Career of an Athletic Trainer as a Golf Instructor
Level 1: Amateur
Welcome Players! The expanding scope of an Athletic Trainer includes far more than just healthcare; in some cases it actually doesn’t include healthcare at all. This post is guest-written by a Certified Athletic Trainer who transformed his life by leaving the traditional setting and finding his calling as a Golf Performance coach. He describes his journey through the traditional Athletic Training career path, how his hard work was rewarded with nothing, and the opportunity in Golf that allowed him to make a better living as a contractor for the school he used to be an employee at.
Please welcome Matt Preston to the writer’s circle!
Coaches note: This article is written entirely by Matt P. It has been lightly edited for clarity to the reader by me. All emphasis (bold, italics, etc.) has been added by me. Comments included by me have been delineated with the quotation box in green, such as this paragraph.
Graduate Assistantship & Internship
COVID, Life, & Change
Director of Golf Performance
Part of the Job
Message to You
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My first exposure to sports medicine was in 8th grade when I suffered an AC Joint sprain. My rehab with a chiropractor opened my eyes to the field and I appreciated the second chance I had to play the sport I loved. In high school I knew I wanted to major in something sports related in case my athletic career didn’t work out; Athletic Training (AT) seemed like the clear choice.
I attended George Fox University (GFU), a small D3 in Oregon to play baseball and major in Athletic Training. I didn’t realize at the time playing a college sport and majoring in a competitive field was not only challenging but something most athletes didn’t do.
I battled injuries my freshman year and spent hours in the Athletic Training room. I honestly was afraid to ask for help as an athlete and didn't know the various treatment options that existed. I failed Anatomy and Physiology (A&P) my freshman year due to the demands of college athletics and a lack of discipline. Entering the AT program as a sophomore I had to pass that class and also began clinical rotations; continuing to play a sport didn’t seem like an option anymore.
I enjoyed the AT program and various rotations I encountered. The relationship between coaches and AT’s was always positive and the work-life balance, family culture, and respect were great to witness in the small university setting. I learned a variety of approaches to sports medicine and how to apply manual and movement techniques for effective injury outcomes.
I saw my baseball dream come full circle when I was assigned a rotation with the baseball team at GFU my junior year. After that experience I decided what I wanted out of my future career as an AT. If I couldn't continue my baseball career, I thought the next best thing would be working as an Athletic Trainer at a major Division 1 University. I would later find out how much of a leap there was from Division 3 to Division 1 Athletics.
Graduate Assistantship & Internship
Going to graduate school seemed like the only option to continue my Athletic Training path.
All I knew was that I needed a Master’s degree and “college experience” to eventually obtain my dream job as a College Baseball Athletic Trainer. I chose Lamar University because they offered me a Graduate Assistant (GA) position with the baseball team while I completed my Master’s degree in Kinesiology at no cost.
It seemed like a great deal to me at the time as I was being paid in “experience” and not so much the $1000/month stipend to survive on. The day I accepted the position from Lamar, Point Loma (my dream grad school) called for an interview. I declined because I felt tied to my new school. In hindsight I wish I would’ve at least interviewed to see what else was out there.
Graduate Assistant’s were supposed to work 25 hours/week while attending multiple graduate classes in the evening. Long days (8-12+ hours) were not uncommon and then having to attend a 3-hour class after was brutal. It felt like I was supposed to know everything being straight out of undergrad, like how to make an injury report or tell coaches timetables for when a player would likely return.
I had almost no experience with the finer details and got on the new coach’s bad side quickly. Nothing prepared me for the grind I was about to experience in-season.
During the spring baseball season of 56 games I traveled with the team and covered every practice and weight session. A majority of our best players had significant injuries throughout the year and I thought I could handle it all on my own. There were probably five “off” days over the course of five months where I didn’t go into the office.
My second year was with the Track and Field team and work-life balance was immensely better. I learned a lot from my supervisor, had a great relationship with coaches, and felt like I developed my own set of skills for sports performance. This positive experience saved my AT career and also kept me in the university setting longer.
My two years there pushed me further away from my initial career goals and more into a state of unknown. Although I developed skills and techniques to enhance my craft, I was in a limbo phase of career prospects.
All I wanted to do was be closer to family and have a better work/life balance.
I learned a ton about myself and wouldn’t trade those experiences and relationships for anything.
I turned down an opportunity to work in the Industrial setting before accepting a job at Washington State University to become an “Intern Athletic Trainer” with the Cross Country (XC) team. I felt like I could always enter the Industrial setting later. I had heard that returning to the college setting is extremely difficult.
