If you’re wondering how to become an athletic trainer, one of the most important things you need to know is that the path has changed. While a bachelor’s degree in athletic training used to be sufficient to sit for the Board of Certification (BOC) exam and become a certified athletic trainer, by 2025, that will no longer be the case.
In 2015, the Athletic Training Strategic Alliance decided to transition the professional degree level from a bachelor’s degree to a master’s in athletic training, explains Dr. Troy Coppus, Assistant Professor and Director of the Master of Science in Athletic Training Program at Troy University. To practice, athletic trainers must graduate from accredited master’s in athletic training programs, pass the BOC exam to become certified, and then earn licensure in the state where they work.
Dr. Coppus says he didn’t like the change at first but has come to embrace it.
“Obviously, no one likes change, but there are definitely some positives,” he says. “We’re starting to see some of the positives that they (Athletic Training Strategic Alliance) intended. For one, we’re starting to see salary increases because the demand for athletic trainers is increasing with the exposure that athletic trainers are receiving.”
If you’re seeking advice on how to become an athletic trainer from someone working in the field, they may be unaware of the new master’s degree requirement — or confused about it, Dr. Coppus cautions.
“That’s where a lot of the information gets lost in translation because the people that are currently athletic trainers got a bachelor’s degree and sat for the boards, and they don’t really follow up with what’s going on in education,” he says. “As an educator, I have to stay informed and educate students that, after they get their bachelor’s degree, they’ll need to get their master’s degree.”
Master’s in Athletic Training Required for Athletic Training Jobs
The importance of athletic trainers, Dr. Coppus notes, was driven home on January 2, 2023, when Buffalo Bill’s safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest and collapsed during an NFL game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Athletic trainers, recognizing the seriousness of the issue, played a crucial role in saving Hamlin’s life.
“That was a very eye-opening incident for a lot of people that didn’t know what athletic trainers were until that moment,” Dr. Coppus says.
While people often think of sports when they think about athletic training jobs, the reality is that athletic trainers are working — and needed — in a wide variety of settings, such as industrial and performing arts jobs and in public service, like the military, Dr. Coppus says.
With more and more athletic trainers working in nontraditional settings, high schools and colleges are now struggling to fill athletic training jobs.
“There are a lot more opportunities for athletic trainers nowadays than there were when I was going through school,” Dr. Coppus says. “It used to be that you worked at a high school or college, and if you were really lucky and worked really hard, you might work at a pro team. Now there are athletic training positions all over. The number of athletic trainers is probably similar, but the number of places they can work has increased, thus spreading the pool thin and giving the outward appearance that we don’t have enough athletic trainers for these jobs.”
With athletic trainers now needing a master’s in athletic training, it will take longer to get athletic trainers educated and out into the field, he adds.
Dr. Coppus worries that some students, particularly first-generation college students, may avoid the profession because they fear they don’t have what it takes to succeed in graduate-level athletic training programs.
“Some might have that mindset, ‘I’m not good enough for a master’s degree,’” Dr. Coppus says. “As a first-generation student myself, I wouldn’t have known how that worked.”
TROY Alum Credits Graduate Program for Launching Athletic Training Career
Tim Sullivan, head athletic trainer at Stratford Academy, a college preparatory school in Macon, Georgia, earned his Master of Science in Athletic Training (MSAT) at TROY in 2022. Of all the athletic training programs in the country, he’s glad he chose TROY.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without TROY,” Sullivan says.
While at TROY, he did a semester immersive rotation with the University of Mississippi’s men’s and women’s basketball. After graduation, he worked at the University of Georgia covering men’s and women’s tennis, cheer, dance and mascot teams. He then landed a full-time job at Stratford Academy in May 2023.
“Other schools have a summer immersion or even a partial summer immersion,” Sullivan notes. “At TROY your immersion is an entire spring semester. This gives you the ability to completely immerse yourself in the environment that you choose to explore. With a shorter immersion, once you get used to your preceptor and the athletes at a new school or patients in a clinic, you’re done. At TROY you can build relationships with them and truly learn how it is to be an athletic trainer.”
Careers in Athletic Training Often Stem from Love of Sports
An Ohio native, TROY’s Dr. Coppus earned his undergraduate degree in athletic training from Ohio Northern University in 2004. That same year, he became a BOC-certified athletic trainer and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). In 2006, he earned his graduate degree in sport studies at High Point University in North Carolina.
“At that time, the model was you got your undergraduate degree, and then you could work as an athletic trainer to essentially get your master’s degree,” he says. “I worked and got some job experience and earned my master’s for free, essentially. But that model isn’t there anymore. You’ll have to pay for your master’s degree, which is going to be a factor in how many people move to that next step to get a master’s in athletic training.”
