Interview with Joe Przytula, ATC

Joe is the athletic trainer at Elizabeth High School in Elizabeth New Jersey. He works in the real world, with growing developing kids. He is a frequent contributor to the blog. Joe is someone that really admire for his professional approach and constant desire for self improvement.

What are most essential requirements for a successful conditioning program?
As an athletic trainer, the greatest gift you can give an athlete is to injury proof them as much as possible. It's impossible for the high school ATC to screen every athlete, but we have the advantage of watching the athlete in training and competition. Many acute & chronic injuries have what I would call "precursors"- biomechanical markers that could lead to joint trauma. The tricky thing is they could be one inch or several feet from the joint in question. Hunt them down like a detective and prescribe remedial work.

The second would be to make it fun. Is their work productive or are you just making them tired? Keep making the little changes that keep them wondering what you're going to do next. Come up with little games when it's appropriate-high school athletes love competition. Remember, laughter is great for the core!

What are the most common mistakes in conditioning?
Too much emphasis on absolute strength. About 10 years ago, there was a great research article in the NSCA journal that I thought went unnoticed. It looked at the 1RM averages for the squat, bench, and power clean for NCAA football teams that went to bowl games. They found that the strongest teams weren't necessarily the most successful. There seemed to be a baseline that was needed to play at that level, but going beyond that didn't improve team success. I think in this age when the abuse of strength enhancing drugs is rampant, athletes need to know that more is not always better.

What is “functional training” from your point of view?
Multijoint, multi-directional, multi-plane, multi-speed, Proprioceptively enhanced exercise & program design. It's OK to emphasize one single plane, as long as the environment is created to coax the body into stabilizing in all three. This paradigm stays the same for your joint mobilization & soft tissue techniques. When appropriate, use the integrated isolation concept to take advantage of all that good stuff coming from gravity & the ground.

What do you do to make your training more functional?
Whenever possible, I'll design rehab "circuits" that meet the energy system demands of the sport. The circuit will emphasize strength, agility, balance, flexibility, & power. I find this is a good way to rehabilitate small groups of athletes at the same time. I integrate functional manual therapy into the circuit.

We are fortunate to have a pool in our school. I think it's a great modality because it allows me to work with different percentages of body weight early on in the healing process. In my experience, it is the BEST way to reduce edema and preserve function in the early stages of ankle & knee injuries.

How important is specificity?
On the high school level, improving general athleticism is more important. As I get older, injury rehab looks more & more like remedial physical education.

What aspect of conditioning athletes is most difficult and how have you tried to address it?
The injured athlete must understand they cannot take a passive role in the rehabilitation process. All too often they look for the magic bullet that leads to disappointment. They lie there and expect the athletic trainer to do all the work to make them better. I am quick to empower them by telling them the truth- that I have never healed anyone. All a good ATC can do is point out the boulders that inhibit healing so they can push them out of the way.

With the plethora of information available how can you determine what is best?
Try to stay away from the internet, and focus on the peer reviewed journals. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, The Journal of Arthroscopic & Related Surgery, and the Journal of Electromyography & Kinesiology are good examples.

Where do you stand on nature versus nurture? How much difference can training make?
A few years ago I was working with a wheelchair bound student with MS who's goal was to be able to turn a doorknob and open up a door by their self. It took a few months, but we did it. Don't short change nurture.

What is the sure sign that a self proclaimed conditioning guru is not a good source of advice?
Unwilling to put their stuff through the scientific method & peer review process. In fact, they get very insulted that you even suggested it.

What do you differently with the female athlete in terms of conditioning?
More time must be spent in the strength end of the spectrum. It's easier said then done, because in some countries there is still a strong cultural bias against women in sports.

What has been the biggest innovation in training that you have seen during the course of your career and where is the biggest room for innovation in training athletes?
On the evaluation end of it. The 3D computerized cinematography equipment and the Dartfish stuff are giving us great information about the human body in motion.

What's the biggest issue in training athletes today?
Athletes today have more distractions than we had. It's an argument just to get an athlete to take off their I Pod during rehab. The local club coach or fitness guru telling them everything you're doing is wrong.

Who has been a role model in your career and why?
Dick Malacrae, the former head ATC at Princeton., and Vern Gambetta. Dick was the 1992 winner of the Pinky Newell Award, the most prestigious honor an athletic trainer can receive. I was fortunate to hear his acceptance speech. It's 14 years old now, and I'll still take it out every once in a while and read it to keep me focused.

That is around the same time I met Vern at our state NSCA meeting. Before that I was just copying the treatment protocols of the latest gurus. I thought I was doing something wrong because they weren't working very well. After hearing Dick & Vern, I knew I had to start looking down different roads. It made me a more effective ATC, but also made things a lot harder. I realized I could no longer cookbook my approach.

What are the biggest professional challenges have you had to face?
For some reason, my functional approach is a tougher sell to the younger generation of coaches. Their education was technologically heavier than mine, and rely heavily on machines & computers.

What do you enjoy most about what you do? Dislike?
The multicultural environment where I work. I think I've learned just as much from them as they've learned from me. However, the hours I put in are brutal, and cause me to spend way too much time away from my family.

Did there come a time in your career where you were faced with a "fork in the road?" If so, do you ever revisit the decision you made or didn't make?
I made 12 grand a year at my first job out of college. I had to work a night job unloading trucks to make ends meet. I began taking courses at a local college, planning to switch careers. It was the women entering the profession that improved working conditions for the ATC. They required more family time, and demanded more pay for their time away from them. They refused to put up with the garbage we did.

What inspired you to get into the field you are in?
I started out as a business major. I would pass the training room every day to go to my swim class. It always looked hectic & crazy in there, in a fun way. There weren't many opportunities out there for ATC's, most high schools didn't even have one yet. The only thing I regret is not doing a double major and going on to get an MBA. I think it would have helped me. The money to do it just wasn't around in those days.

Is failure ever valuable?
Scott Berkun said it better than me: "If you plan correctly, you will be wrong many times during the design process, but through doing so, you will dramatically improve your chances of success."

Which changes now taking place in your field that should be encouraged, and which resisted?
The NATA becoming more politically active is creating more job opportunities for athletic trainers, which indirectly has improved working conditions by creating more competition for the ATC.

On the negative side, I have had articles passed on to me where MD's are referring patients out to personal trainers for orthopedic rehabilitation.


At 9/22/06, 11:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Always enjoy Joe P's comments.

" About 10 years ago, there was a great research article in the NSCA journal that I thought went unnoticed. They found that the strongest teams weren't necessarily the most successful. There seemed to be a baseline that was needed to play at that level, but going beyond that didn't improve team success. "

I read that and thought it to be one of the most important articles I had ever read with respect to the S & C field. Nobody though seemd to really pay attention. The programs I have ever worked at, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Florida all emphasized absolute strength. We were successful in spite of the program. Good athleticism is what I saw carried our teams... not strength.

At 9/22/06, 1:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for picking Joe for the interview.


I wish you in my hometown. It would be a lot of fun working with you.


At 9/23/06, 8:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you remember the name of the article in the NSCA Journal?

At 9/27/06, 9:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Great interview. Really liked your comments.

KM Lake Placid

At 9/29/06, 11:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I could not agree more on the fact that professional journals need to be read, analyzed, and considered more often than information over the internet. Thanks for stating that because many young strength coaches that I have interviewed do not even know the names of such journals.



Post a Comment

<< Home