Despite being around the University of South Carolina football program for 14 years, Clint Haggard jokes that he couldn’t tell you which jersey number belongs to which player. What he can do is tell you which player is which by the way they walk.
“That’s where the art of learning the guys and getting to know them really plays into it,” says Clint, who is head athletic trainer for the Gamecocks. “You learn their nuances.”
The healing arts and modern science meet on the sidelines as athletic trainers strive to keep athletes healthy and mend the injured and sick. Trainers are a hub in a sports medicine operation that includes physicians and even massage therapists. They also coordinate with sports performance staff and nutritionists as part of a behind-the-scenes team.
The Gamecocks have 15 full-time athletic trainers across the athletic department. An additional nine graduate students are certified athletic trainers. Behind them are student assistants who are studying for graduate degrees in athletic training. They are divvied up among the teams and overseen by John Kasik, the school’s senior associate athletic director for sports medicine.
“It’s the athletic trainer’s job to get the athlete back out on the field as quickly and safely as possible,” John says. A former athletic trainer in the National Football League and at Stanford University, he says athletic trainers assess athletes similar to the way nurses and physician’s assistants gather front-line information at a doctor’s office. “Athletic trainers are really good at narrowing down the thousand things that could be going on.”
Sometimes a banged-up player might just need a little rest. Other times, they might be referred to any of the dozens of specialist physicians who work with the Gamecocks. Since different athletes feel differently and heal differently, athletic trainers need to understand the “who” as well as the “what.”
“The benefit of athletic training, especially at the collegiate level, is that we see them every day,” says Craig Oates, who is the women’s basketball athletic trainer. “We get to know them as people. We learn their personalities. They have buy-in because we’ve been through a lot of situations together.”
Craig went to the University of North Carolina and spent time as the junior varsity basketball manager for the Tar Heels but with plans to become an emergency room physician. Like a lot of pre-med hopefuls, organic chemistry class and the potential for hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt convinced him to look for alternatives.
“My mom came up with some great advice,” he says. “She said, ‘You’ve loved sports all your life. If you love medicine and love sports, try to find a way to merge the two.’”
Graduate work in athletic training took Craig to the University of Delaware and eventually to South Carolina, where he’s in his fourth season with the Gamecocks. He works closely with Molly Binetti, the women’s basketball sports performance coach. Molly has an exercise physiology degree and a master’s degree in kinesiology. Her certification is in strength and conditioning, but she says her job title is more accurate.
“I get to touch a bunch of areas,” she says. “I probably spend more time with our athletes than any other member of our staff. We work on life skills — how to think for themselves, how to solve problems, how to navigate the mental and emotional stress of having the spotlight on you.”
Trust and transparency become crucial because what a basketball player tells Molly or a football player tells Clint may need to be shared with other staff so that the assistance matches the situation. Molly says athletic trainers and strength coaches need to be “best friends” because there’s so much information overlap.
“It’s a constant, open line of communication. There are no egos involved,” she says. It helps that she gets to focus on a specific team. “One thing we do so much better at South Carolina compared to other universities is the relationship building.”
Clint says the director of football nutrition, Kristin Coggin, may let him know if a player doesn’t look well or has a poor appetite at breakfast. Clint, in turn, keeps notes on every player’s health and speaks daily with Dr. Jeffrey Guy, a football team physician.
A tour of the football complex begins in the expansive weight room. Clint points out the training room on the other side of glass walls, which allows him to see the players working out. Inside the training room, his office is in the corner of a large, open workspace ringed with meeting rooms and places where doctors can conduct visits.
The training room is filled with the latest high-tech tubs, tables, pools, and pods. How about a sensory-deprivation chamber where you can nap weightlessly in salt water? Like the weight room, it is visible on the practice field through another windowed wall.
The locker room is also connected to the training room. Right down the hall is the cafe where players take their breakfast and lunch most days. Kristin has three other dietitians, a performance nutrition coordinator, and a chef on her staff helping the Gamecocks learn how to eat for performance — and eat for life.
“We see them every morning when they eat breakfast and every evening when they eat dinner,” she says. “We teach them what a balanced plate looks like. We’re teaching them how to cook.”
Offensive and defensive linemen often need to bulk up well over 300 pounds to endure the rigors of Southeastern Conference football. Some players come from households with limited food budgets and/or were used to skipping breakfast and avoiding vegetables. Kristin says breakfast and lunch are mandatory at the facility and crucial to performance since the team practices in the morning.
“We’re meeting them where they are — what kinds of things they like, what they don’t like,” she says. “We’re trying to get them bought into trying new things. We remind them they came to college to grow.”
