Reflecting on my first-ever NATA experience — what a time.

My first-ever NATA experience was wonderful. I had no idea what to expect given that my first national conference ever was last year for NSCA, that was a blast. I was slightly curious how athletic trainers and strength coaches might compare in terms of fun and socializing, quite honestly, and I’m excited to report that all of us in the human wellness realm are…fun. Anyway, back to more serious matters (for now), I have a few specific items this is going to be about, and I’ll list them here now so you can decide if you want to read the rest of it or not.

First, I want to talk about my exposure to a lot more Asian ATs and researchers than I have ever been around at once. Second, receiving random tidbits of PhD/academic-related advice was amazing — the best part was not necessarily having to ask for it…perhaps my desperate-ness for advice was shining through, so um…thank you all for that recognition. Third, seeing friends and branching out and networking was super rewarding and I’m glad that I am wired this way. Finally, it was the first time I got involved in a conference in multiple ways beyond just attending, and I’m super excited to continue doing it.

I’m not planning to really talk about the actual content because I’m saving that for my own brain/the surveys, but because this conference for me was huge for me in so many other ways. It was my first NATA and as the oddly timid person I am in some weird ways, I was super nervous about the logistics of the conference as a whole, so it was helpful to do it the way I wanted to. Which wasn’t necessarily cramming sessions in just to do them, but to be intentional about the things I attended and the people I talked to. Anyway, here goes.

The first Asian athletic trainer that I came to know was a preceptor who worked at a college in Pittsburgh, when I was in undergrad. I really just had no idea where we belonged in the sports medicine world, but I was excited to learn. Now, through most of undergrad and grad school, I tried to run from being Asian — I purposely avoided having Asian friends, didn’t want people to associate me with certain stereotypes, etc. It was a big mess in my head and I wish I hadn’t done that, but what can ya do.

Fast forward a few years later, and I’ve finally realized the importance of being friends with ATs who understand being raised in a different culture. My closest Asian friend happens to be an Asian AT with immigrant parents like me, and the other day he brought up the “immigrant mentality”, and that was when I realized — oh, this matters. It felt great that I didn’t have to explain certain cultural components of my life to him, he just knew. I was definitely living in denial though, and I can’t even say it was accidental — there’s always been a part of me that purposely avoided facing the fact that I was limiting myself out of fear. But yes. It matters to have a support system made up of some people who look like you. At least for me.

This past week, I met an AT I’ve looked up to for his drive and desire to make his own path as an Asian AT — and he proceeded to invite me to a small Filipino-American ATs meet up, which was very kind. Anyway, a group of 5–6 of us hung out for quite a few hours, and it was truly the greatest way to kick off my week. I mean, we didn’t directly discuss being Asian — but we at least made jokes about Jo Koy, about our parents wanting us to go into the medical field but not fully approving of athletic training, and how to get into leadership/DEI committees with advice from a more experienced Asian AT (sidenote, I’ve decided that calling people “more experienced” is much better than saying “older”, because now that people can call me an “older AT”, I…get it).

Now I can’t really speak from anything other than a specifically Asian-American lens, so I always try my best to explain just my experience and leave it open for people who would consider themselves non-American by nationality. Here’s the other thing — there are a multitude of ways to be Asian — with a plethora of unique ethnicities, the possibility to be adopted or mixed, etc. So when it comes to discussions about diversity, you have to understand that one person’s view isn’t every person’s view. Mine, as I’ve said before, is very specifically a Chinese-American daughter of immigrants raised in the Northeast US with 2 sisters who all really embodied the “hyphen” mentality. Very different from…well, a lot of people.

And so that’s why I walked around convention all week just…figuring out — do I say hi to other ATs simply because they are Asian to start to build that network? Or do I just try and be a normal person, I thought. I sort of regret that I didn’t just put myself out there more, but I’m still figuring out who I want to be in this space, so it’ll all be fine. I was just excited to see other Asian ATs working in clinical settings, other Asian PhD students and then Asian professors in the sports medicine world (for me, at least, it’s felt pretty rare, especially compared to other fields).

I don’t really want to discuss the ins and outs of being an Asian AT right now because there’s just so much. But, it confirmed my desire that I want to put out an official, university IRB-approved survey about being an Asian AT because it is very important in this field to feel like you are seen. A lot of being an AT is working alone, working with rather difficult people where stereotypes and perceptions and words matter, and it’s always nice to know that you’re not alone. I really do hope that I can do work in this field — it will not be my main research but I will put in the work to get this stuff done, mark my words.

I’m still working on trying to get involved with EDAC as soon as I can, and trying to network my best — but to all the Asian ATs and sports medicine scientists, professors, and physicians — thank you for paving the way for me.

One of my favorite parts of this conference was getting to meet researchers who are in places I want to be in the future — people who are role models and have the potential to be mentors and even friends. Being in the same room as people who are absolute leaders and innovators in sports medicine research was inspiring, but it was also just fun. Which is sometimes all you can ask for. I attended the distinguished scholars award event and loved hearing their journeys and how they found their footing in the world. I especially loved how they brought up their support systems, and almost emphasized that above all else.

I attended a grant writing workshop and got really great advice from a room of people who apparently collectively have earned > $25 million in grant money (WOW). I mean, we all know our science is important — but making other people see it too is the key, which means that confidence that our science is important is the first step. Which I struggle with, for sure. I think to myself, aren’t there bigger problems in the world? Yes, but there are a lot of problems…and we always need more solutions! That was an awesome workshop.

I introduced myself to quite a few PhD students and researchers/professors I recognized from Twitter — always a weird experience, but I was really glad I did it. There were even times someone tried to introduce me to someone else and I said “oh, I know you from Twitter!” — kinda funny. But it was great — I mean, I got valuable advice from someone about making sure I take time to take care of myself, because it’ll only get harder. And then multiple people offered an open line of communication if I ever needed help or advice, which I certainly will take them up on.

