On Thinking Out Loud — Goals for Grad School

It’s really hard to narrow down my goals for grad school to 3 big things…but I know that if I do this and choose great ones that are maybe a little more broad in topic, I will do better than if I wrote down 300 little things and tried to hit all of them. In undergrad, we had to choose 3 goals per semester because we had different clinical rotations. So perhaps that’s what I’ll do…I’ll be working with a different sport in each year (2), so I want this post to be about my first year.

It’s a little difficult because I’m still not sure what sport I’m working with. I’m definitely working football camp because it’s a very intense process, but after that I’m not sure. There are definitely sport-specific things I’d want to work on if I got track vs. football vs. softball, but I definitely want

Learn how to be a better person/educator/thinker/learner.

Becoming a better athletic trainer isn’t just about the science side of things, even though that’s obviously really important. It’s almost just as much the kind of person you are. How do you talk to people? How do you encourage athletes as well as foster independence? How do you work with other members of the sports medicine team (includes S&C coaches, nutrition/dietetics, sports psychology, doctors)?

As an athletic trainer, we have to be good educators. It involves explaining what an injury is in terms an athlete can understand. Most importantly, how are we speaking to them?

Being a thinker means that you’re willing to open your mind and receive different opinions. You can’t just say you’re open-minded. I’ve always been one to argue to try and convince you to change your mind…but lately I’ve started realizing that there is a REASON we all have different philosophies and thoughts about modalities and rehab. Evidence-based medicine is a very important concept nowadays but I’ve come to see that you can’t ignore the anecdotal evidence because we live in a world of variables. I’m not saying that just because cupping or IASTM “works” for someone, that you should use it on every single patient. You can’t have just one or the other, it requires a combination of both scientific and anecdotal evidence.

Being a thinker ALSO means not forgetting the things you’ve learned in the past! How did you get to what you believe? How did you get to be an “expert”, at least in relation to those who are just entering the field? I give the example of a hip hinge constantly, because I know I struggled to understand it at first…and I’m still learning new things about it, over a year later! But when I had to teach it to some new clients, I almost forgot how I learned it in the first place. It was a struggle to reach back in my mind and dig out the reason we need to hip hinge, the cues, etc…but I got there eventually and it taught me so much.

In a certain way, being an expert is not just knowing how to do it yourself…but it’s also being able to explain it to others (which is why being an educator is important). See, I’ve read that the best sport coaches in history were some of the most below average players. They succeeded because they know how to manage people, in the simplest of terms. That’s one way of being an expert! The other way is to just be phenomenal at your art…as demonstrated by some of the most elite athletes who failed miserably coaching. This is just what matters to me.

Finally, if you’re not willing to learn — you’re in the wrong field. You can learn so much from everyone you work with. Your coworkers, managers, “subordinates” (not sure what other word to use so here it is), athletes, students, coaches, and most of all…mentors. It’s not necessarily just about sports medicine topics, it’s about all this stuff that I just listed above. It’s not even just a willingness to learn, it’s a desire. You almost want to be wrong sometimes just so you can get educated.

I feel like in the past few months I’ve come to a bit of a standstill. I make these posts from time to time but I feel like I keep saying the same things over and over, with different words. Since my athletic training job ended about 2 months ago (although I worked a tournament over MDW), I haven’t been challenged as much. Then because of that, I haven’t really had much anxiety, so I haven’t worked on it. And I suddenly have been faced with a few stressful decisions, and I’m a bit unprepared to handle it. So you see, I feel like I haven’t had any large moments of growth. But I’ve also realized that you don’t need to pressure yourself to grow 24/7. There are rest periods for a reason…they just can’t last forever.

Overall, this goal is about being confident…in my skills, in my personality type, in the way that I conduct myself, all without being arrogant. It’s that humble confidence, you know what I mean?

Find mentors, develop a network, and create lasting relationships

In undergrad, it wasn’t that I didn’t want a mentor…I didn’t know how different it can be when you intentionally seek out support and advice. I had 4 different clinical preceptors in my undergraduate rotations, and I interacted with a few more just out of proximity. Each one of them taught me a lot, and I really liked that they were all so uniquely different in their philosophies. However, for the most part, I didn’t realize how lucky I was until after I left and went to my next site…or not even until I graduated.

They showed I could always ask for help, but I was too stubborn to admit I was wrong or needed help. They challenged me, but I was too angry to take the challenge and do it. They questioned me, but I was too scared to answer. They gave me learning opportunities, but I was too blind to understand just how precious those moments were. I’m really thankful for each of them.

Now that I’ve graduated, I have reached out to each of them at least once. I asked about advice at the middle school level, grad school, and I actually asked for references from some. I even stopped in and visited a few of them when I went back to visit. I’m sure they had their own opinions about me as a student, the same way I had opinions about them, but I’m starting to branch into the field and I’m really grateful for these connections. As I move on I’ll meet more and more people, but I’m sure I’ll be reaching out to a lot of them as I’m in grad school, a sort of “next step”.

Then at Real Salt Lake, I met some incredible people — not just my direct bosses. I learned about work ethic, professionalism, creating habits, slowing down, being on time, making mistakes, learning from mistakes, working well with others, ambition, etc. It was definitely a life-changing experience.