Hot proteins, healthy carbs, and a salad bar are available every day. They can also go to the Dodie Dining Hall where Ramone Dickerson, executive performance chef of athletics, makes performance-based meals daily. Football players have meal money available through phone apps that they can use for groceries or dinner. They may also fix a plate from the hot bar for later or make a burrito or other hand-held meal. Proper hydration is also preached. Additional dietitians and a chef cover the other Gamecock squads, with an athletic dining hall on campus.
Kristin was a rower at the University of Tennessee, where she earned a degree in nutrition. With the Gamecocks since 2017, she says her profession is “growing by the minute.” She’s a member of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association, which has 825 sports dietitian members working full time across the country.
Clint had his first exposure to athletic trainers when he was injured as a high school athlete. He went to the University of Georgia and University of Alabama for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, respectively. He leads a group of six athletic trainers assigned to football — four full-time and two graduate assistants.
“When players get hurt, they’re at their lowest point. You can help them make it back to where they’re scoring touchdowns,” Clint says. “You see these kids as freshmen and now they have kids and families. Things like that are cool, to develop those relationships.”
Many injuries require more than a bag of ice or a few yards of athletic tape. While athletic trainers provide day-to-day physical therapy as part of their jobs, some players face a more complicated road back. Athletes who have undergone surgery require a plan to cover the length of their rehabilitation. Football players can feel isolated when an injury prevents them from joining their teammates on the field, so trainers encourage them to continue to spend time in group meetings and to treat their rehab sessions with the same mentality as a full-scale practice.
One could also wonder about the mental health of the athletic trainers, given the hours they put in. Craig says if women’s basketball has an 8 a.m. workout, he’s at the facility by 6:30. On game nights, he might not leave until 11 p.m. “It just flies by,” he says of the long days.
The football coaches Clint has worked with — Steve Spurrier, Will Muschamp and Shane Beamer — have all been good about letting staff members bring their families around the team. Clint has a son and a daughter, and while he’s on call 24 hours a day, he also makes time to attend their activities.
“They’ve been fortunate growing up here,” Clint says of his children. “Also, my wife, Erin, is fantastic. There are a lot of hours. Everybody sees Saturday, but there’s a lot that goes into Saturday.”
Gamecocks coaches are not the bosses of the athletic trainers and don’t have a say in medical decisions, staffers say. It’s a policy they say is supported by Ray Tanner, the school’s athletic director and former baseball coach.
“You have to do that to avoid any conflicts of interest,” John says. “You work with the coaches with respect to letting them know what the athletes can and can’t do in practices and games. If we tell them a player isn’t playing, they’re not playing.”
Most athletic trainers have master’s degrees and a professional certification. Clint says he and athletic trainers at rival SEC schools stay in touch and share best practices. They prefer the full term “athletic trainer” to differentiate from personal trainers, corporate trainers, horse trainers, and all the other various trainers out there.
Certified athletic trainers must take continuing education classes and may also have state requirements to follow. The National Athletic Trainers Association has more than 45,000 members, and the value of athletic trainers is being recognized in other environments.
“Athletic trainers are working in the military now because it helps reduce downtime,” John says. “Athletic trainers also work in industrial settings. It cuts down on workers’ comp and reduces the amount of money the company has to spend to get people treated and back working.”
John admits sports will be played with or without athletic trainers. Nonetheless, he says parents are coming around to the value of having athletic trainers available in youth sports.
“The coaches can roll the ball out onto the field and go. They’ve been doing it for 100 years,” John says. “Athletic trainers are right there. They’re on the spot. They know what to do and they’re trained. Athletic trainers help make it better.”
Whether it’s a Band-Aid for a boo-boo, hydration advice for a cramp-prone receiver, or a rehab schedule following major knee surgery, the team behind the teams knows the steps that every athlete takes.
Advice for Teen Athletes
We asked Kristin what high school and travel ball athletes should consider concerning nutrition. Here are some of her thoughts:
• “Eat on a schedule.” You should eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day, preferably around the same time.
• “Protein within 30 minutes.” Eat some protein within 30 minutes after a practice or workout and have a full meal no later than two hours afterward.
• “Taste the rainbow.” Make sure you have a balanced plate for meals, which includes a colorful assortment of vegetables/fruits.
• “Make sure you also have snacks.” Since you don’t know what your day may bring, you’re not too old to have a lunchbox containing some healthy options for between meals.
• “Hydration is huge.” The Gamecocks are currently told they need to drink one ounce per pound of body weight per day as a baseline. Depending on their activity level and the weather, they also discuss electrolytes and increased fluid needs.