Making a difference in the world of athletic training

Mar 21, 2024 | Uncategorized

Photo of Dr. Adam Lepley

National Athletic Training Month is held every year in March and is a time to continue spreading awareness about the amazing work that athletic trainers around the nation are doing. This month we caught up with one of our very own ATs from the Human Performance & Sport Science Center, Dr. Adam Lepley, clinical associate professor and director of the MiPR Lab for a Q&A session. We asked Dr. Lepley some questions about his career path, what he’s seen in the athletic training field, and what type of advice he would give to future students looking to enter the field. 

Could you tell us about yourself and your career path?

I grew up in Saginaw, Michigan, and was active in many sports, but I was never very good. As a career, I knew I wanted to do something that combined my passion for sports and the medical field, allowing me the ability to help people – which is why I pursued athletic training as a degree. I went to Grand Valley State University (GVSU) for my bachelor’s degree (B.S. in Athletic Training) and while there, completed clinical rotations as a student athletic trainer for their volleyball and football teams. In 2006 I was part of their Division II Football national championship, as well as West Ottawa High School. I also completed an Internship with the Grand Rapids Rampage of the Arena Football League. These rotations helped me gain hands-on experience in skills with actual patient/athlete populations to practice what I was learning in the classroom. 

After I graduated, I went to the University of Minnesota for my master’s degree (M.A. in Kinesiology, Emphasis in Exercise Physiology). As a certified athletic trainer I also worked clinically as a graduate assistant athletic trainer for their football and spirit squads (competitive cheerleading team, co-ed cheerleading team, hockey cheerleading team, dance team, and mascots) programs. I loved working clinically as a certified athletic trainer but often was left with big questions regarding the evidence behind what we did. Eventually, I ended up pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Toledo to fulfill my strong desire to impact the field of Athletic Training by generating evidence-based research that promotes advancements in sports medicine practice, as well as educating future clinicians in an academic setting.

Looking back on your career, what were some of the most memorable moments?

The most memorable moments for me are the success stories of the athletes and students that I was able to help. I worked with an athlete in their senior year of college who had a foot injury that required surgery, and I played a large role in designing and implementing their rehabilitation. They went on to have a long and productive career in the NFL (which I don’t take credit for), but even being a small part of helping someone else achieve their career goals is something I always take pride in. 

Being able to see what our AT students achieve is also a high point. We have graduates all over the country and in every facet of the athletic training profession – from professional sports, high-level college athletics, high school/secondary school settings, clinics and surgical fellowships, performing arts, etc. I love being able to see all the great things our students are doing and always makes me feel very special to be a small part of their journey. 

Being a member of the sports medicine staff for the 2006 Division II Football national championship was also pretty awesome, and something that I’ll never forget. 

What are some of the ways you’ve seen athletic training evolve over the years?

Comparative to other healthcare professions, athletic training is still relatively young. I became a certified athletic trainer in 2008, which was right around the time there was a big push for AT licensure in every state. Licensure is extremely important as it helps establish who is able to practice as an athletic trainer. Since 2008, all states, except California, have now recognized ATCs as a licensed healthcare profession, which has been a huge step forward. 

Another major milestone happened within the last year/year and a half, when Blue Cross Blue Shield, one of the largest healthcare insurers in the country, made the decision to allow reimbursement for services rendered by athletic trainers. Before this decision, athletic trainers were required to work under the direct supervision of a physical therapist. I’m very excited to see the impact of this decision, as it recognizes athletic trainers as independent and unique healthcare providers who can be compensated appropriately for the knowledge and skills they have and the important work that they do. 

Athletic training is a demanding profession. What are some ways you maintain your own physical and mental well-being?

I think with any profession, and AT is no exception, there are always going to be demands that are challenging. One of the best analogies I have heard, and something I share with my students all the time, is the example of the oxygen mask on an airplane. If you’ve ever flown on an airplane, the instructions are quite clear that if oxygen masks are needed, you are to secure your mask first, and then help others. You cannot help someone if you are not taking care of yourself, and for athletic trainers, self-care is vital to ensuring that you have the energy and internal resources to manage everyday stress and demanding environments to best help your athletes and patients. 

I enjoy exercising and spending intentional time with my family. I have amazing kids that keep me grounded, and an awesome wife who is also an athletic trainer and faculty member, so she intimately understands the demands I go through. 

Can you share a bit about any mentors or those who influenced your career?

From a clinical perspective, the head athletic trainer at GVSU at the time, Todd Jager, and my direct preceptor with football, Adam Buchalski, were instrumental in helping me develop my skills and helping me understand what it took to be a great athletic trainer. I was fortunate enough to work with Adam again at the University of Minnesota and have always greatly appreciated his mentorship as I navigated my early career. 

As I pivoted to academia, My Ph.D. advisor at Toledo, Brian Pietrosimone, was an outstanding mentor who helped shape my passion for research, and to realize the rigor needed to answer scientific questions the right way. 

While I was a young early career faculty member at the University of Connecticut, Lindsay DiStefano and Doug Casa were exceptional role models in all facets of academia. They both were world-renowned researchers with balance in research, teaching, and administration, and more importantly, recognized the need for work-life balance. I learned a lot from them and seeing their approach was instrumental as I came to UM and balanced my roles as Director of MiPR, Clinical Coordinator of the AT program, and within HPSSC. 

At UM, Brian Czajka, Riann Palmieri Smith, and Steve Brogilio are outstanding senior faculty to learn from and have been exceptional colleagues as I established myself as a researcher and educator/administrator in AT. 

Is there anything you would have done differently in your career if you had the chance?

I love Athletic Training and my current position, and honestly, couldn’t see myself doing anything differently. I will say that my initial career goal was to work in a high-level football setting, like college football or the NFL. After my time at the University of Minnesota, I made a tough decision to pursue a Ph.D. and a career in academia. Part of me still misses working clinically day-to-day, and if I were to change anything it would have probably been to go all in on pursuing a career as a clinical AT working high-level football. 

What is the difference between a good athletic trainer and a great one?

That’s a tough question. I think both a good and great athletic trainer have the necessary skills, training, and experiences that allow them to help the athlete and patient. But beyond that, a great athletic trainer to me is someone who is able to ask the question why. In other words, not just doing a treatment on an injury because it has been done before, but understanding the reason and evidence behind why that treatment is effective. A great athletic trainer also surrounds themselves with mentors, colleagues, and a comprehensive sports medicine team because they know their limitations and know they won’t be right 100% of the time.

What advice would you give future students looking to enter the field of athletic training?

My best advice is to identify your passion and goals, and then truly understand what it takes to get there. A career is a journey, and it is rarely a straight linear path. It takes time, dedication, training, education, more education, experience, etc. Often, young students see the end of someone’s journey – such as a certified athletic trainer in the NFL – and that is what they want, but they don’t dive into what it took to get there. Going into a long journey with understanding and knowledge is always better than going into it in the dark.