The best part was also not necessarily having to ask for advice — mostly because I don’t really know what to even ask about. I’ve always struggled with the idea that I don’t know what I don’t know, so sometimes you just need a little bit of an opening to start your line of questioning.

I’m starting to recognize that the PhD journey is about more than just the science — it’s the community, the support, the teamwork. I used the term “recognize” because I could always see it, but I couldn’t fully grasp it until it was placed right in front of me. Most people I met weren’t in my direct line of research, but that didn’t matter, because it’s likely that they’ll know someone who is and help me make that connection if/when I ask for help.

Honestly, I don’t really know how to properly express my gratefulness. It’s weird to have to wrestle with all these positive, joyful feelings (not that I’m a truly negative person, but I tend to expect the worst and prepare for the worst, so…). And for the first time in awhile, I can see that my future is wide open if I work hard and get better, maintain my rather child-like and borderline annoying curiosity, continue to network, and most importantly, rely on my support system.

Alright, obviously I just talked about networking, but I’m going to talk about it again more in a friendship-y sense. For someone who has always struggled to make friends easily (like…good friends, not just acquaintances), I found myself making friends with ATs living clear across the country in the past 2 years. I mean, personally I think that my sense of humor and my inability to stop talking (hello, ADHD diagnosis that came many years too late), among other things, are super fun, but I don’t think it’s for everyone, and that’s okay too. Anyway, the point is that I’m kind of weird and strange (and I finally like it about myself), so getting to meet people who not only expect the weirdness, but almost require it, was one of the best parts of my week.

Friendship isn’t always about talking to each other 24/7, right? It’s just knowing that you can come together at any point in time and have a conversation and not feel like you’re bothering them. I think. And that’s what this conference proved for me. Truthfully, I have always let people come to me because I’m scared to reach out myself — not because I doubt their skills, but because I have doubted my importance in their life. Surely there will be times my doubts are correct, but I’d always rather know if someone feels that way about me.

For the first time in awhile I felt really heard and appreciated, which was wonderful! Thank you to all my friends who hung out with me all week, and I can’t wait to see you all again as soon as humanly possible.

This year at NATA I presented a poster — I do wish we could have done a real poster presentation with boards and all, but I also really enjoyed making my virtual poster, which you can see here. It was so pretty and rainbow and I had a lot of fun! I also moderated a session and had to write the bio for the person I was introducing — and that was interesting because I was amazed at how much this person has done and hopeful that one day I could be on that level, but also very confused as to how little old me could ever make that happen. Anyway, those were 2 bigger moments for me in terms of involvement.

What’s next though? I definitely want to continue submitting abstracts to conferences, and I certainly do hope to do an oral presentation next year — I attended 2 lower extremity oral presentation sessions, which equated to hearing about 16–20 presentations of very recent research, and there was not a single one about the foot! It was all knee and ankle. Which, by the way, is completely fine because I always love to hear about that stuff, but I definitely want to nudge the door open for more foot research. I would also like to submit stuff for NSCA and ACSM because interdisciplinary stuff is so important.

I also have thoughts about Learning Labs, and even if they do not make it to NATA, I would love to try submitting for VATA or MAATA. Of course I want practice (especially on all the dad jokes I’m thinking of), but I also want to talk to people as much as I can about foot health because I mean, it’s exciting!

I plan to continue to try and get on committees (as a volunteer at first, if that’s what it takes)— definitely EDAC, but also the NATA Foundation for research, and then my state/district committees in some kind of capacity, whatever that may be. I see the value in doing even one little thing, making one little change, because that is how we see progress. It’s not going to happen overnight, and expecting that leads to disappointment and ultimately, quitting, which isn’t very cool. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for me in this capacity.

other cool things I was happy about:

  • seeing some old classmates from 5 years ago and realizing that we have all grown up and appreciating everything we went through together
  • seeing powerpoint slides with all lowercase letters that were cool
  • seeing powerpoint slides that made me realize how fun presentations can be, in terms of colors and funny images
  • hearing speakers crack jokes and wondering how much self-restraint I’m going to have to exercise when I present one day
  • “accidentally” suggesting an AT comedy open mic night next year to friends and them not laughing at me but actually being kind of supportive
  • getting a compliment on my vivobarefoot dress shoes — ha! I told you minimalist shoes could be fashionable
  • possibly organizing meetups for AT friends in Virginia/neighboring states in the near future

things I’m inspired to do:

  • figure out how to sweat less, that’d be cool (literally, HA!)
  • take a headshot, don’t ask me how I didn’t do one all week wearing business casual clothes surrounded by hundreds of people
  • do a lot more research breakdown posts on social media to practice for journal clubs
  • write an AT-related comedy set, I’m sorry, I guess this is just part of who I am now
  • continue to dive deeper into stats because it’s a huge weakness and also one of the most important things I need to learn
  • reach out to all the awesome people I met
  • make business cards with a headshot and QR code
  • make powerpoint slides specific to UVA/my name at the bottom
  • …finish my first-year research project, I’m getting there, one more push!

Sidenote, how have I been dehydrated for the entire conference (well, I have my suspicions, but we don’t need to talk about it), and how did I take so many steps per day if the majority of the event is just sitting in chairs?? And, how did time fly by so quickly? I’m definitely not ready for real life again in some ways, but I’m excited to continue processing the lessons I learned this week and using it to fuel my research and encourage me to follow my passions as so many others have before me.

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Jen Xu

Jen Xu

Athletic trainer, coffee lover, looking for a hobby I don’t have time for. I write about fitness, mental health, being Asian-American, and personal growth.