I have to admit I was sold on the WSU internship during the hiring process; they pitched the “autonomy” of being the main AT with the Cross Country team and how a Pac-12 school experience would lead to any position I wanted. The entirety of my position was left out of the description, on purpose presumably.
My day to day XC coverage included: early morning training where I drove a van to a location 20-45 minutes away. Once we got there I either drove behind the team for 10-24 km or went to the finish and wait until the end. Then post-practice treatment for up to two hours before heading home for the day due to hours restrictions on practice time.
I definitely didn’t feel valued as a healthcare professional with over 50% of my time spent driving a van; I was a glorified chauffeur. The coach would “reward” the drivers with donuts and coffee most mornings.
I spent hundreds of hours driving which led me down the rabbit hole of health/fitness podcasts. I had mini-epiphanies weekly and visualized the career and environment where I could actually make an impact for more individuals that need it.
Matt’s experience highlights the broken system that is a career path for a traditional Athletic Trainer. After graduating as a credentialed professional, he felt the only way to end up in his dream job of a D1 AT would be through a GA and following-up with an Internship. While the employer’s sell you on the “experience” of the job and how it will launch you into your next role, these are tall tales spun to drive an emotional response from the applicant and trap them into a decision. The reality is that these positions cost the employee so much more. It costs their full time & effort to attend school while working full-time; it costs their personal relationships with friends and partners that they rarely have time to give energy too; it costs their free time with which most people would use to pursue hobbies or interests that keep their cup (of joy) full; it costs their financial security, losing multiple years in salary and accumulated savings while living at the bottom of their means while in these roles. They're under compensated and overworked, all in the name of “experience”. Employers offering these positions should be ashamed of the working conditions they pitch as positive experience.
I wanted to move back closer to my family and my sister was about to have her first child; so when the university in my hometown announced they were hiring two Assistant Athletic Trainers it was perfect opportunity to seize the life I wanted.
The athletic staff discussed the turnover over the last 5 years and hoped to find staff long term. I’ve always believed athletes deserve the best possible treatment, it’s what I saw from my preceptors and mentors. When I heard previous AT’s only gave ice and suggested foam rolling for chronic injuries I knew I could significantly help this Athletics program.
I was passed over for the position by two other AT’s with less experience and weren’t from Oregon. They still offered a part-time position to me on a 10-month contract. It was an “intern” position but they changed the title due to my work experience.
They told me that I could use my experience and current working position to leverage another full-time Athletic Trainer position. I was fairly clueless as to how much they manipulated me during that time, but again I didn’t have any other offers. If I didn’t keep working in the University setting I would have felt like I failed and didn’t know what else to do.
The work-life balance included Sunday’s off and no travel with the teams which made life easier compared to my previous schedules. In my “off” time I was working another job as a golf performance coach at a local golf academy to sustain myself. There was a lot of back and forth between the university and the golf course over that year. As golf season died down in the winter, I was all in with the University job. I loved it and felt like I was excelling.
I was supposed to be transitioning into a full-time position right as COVID hit in 2020.
COVID, Life, & Change
My initial contract ended and I was out of work for 4 months before being re-hired again for the same position.
Everything about the job environment changed that year.
The two assistant AT’s decided to move on to other positions soon after. It wasn’t until now that I was finally offered a full-time Athletic Training position. I felt disrespected and undervalued. It took 7 years of clinical & work experience to be offered a full-time position, but only out of desperation to fill a job.
The current value of an Athletic Trainer was out of convenience for the university. It didn’t matter how hard I worked or how much the injury rate decreased with my respective teams. I wanted to feel appreciated and be able to see the value of my efforts.
The Golf industry was on the rise in 2020. I was consistently turning down independent work opportunities to fulfill my team commitments at the university. The owner of the golf academy always advocated for my skills and saw a strong need for them in the Golf industry. I decided to leave the collegiate setting and work as an independent contractor full time where I could help a larger, diverse population get the care they deserved.
The Business of Athletic Training is not the profession of Athletic Training. Matt’s story shows that it’s not qualifications, or experience, or job-fit that matters to hiring new AT’s. No, it’s an agenda. An agenda that must be fulfilled by whatever department is in charge of Sports Medicine, often supported on the backs of favors and IOU’s. The AT profession is not currently set up to allow its most talented members to rise to the top. It’s set up to keep a select few in positions of power and ensure they are the only ones who direct the reigns to the future. That is not a free market and that should not be the job market we encourage young professionals to enter.
Director of Golf Performance
My Dad introduced me to the owner of the golf academy while in town for my on-campus interview in 2019. I happened to be at the right place at the right time. He offered me a performance coaching position after I took the part time Athletic Trainer position; it was a great opportunity to learn and supplemented my income. Over three years of progressing in the golf business I was given the title “Director of Performance” due to my growth in the field and my full-time commitment to the business when I left my university job.
