of serious medical expenses.”
“I’ve seen a lot of ankle injuries over the years and can determine whether it’s a sprain or a break,” said Landes, who has 20 years experience in sports medicine. “An ankle sprain is an ankle sprain, and (anterior cruciate ligament) rehab has been the same for nearly 20 years.
“(Blue Ridge Orthopaedics founder Dr. Larry) Bowman’s ACL surgery is the same as the past 30 years. He still feels it works, and if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
But sports injuries can go beyond the knees and ankles. Concussions and their long-term effects have garnered much of the attention, particularly when it comes to football.
Landes said the protocol hasn’t changed his approach because he has always used caution when treating athletes — including possible concussion.
“If they’re dizzy, I’m going to sit them out and monitor them each day,” he said. “Once they’re clear, I’m okay with them playing. Coaches also have to sit through a seminar so they can understand the protocol.”
But the trainers said concussions aren’t just limited to football, but other sports where collisions can occur — either with other athletes or when falling to the floor or ground.
Crosby said cheerleading also experiences a number of head injuries among participants due to the high risk involved with some of the routines, how far the athletes fall and how hard they land.
Landes agrees, adding, “I have more cheerleading injuries than anything else.”
Puckett said head injuries in soccer are also common, but not because of players using their heads to hit the ball.
“I played soccer in high school, and the biggest thing you don’t realize is, very sudden, if someone gets hit in the head but sees it coming, they’re prepared,” Puckett said. “The biggest concern is people around them — if they jump up and pull their elbows up and accidentally get elbowed in the face.”
In many cases, PlaySafe trainers work with players, coaches and athletic directors to insure the safety of the student athletes. In some cases, that includes observing student athletes at practice in order to correct bad techniques that often lead to injury.
“I think a lot of it comes down to coaching clinics and recreation programs, educating them as well as technique in how to block and tackle and, in baseball, pitch counts,” Landes said. “In soccer, a lot of headers comes from the player’s core strength, their physicality of how strong they are and a lot of it comes from the coach (and his ability to teach technique).”
Puckett said she observed football players during two-a-days who were larger than her lifting less weight in the weight room using “horrible” technique.
“I would tell the coach that this kid is going to blow his back out and asked if I could help,” she said. “When the kids in the room saw I could do it and much easier — it wasn’t that the kids weren’t sweating enough, they were just doing it wrong.”
Asked how players, particularly the male contingent, responded to having a certified athletic trainer who was female, Williams said it didn’t take long.
“It took a couple of weeks, but the players soon understood that I knew football, basketball and other sports and that I knew what could cause injury,” Williams said. “I grew up in sports, my dad coached sports, and I was never not on a field. I have been around football since I could walk.
“Now they come to me saying, ‘That hit felt funny,’ or, ‘There’s something wrong.’”
In fact, Williams said it is the female athletes who are “a lot less compliant.”
Another group the trainers, particularly Puckett and Williams, had to win over is the parents.
Educating parents when it comes to injuries to their child is something these certified athletic trainers say is often their biggest challenge.
Despite helping parents save money by “triaging” their athletic sons or daughters, these trainers often find themselves at loggerheads with parents when it comes to emergency room care.
“I have some parents who think I’m a student since I’m 5 feet 2 inches and walk around with a ball cap on my head,” Puckett said. “You can have the respect from coaches and athletes because you work with them, but I have met with parents who were a lot more straightforward and direct and others who ask if I have children — which I don’t — and what would I do.
“I tell them I wouldn’t let my mom take my brother to the emergency room if this same instance had occurred. The light often comes on, and they understand what you’re doing.”
Landes said parents of his athletes know he won’t send their children to the emergency room if they suffer a fracture.
“I will send them to Blue Ridge (Orthopaedics) the next day,” Landes said, pointing out that schools are able to provide an air cast and walking boot when an injury initially occurs. “We try to cut out the middle man.”
Williams said part of a certified athletic trainer’s job is psychological in the sense that they often have to calm both the players and their parents down when an injury occurs. The same holds true when rehabbing an injured athlete and providing the encouragement necessary to get them back into competition.
“The bigger reward comes when kids I trained six or seven years ago will still come to me and say they were out running and wanted to know whether they need to see a doctor,” she said. “I haven’t seen them in a long time, but they will still call because they know I’m going to put them on the right path. I love those calls.”
Landes said the trainers also “take a lot of leeway off coaches” by their presence.
All of PlaySafe’s trainers hold at least a bachelor’s degree, many hold a master’s degree and all hold national and state certifications in athletic training.
“We have the same credentials — whether you’re with the Atlanta Falcons or a high school,” Landes said. “Once it says ATC (athletic trainer certified) behind our names, it’s the same.”
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