The Minnesota Vikings athletic training staff was recently given the Minnesota Athletic Trainers’ Association Sports Medicine Enhancement Award for 2016. Over the past two seasons they have been teaming up with TRIA Orthopedics and NovaCare Rehabilitation to provide the public schools of Minneapolis and St. Paul with certified athletic trainers.
The NFL Foundation established a grant in 2014 that was designed to increase the amount of access that high school student athletes had to athletic trainers. The grant initiative was for $25,000 and it also said that people participating in the program had the opportunity to approach the organizations’ ownership about matching the total.
Vikings head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman felt this was something he wanted to get involved in and the Wilf family was more than happy to help out when he approached them. With that money, the Vikings athletic training staff, with the help of TRIA and NovaCare, were then able to establish certified athletic trainers in 13 different public schools in the Twin Cities.
“We were able to provide coverage for preseason practices, provide an athletic trainer during the season at these schools, be able to provide an orthopedic physician on the sideline at these games,” Sugarman explained. “And these were all things that some of these schools never experienced, and I’ll never forget the quote from the St. Paul school district that said, ‘We haven’t had an athletic trainer in 50 years at any of our games.’ And that was really striking to me, and now that they’ve had two years of consistent care, hopefully they feel it’s mandatory and that’s the whole design of this program.”
The people that were part of this program thought it was best to get everything set into place. So they spent some extra time setting the training rooms up and then also buying all the necessary supplies to fill them. It took some time, but now that the program has been moving along for two years, they feel as though it is in a good place.
The biggest reason for the program is to prevent injuries to these kids, and when they do happen, to recognize them right away and have them treated properly. The trainers are at the schools for the team’s practices, preseasons and games so they can really know the players, know their idiosyncrasies, know their strengths and weakness and know their medical history, so they can help treat them better in the future.
There has been an increase of reported injuries since this program took over, but they do not necessarily see that as a bad thing because it means that the injuries that were going unreported early are now being treated properly.
“We did see a 45 percent increase in injuries reported. There was not a 45 percent increase in injuries, but we saw that as a good thing because now the kids are reporting their injuries,” Sugarman explained. “In the past, what we were told was that a kid would get hurt, wouldn’t be able to participate or play and you’d never see the kid again because they really weren’t receiving care. There was nowhere for them to get the help that they needed, and now this past year a kid becomes injured, they get evaluated, they can see a physician, they get treated by an athletic trainer, they get rehabbed and they’re back on the field helping their team. So, again, this is what we’re trying to accomplish, along with parent education, coach education and etc.”
One of the biggest injuries that this program has been focusing on is concussions. There were 34 of them that were diagnosed through this program in 2014 and another 40 that were diagnosed in 2015. Sugarman believes that if this program was not in place only about half of those would have been reported. But now that these teams have access to these professional trainers they able to recognize the symptoms right away and properly treat them.
Before this program was in place, the city of St. Paul did not have any athletic trainers at practices or games and Minneapolis had just one trainer that was responsible for covering seven different schools. Oftentimes these schools would have a parent who might have been a physician or a chiropractor providing coverage on the sidelines because that was all they had access to, but now this program is giving them more.
“Now the kids can, with concussions you want to make sure these kids follow a protocol, see a physician, are cleared when they are safe to be cleared and not have someone who’s not educated on the topic guessing when these kids might be pushed back into participation,” Sugarman said. “It’s a huge part of the program, concussion prevention, concussion treatment protocol and it’s shown by the numbers of the increase and the ones that are being reported. So it’s huge and it’s a huge benefit of the program and for the safety of the kids.”
The program doesn’t only focus what goes on out on the football field, though, but also what the kids do off the field to help prevent different injuries. One type of injury they focus on are ACL injuries and different things they can do in warm ups or the weight room to prevent them. Injuries are still going to happen from time to time, but these different things they are teaching can help limit them.
“ACL prevention is a specific program that TRIA has that they put athletes through, and again it’s just proper warm-up, proper stretching, proper core,” Sugarman said. “For a kid in high school you want to bench press, you want to have big biceps, you want to teach these kids how to train the whole body. Agility training, proper shoe wear, whatever it might be, but those are the types of things they talk about when you talk about an ACL prevention program.”
Sugarman believes that the last two years have been a huge success and they want to continue to build on that. They are hoping to begin working with some more schools, though they would not mention any specifics yet since it is still in the pre-planning stages. But their hope is to one day have all the high schools hire athletic trainers and realize how important they are to have.
“This program is supposed to be about sustainability and it’s supposed to encourage these schools and school districts to see what an athletic trainer is,” Sugarman explained. “Understand what the care is, understand the benefit and now budget for it, hopefully, in the future.”