A love of sports is often at the core of why people go into athletic training, Dr. Coppus says. That was true in his case. He was running track and cross country and playing basketball in high school when he began considering a future in athletic training jobs.
“Being around sports was really fun to me,” Dr. Coppus says. “I was at a very small high school, but we were lucky enough to have an athletic trainer there. That helped to expose me to what that career was like.”
While he considered working athletic training jobs at the high school level, Dr. Coppus discovered during his undergraduate studies that he preferred college athletics. He worked as an athletic trainer while earning his master’s degree at High Point University and later at the University of North Carolina, Asheville.
When he married and started a family, Dr. Coppus decided to focus his career on teaching in athletic training programs. While pursuing his Doctor of Education in Kinesiology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, he worked as both a clinical athletic trainer and athletic trainer instructor at the University of Evansville in Indiana. After 10 years in that dual role, he worked as a full-time academic at the University of Evansville for four years before moving to Troy in May 2021.
“There are times that I miss it,” he says of working in athletic training jobs. Still, Dr. Coppus enjoys educating the next generation of athletic trainers through TROY’s Master of Science in Athletic Training program.
Patient-Centered Education Holds Key to Success in Athletic Training Jobs
When exploring master’s in athletic training programs, Dr. Coppus advises prospective students to make sure they’ll get plenty of clinical experience. At TROY, students put in hundreds of clinical hours before they earn their master’s in athletic training. They start in their first semester with about 10 hours a week, and by their fifth semester, they are working about 35 hours a week in a clinical setting, Dr. Coppus explains.
TROY’s approach, he says, helps students fully understand the demands of athletic training jobs well before they graduate.
“We try to show them in our clinical experiences that it’s a lot of time,” he says. “We’re cheating them if we don’t show them that. We can always limit their hours to 15 hours a week, 20 hours a week, but we want them to be good professionals who are aware once they step foot in their first job. If we’re just showing them 15 hours a week in athletic training, we’re not giving them the bigger picture.”
Another aspect that sets TROY apart from other athletic training programs is the wide variety of clinical settings students can experience, including high schools, colleges, professional sports facilities (such as for the Birmingham Legion professional soccer team), performing arts centers, police and fire departments and manufacturing plants.
“We allow them to go up to Andrews Sports Medicine & Orthopaedic Center in Birmingham, which is one of the premier orthopedic clinics in the world, to see what athletic trainers do and to also see some surgeries,” Dr. Coppus adds. “We try to broaden their experience to show them there are other places you can work as an athletic trainer beyond high school and college athletics and still be successful and help patients.”
Sullivan agrees the connection to Andrews sets TROY’s graduate program apart.
“It gives you the ability to shadow and work with world-renowned doctors and surgeons,” says the TROY alumnus.
Master’s in Athletic Training Must Provide Preparation for BOC Exam
When exploring athletic training programs, Dr. Coppus advises future athletic trainers to choose a comprehensive master’s program led by highly knowledgeable and experienced faculty. Make sure the program has the curriculum and hands-on experience needed to take and pass the Board of Certification (BOC) exam, he emphasizes. Passing the exam is required for athletic training jobs no matter the setting, he says.
It’s never too early to start learning about how to become an athletic trainer, Dr. Coppus says. He encourages prospective students, even in high school, to seek out professionals to job shadow.
Sullivan says job shadowing is the best advice he can give to those wondering how to become an athletic trainer.
“Shadow anybody and everybody you can,” he says. “You can always learn something from an athletic trainer, whether that’s good or bad. I have learned a lot from my preceptors in the past not only about injuries and rehabilitation but how I want to do things and not do things.”
Sullivan also encourages future athletic trainers to shadow physical therapists too.
“I worked at a clinic before I started the MSAT program at TROY, and it made not only learning injury rehabilitation easier but also learning e-stim (electrical stimulation), ultrasound, and other things because I already had my feet wet,” he explains.
When job shadowing, prospects will likely encounter TROY graduates working in athletic training jobs because TROY has a “massive alumni base with athletic trainers all over the place,” Dr. Coppus says.
He credits athletic training legend and TROY Professor Emeritus John “Doc” Anderson for helping to build a program that stands out among the nation’s top athletic training programs.
“He did a really great job building this program, and we’re working hard to continue that excellence,” Dr. Coppus says.
Learn More About TROY’s Master’s in Athletic Training
If you want to learn more about how to become an athletic trainer, explore TROY’s Master of Science in Athletic Training (MSAT).