Athletic Training vs PT: Career ROI

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Updated: February 29, 2024, Reading time: 11 minutes

Athletic Training vs Physical Therapy - featured image

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If you’re active in sports as a high school student, you will agree that both athletic training and physical therapy are important in keeping your mind and body in top shape! Both athletic training and physical therapy, after all, are intended to prevent, treat, and manage injuries among athletes.

But even if you’re not a student-athlete, you will find that athletic training and physical therapy are excellent career choices. With 96% of Americans engaged in sports and leisure activities, athletic trainers and physical therapists are in-demand professionals.

Which one is your best choice? You should first look at their main similarities and differences so you can make an initial choice.

In terms of similarities, both athletic trainers and physical therapists are considered healthcare professionals. They prevent, diagnose, and treat illnesses and injuries related to physical movement and activity.

Their work involves face-to-face interactions with their patients, thanks to the hands-on care required, and both professionals apply rehabilitation techniques to their patients.

But while physical therapists work with individuals engaged in all activity levels and address medical conditions, athletic trainers focus on athletes and active individuals with sports-related injuries. Physical therapists possess a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree, while athletic trainers usually have either a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree.

Read on for more information that will contribute to your smart choice between the two professions!

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A Quick Look at Their Differences: Athletic Trainer vs PT

Athletic TrainerPhysical Therapist
Average Annual Salary$53,840$97,720
Projected Job Growth14% (2022-2032)/About 2,700 average annual new job openings15% (2022-2032)/About 13,900 average annual new job openings
Licenses/Certifications RequiredYesYes
Primary DutiesAthletic trainers specialize in the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and management of injuries and illnesses on the bones and muscles caused by sports and physical activities.Physical therapists focus on the improvement and management of pain, movement and physical activities of patients with chronic conditions as well as injuries and illnesses.

If you’re passionate about helping people, then becoming either an athletic trainer or a PT will satisfy your heart’s desire. However, you must keep in mind that these are different professions with different education and training, licensure, and work demands.

Your choice will be influenced by your preferences in these areas, particularly the amount of time, effort, and money it takes to become a practicing professional. 

What Does an Athletic Trainer Do?

What Does an Athletic Trainer Do - Image

If you become an athletic trainer, your specific roles and responsibilities will depend on your position and workplace. Your job, for example, will be different if you work in a high school athletic program than in a sports medicine clinic.

In general, athletic trainers perform the following main roles and responsibilities regardless of their workplace.

While there’s a notion that athletic trainers only work with adult athletes and active individuals, this isn’t so! Their work involves working with patients of all ages and skill levels, from children involved in sports to professional and amateur athletes, even soldiers with movement-related injuries.

Athletic trainers must be effective team workers, too, because they don’t work in a bubble. Most athletic trainers, particularly those in amateur and professional sports teams, must work with physicians, physical therapists and coaches.

The great thing about being an athletic trainer is the wide range of workplaces where their professional services are in high demand. Schools, colleges, universities, and professional sports teams are popular workplaces, as well as fitness centers, commercial gyms, and sports medicine clinics.

With the crucial importance of their job in the maintenance of good health, the best athletic trainers possess specific sets of technical and transferable skills. Don’t worry, as most of these skills can be learned during your college or graduate education, internship and training!

Athletic trainers are knowledgeable about the human body’s structure and function (anatomy and physiology, as well as about injury diagnosis and treatment, therapeutic methods and exercise prescriptions, and emergency care.

Being good at communication, collaboration and critical thinking, as well as being compassionate, is also a must for athletic trainers. Their problem-solving and decision-making skills are the best, too, particularly when dealing with injuries.

Athletic Training Education and Career Paths

If you’re still in high school, you can increase your chances of being admitted into and being an excellent student in a bachelor’s degree program in athletic training if your secondary school coursework includes Anatomy, Physiology, and Physics. You can also take Advanced Placement (AP) courses in these areas for college credit.

The most direct academic path toward becoming an athletic trainer is earning a bachelor’s degree in athletic training from a Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education (CAATE)-accredited program. Minnesota State University, Middle Tennessee State University, and Indiana University are a few examples of universities offering CAATE-accredited programs.