Being an independent contractor in the Golf industry was a major shift from the typical AT role. For one, golfers are notorious for undervaluing health and fitness. You also have to sell your worth to create clientele; I was used to college athletes automatically coming to me for help out of necessity, an injury.
Although my schedule is what I want it to be, this job requires a “go-getter” mentality and a lot of work behind the scenes. Something all AT’s are accustomed to. Golf fitness is an emerging market yet nonexistent in our area - my experience and background allowed me to set the standards for implementing golf fitness into the current academy structure.
There are many entrepreneurial benefits that come with this position. The demographic for golfers is extensive; we coach anywhere from 4 to 90 years old. This creates opportunity for almost any type of player development programs.
These programs allow for a 2:1 or 3:1 environment [student:coach] which means the financial compensation decreases for the client but increases for the instructor. This model of efficiency is vastly different from typical AT where the quantity of athletes seen doesn’t hold any value. The per hour rate of pay is significantly higher (usually $50+/hour) and more is accomplished without sacrificing quality.
Over the multiple years of working with the golf academy I observed many hours of instruction. There are various methods to expand skills and progress into new roles within the industry. I had the opportunity to join the PGA of America as a PGA Associate and didn’t hesitate to take it.
My path was unique and I’m fortunate to have the chance to apply my sports medicine background to golf instruction and coaching. I love what I do everyday. My two biggest complaints while in the college setting were not getting to golf or travel enough; now I get to do both as my job.
Part of the Job
Our golf academy has a team-based approach. The goal is to develop each golf student, adults & juniors, in all facets of the game to help them achieve their goals.
This is achieved through private or semi-private instruction as well as group classes. Every new student starts out with an assessment. My role in the assessment is to conduct a movement screening and identify: musculoskeletal limitations, injury history, and methods for improving sport performance.
A PGA professional, sometimes myself, conducts the golf swing assessment; short game, putting and full swing. This allows us to know where the student is starting out and which environment for learning best suits their personality and golf goals. My previous experience conducting physicals and the rehabilitation process taught me how to quickly identify quality of movement and correct inefficiencies. Now I’m able to focus on quality over quantity and individualize the assessment process for better results.
My role as a performance coach is to instruct golf specific movements with our membership-based clientele. This time is typically spent implementing horizontal and rotational movements most often neglected in sedentary lifestyles. Our golf instructors notice how the improved movements allow them to accomplish major swing changes with students. Another big component has been installing warm-up routines for all of our golf classes and golf schools. I ask every student how soon into their round of golf they feel completely loose and almost every answer is three-to-six holes in; a significant amount that can be solved with a ten-minute warm-up.
I also teach golf classes to enhance speed and strength within the sport. As a PGA Associate I instruct golf lessons, group classes, and junior golf programs. The owner of the golf academy is also the head golf coach at our local university. He brought me on board as an assistant coach with the main assignment of strength and conditioning programs for both the Men’s and Women’s teams.
It’s insane how I ended up back at the same university I was an Athletic Trainer for, now as an independent coach.
It’s not just golf, either. Name almost any individual sport and you will find similarities and parallels between the opportunities Matt has leveraged and those that can be found in the real world. All racket sports (tennis, badminton, padel, pickleball) carry almost the exact same lifestyle as golf. It’s only a matter of time before an AT makes their name known in the Tennis world as either a performance coach, sport medicine professional, or team-member. With no shortage of elite individual athletes and academies all across the world, Tennis is a sport I’d have on my radar if I was looking to break into Entrepreneurial AT.
Message to You
My Athletic Training journey had some great times in the seven years of school/internships and also the lowest of the lows. It sucked some of the time but the friends gained and experiences are all worth it.
There were times that I felt lost, confused, and with nothing to show for all the hours spent, but I'm glad I never gave up. Sure, coaches yelled at me, went behind my back and devalued years of knowledge; but it created a tenacious individual who truly knows who they are and what they’re worth.
I learned to always be cautiously optimistic and never be afraid to question things. Be on the lookout for great opportunities and don’t give up - it’ll all be worth it in the end.
The golf industry has such a strong need for Athletic Trainers and forward thinking individuals. If your school has a golf team I would encourage you to talk to the team's S&C coach and shadow as much as possible. Don’t be afraid to politely contact someone in the field and ask to consult with them; a huge mistake I never did. Social media can be great but it isn’t accurate of what actually happens day in/day out.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to pursue industries that aren’t typical for athletic trainers - there’s no barrier on what we can do.
Please give Matt a big thank you for guest-writing this Train Like a Pro article!