So, now what? I’m certified. I’m off to grad school. I’m going to be more “on my own” than ever, but the good news is that you’re never really on your own because you have a network. You may have to make more decisions on your own, but you can always ask for help, team up for differentials, etc. I’m not just talking about other athletic trainers. Like I said, it’s all about the sports medicine/performance coming together — S&C coaches, nutrition/dietetics, sports psychology, doctors.

You really don’t want to network just for the sake of networking. I feel like it’s very easy to tell when someone is doing that. I introduced myself at a conference to someone who was on the board of our athletic training society here, and asked about people to contact when I got to Utah and he said he’d help me out. I also randomly ran into a professor at a school I applied to last year…he read my application and remembered me because I had also gone to Pitt (like him), and of course my last name is a bit unique. I realized early on that yes, networking is important to get where you want…but it’s actually not all. People say it’s always about who you know, but there are ways to achieve things just by putting yourself out there.

I want to interact with all sorts of people so I can speak to those experiences wherever I go in the future. It’s not to say that I’ll definitely be asked about my experiences with strength coaches or doctors, but I can use them as examples for questions like “how do you get along with others?” when those come up in interviews. The reason networking is so important is that you can’t be afraid to ask for help in this field. Yes, a sense of independence is necessary, but so is an understanding that everyone works together to keep the athletes as safe and healthy as possible — even if you work different sports or are living across the country from one another.

Finally, as much as I want to find really wonderful mentors to help support me, I also want to find other newer athletic trainers/sports medicine team members like me who want to talk about rehab, pain science, sports performance… I’ve sorely missed that because most of my friends are very much outside of the healthcare/human movement field, so it’s just something I’m looking for because I have so many thoughts bouncing around in my head. It’s always good to facilitate discussions and learn from people that way.

Emphasize self-efficacy, taking responsibility for your injuries and actions, and movement > modalities (with exceptions)

I’ve worked with a lot of athletes who really don’t want to do rehab. They despise it and want to get healthy as soon as possible, but aren’t really willing to put the work in. I mean, heck, I’m the same way sometimes. But I really want to explain to them — if you want to be good at your craft, you have to be dedicated all the way through.

I guess what I’m looking for is that buy-in from the athletes. This is important at any stage of rehab/strengthening. I want them to trust me but most importantly, trust themselves (and the process — ha)! I want to show them that yes, modalities are important…but if you come in with 10–15 minutes before you have to be at practice, I’d rather you move and get your muscles (AND NERVES!) working.

This may be the hardest one because it truly isn’t up to me. I can only do my best. I will not be discouraged if I look back and see that I tried to do this. I’d just see it as a failure if I gave up easily.

Improve the way I deal with concussions and acute injuries

I’ll be honest, those first two goals were actually pretty simple to come up with. I knew that I needed to work on confidence and I really like thinking about personal growth, and that I wanted to meet other like-minded people, but what can I do that’s specific to the field of sports medicine?

Of course, I came up with concussions because I know that they are my weakness. I’m not saying I would let a concussion go un-evaluated/diagnosed, but I’m saying that they do make me nervous and I want to improve on them. The second one — I am also very into understanding the human body as a system and assessing movement patterns and mobility — and I love rehab. And of course that’s great. But my experience with a lot of acute injuries is either fractures or my superiors dealing with it because that’s what was necessary at the time. I’m not going to go into detail because I don’t think that’s necessary, but just know that I will have a lot of experience with these things because I get to work with two sports over the two years! And one of them will definitely be football. This is just going to be in the front of my head.

The main reason I feel weak here is that I’m just very new to the profession. I simply haven’t had that many experiences and I am so hungry for more. I truly believe that one of my strengths is rehab and more of the mental side of return to play (although I haven’t practiced this nearly enough). And that is a good thing to have but I want to be more well-rounded. I said on a facebook comment in a group that concussions are admittedly my weakest point, but a PT reminded me that an awareness and a willingness to learn is half the battle. So there you go. I want to learn and I am ready to be challenged!

Why did I give myself 4 goals?

The field of athletic training is just so…much. There’s so many things you can improve. That’s why I decided to allow myself 4 goals. Learning things that are science-based and essential to athlete safety is one thing — hence the concussion thing. Then, the other stuff — learning how to talk to patients, going through personal growth, networking — I can’t say that it’s non-essential, but the learning process is different. I almost want to say there’s a little less pressure to learn those things, but they are an incredible help to your skill set. It can make a world of difference.

So these are my goals definitely for the first semester. Perhaps I’ll break my goals down into semesters again, depending on how much I feel I’ve achieved these items. It’s going to be hard, no doubt about it, especially the 3rd one. I also have to start slow…I’m not going to go in thinking I know everything, with a massive swelled head, but I’m also going to trust my skills.

I never punish myself if I don’t achieve my goals and I think that is the most important thing. After all, goals are meant to motivate us to do better. If you trash yourself and make yourself feel like you’re a failure, you’re not going to want to try. But more importantly they are there to keep us disciplined and dedicated to our craft. Although, I suppose we develop goals simply BECAUSE we are dedicated to our craft.

I said this yesterday, but…here’s to 2 years of what will be the most wonderful learning experience of my life so far. See you soon, UT.



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Jen Xu

Jen Xu


Athletic trainer, PhD student, coffee lover. I write about fitness, mental health, being Asian-American, and personal growth.