What if your preferred college doesn’t have an athletic training program? You can pursue a bachelor’s degree in a related field like Sports Medicine, Kinesiology, or Exercise Science.

While individuals with a bachelor’s degree in athletic training are qualified for entry-level positions, a master’s degree is typically required for career advancement. Both bachelor’s and master’s degree programs include classroom coursework in Anatomy and Physiology, Biomechanics, and Exercise Physiology, as well as clinical experiences/internships.

By completing a Doctor of Athletic Training program, you get the opportunity to select a field specialization. DATs qualify for high-level occupations in healthcare work, collaborating with other professionals for consultancy and executive-level work.

Nearly every state requires either certification or licensure for professional practice in the field of Athletic Training. Every state has its specific requirements, so it’s best to check with your state authorities.

In Florida, for example, applicants for licensure must possess at least a bachelor’s degree in athletic training from a CAATE-accredited program and comply with the Board of Certification requirements.

In Texas, the process is different, with aspiring athletic trainers allowed to choose from four tracks toward licensure – apprenticeship, Board of Certification and out-of-state licensee, physical therapy, or CAATE accreditation. If you’re a high school student, the CAATE track may be the best option.

A Career in Athletic Training Is for You If:

A Career in Athletic Training Is Not a Great Fit If You:

What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

What Does a Physical Therapist Do - Image

PTs are healthcare professionals who assist patients in recovering from their physical injuries and surgeries, in alleviating their physical pain, and in managing their chronic health conditions. By applying rehabilitation modalities, their work allows patients to enjoy improved movement, mobility and quality of life.

Unlike athletic trainers with a focus on sports-related injuries, physical therapists address a wide range of injuries and illnesses that affect functional movement and mobility. Sprains and strains, amputations, back and neck injuries, arthritis and neurological disorders, such as cerebral palsy and stroke, are among the medical conditions that physical therapists address. Sports-related activities, work activities, and everyday movements can cause these injuries and illnesses.

A PT usually performs the following tasks:

Like athletic trainers, physical therapists also work with other healthcare professionals for effective patient care. Doctors, nurses and occupational therapists with graduate-level training are the healthcare professionals that they usually work with to ensure patients are well-cared for. 

A PT possesses a wide range of technical skills, too, all of which are learned by earning their degrees. These technical skills include manual therapy techniques, therapeutic analysis, orthopedic, cardiopulmonary and neurological evaluation, and gait analysis.

Since physical therapists work with patients and healthcare professionals, their communication and collaboration skills are among the best! Their patients also appreciate their compassion for their conditions and their ability to empathize with their experiences.

Physical therapists must also be detail-oriented, resourceful and resilient, as well as be physically strong because of the time spent on their feet and on helping patients.

PT Education and Career Paths

Earning a bachelor’s degree in Biology, Exercise Science, or Kinesiology is the first step in becoming a licensed physical therapist. Note that there are no specific physical therapy bachelor’s degree programs, but there are universities that offer pre-physical therapy programs. Samford University, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, and the University of Findlay are among the best colleges in this regard.

Next, earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) from Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education-accredited programs. Western Michigan University, Texas State University, and Baylor University are among the CAPTE-approved universities with the best DPT programs. Most of these DPT programs use the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Services (PTCAS) in receiving applications.

Students in DPT programs can earn the degree in three years of full-time studies. The common courses include physical therapy examination and evaluation, manual therapy techniques, and pharmacology and medical screening.

Students must also complete clinical rotations and internships to enhance and put their knowledge to the test in real-world settings, such as hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and outpatient clinics.

After graduation, you may apply for a one-year clinical residency where additional training and experience are necessary to become a specialist. You can check the American Board of Physical Therapy Residency and Fellowship Education website for information about residency and fellowship programs.

All states require physical therapists to secure a license and, if preferred, become board-certified specialists. The FSBPT-Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy administers the National Physical Therapy Examination, and passing it is among the licensure requirements. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties is the governing body for specialists, and specializations include Sports, Orthopedics, and Geriatrics.

PTs can work in various capacities, too, including:

A Career in Physical Therapy Is for You If:

A Career in Physical Therapy  Is Not a Great Fit If You:

Athletic Training vs Physical Therapy - fact

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