Balancing a personal life with a career as an athletic trainer (AT) at the Division I school isn’t easy, but Scott Oliaro, head athletic trainer and associate director of sports medicine at the University of North Carolina (UNC), has found a way—but it’s not always easy!
Scott, who has been an AT since 1995 and with UNC since 1998, gave us some insights on how he and his ATs try to achieve that elusive work/life balance.
I wasn't aware of life balance, much less work/life balance, at the time. I was aware of what ATs did, though. As a college athlete, I knew what was asked of them and what the basic expectations were, but until you actually get into the role, you'll never fully understand its continual demands.
But this was really something I wanted to do. As my life changed—getting married, having kids, taking on more family responsibilities—my priorities changed…a lot! And along the way I had to refocus on how to balance my work and personal life.
I started my career at American University. After a couple of years I went to the University of North Carolina, where I am now. My first ten years were with the football team, which meant long hours: 14-hour days were normal, especially during the season. That worked for my wife and me for a long time but after having kids and extending those hours into the offseason as well. The increased expectations for that role wasn't going to work well for me and my growing family and I needed a role that afforded me more time to help with my children and family.
Fortunately, the support I got here was tremendous. I was allowed to transition into a new role that allowed me to using my talents and skills as an athletic trainer, but where I had more a little more control over schedule.
Part of that was due to timing, too. A position opened, and the university recognized an opportunity to create a situation where we would all benefit from the transition.
It's a little of both. Twenty years ago, if someone got hurt, you treated them and put them back in the game. Now we're looking at prevention, training, readiness, preparation, soreness, sleep, nutrition, recovery…we take in all factors to not only keep athletes healthy, but to keep them performing at their best, which means collaborating with sports psychology, nutrition, strength and conditioning, the coaching staff, exercise scientists…all of this is partially on our plate.
And we haven’t stopped evaluating, managing and treating injuries and working with our physicians and experts to manage the people who get hurt, in addition to the healthy people!
Plus, due to the evolution of communication, cellphones, and digital platforms, that's increased the expectation of how we serve and communicate with athletes. At the core of this is creating boundaries and steps to make sure we have time to communicate with coaches and staff. We need to have that conversation of accessibility, to clarify emergent versus urgent contact. The balance is important.
These days, we're covering every practice year round, because the injury rates are basically the same. Our sports don't stop, regardless of season. Off-season is the time for athletes to develop and get better, so there's constant fluctuation of on-time/off-time availability and need, kinds of coverage and care we're providing.
We've been able to cover this with our staff and our grad students, but our staff does get extended. ATs at a lot of schools are covering two or three sports by themselves, and having to make choices over which sports to cover on particular day.
The bottom line is, no matter what you do, it's never going to be enough, so you have to communicate what your availability is, how you're going to manage and treat athletes, and the kind of care you can offer, with the caveat that you're going to do whatever it takes for them to successful.
Though a couple of sports, like football, have their own dedicated athletic training areas, we do have a main athletic training room, which serves not only our athletes on a daily basis, but also all students. We staff our AT room from 8am to 6pm and we have extended hours for intramural coverage. It allows for students who pay the college health fee to come in, whether they fall down the stairs or sprain an ankle in pickup basketball game. We'll do triage care and follow-up for further care. We also have a physical therapy clinic at that's open to students. This provides more flexibility and more opportunity for athletes to receive care.
So to accommodate these requests we have the right structure in place. More important, however, is that we have the right people in place. We have intelligent, highly skilled, motivated people who want to help. We serve each other as well as our athletes, and when a conflicts occurs we're willing to step up and help each other.
This is where work/life balance comes in. For example, I can't control when my kids get sick and have to take them out of school, but I know that if that happens there are people who can cover. That spirit of teamwork is reciprocated throughout our staff.
Our grad students get a much broader experience in their two years than they'd get at a lot of other places because we offer exposure to the rigors and challenges of the job not job providing care to student-athletes but in a lot of domains of athletic training. A lot of the work/life balance problems happen when their leaving the "nest" of the classroom without really knowing what the workload is going to be.
One of the most important things we do, beyond training them to treat athletes, is to expose them to what it means to be professional AT, and what it means to serve the university and college population. That means giving them a couple of clinical assignments, working with different teams and sharing responsibilities along with the demands of their academic pursuits.
It also allows us to have a bit of shared responsibility with things that take a lot of time, such as travel. If our tennis team is on the road, for example, they may travel with a grad student instead of a staff member—but the staff member is available to assist, when necessary.
We make sure to provide feedback and have conversations with our grad assistants and staff members to discuss their goals, their career vision and how they want to develop and use any available opportunities that arise.
We cannot forget who they are as people. They have personal as well as professional ambitions, so it's important to think of both of them together. If you're not happy personally, you won't be happy professionally. We need outlets where people can be who they are as people—and remind them there are other things beyond being an AT that make them unique.
I didn't realize this fully until I had a wife and family. When you go out socially, they're not concerned about what you did at work, they're concerned about who you are. I want the staff to know that being an AT is only a part of who they are.
My kids love I'm an AT. They have a lot of fun in the training room and coming to events, and they've been able to see and meet our athletes and can look up to them as role models. But they don't care so much about what I do, as much as they care whether I'm available to them. You have to be able to step away and be the person you want be.
My message is usually this: communicate with your coaches and let them know that you will provide them whatever it will take for the athletes to succeed. Naturally, there may be differences of opinion, but if you show coaches and athletes that you care, and you can go out of your way to provide what they need, it goes a long way toward them respecting your time so you can do the things you need to do to perform at your best.
College athletics is a show-me, don't-tell-me situation. Go out of your way to assist and develop trust, but it's also important to set boundaries. There are other things in life you're going to have to do and you can't respond to everything, so the challenge is managing the responsibilities—send a message out that you're not available and have someone to cover and handle any emergencies.
Here's the big picture: work/life balance is different for each individual. It's a moving target; as you change in life, the target will move. My family understands that sometimes I'm not available, but I schedule moments where I am definitely available. You need the flexibility to move the fulcrum to get the balance where you need it. That can vary by the individual, as well as by the time of year.
Fortunately, when an unscheduled emergency occurs, our staff is willing and able to assist and provide coverage. That's what makes our Sports Medicine staff more like a family.