On the training table with Emily Dorman

Emily Dorman, the head athletic trainer at Penn Athletics, supervises the overall health care of roughly 1,000 student-athletes at Penn.

Emily Dorman, head athletic trainer at Penn Athletics, grew up watching football with her dad and rooting for the Jim Kelly/Thurman Thomas/Bruce Smith-led Buffalo Bills, who made an unprecedented four consecutive trips to the Super Bowl—and lost them all.

She remembers watching as players would inevitably get hurt, and trainers would rush to their side and give them comfort and aid.

Always interested in science and medicine, Dorman’s original plan was to attend medical school. But the more she learned about the different aspects of medicine, she realized there was a similar aspect to orthopedics in athletic training. She studied athletic training while an undergrad at High Point University, and received her master’s degree in kinesiology from Temple University in 2007. She joined Penn Athletics in 2008. 

“The thing that I love about my job is I get to see the student-athletes every day,” she says. “If I were a physician, there are a lot of great things about that, but they only see their patients when they’re hurt, and they may see them once, or once every four-to-six weeks. There’s something really satisfying about helping someone on a day-to-day basis and watching them work very, very hard to get better. There’s a lot of pride in watching someone overcome something so big and then having them step back out on the field.”

Penn Today sat down with Dorman inside Franklin Field to talk about her job responsibilities, injury prevention, returning to play, concussions, and what makes Penn’s athletic training program unique.

What are some of your job responsibilities?

We have roughly a thousand student-athletes in Athletics, and my job is to oversee the overall health care of all of those athletes. We work on prevention, evaluation, treatment, and rehabilitation of athletic injuries. I have a staff of nine, soon to be 10, and they, under my direction, implement our health care plan for all of our student-athletes.  

Is there a sport-specific health care plan or is it more general?

There are aspects that will vary by sport. Each staff member has assigned teams that they work with, usually a fall and a spring sport. There are some folks that will have a winter and a spring sport, or a fall and a winter sport. But yes, the prevention and treatment aspects for football may differ from, say, women’s basketball, but the overarching goal of everything we do is to work on preventing athletic injuries.

Obviously, we know we can’t prevent everything. It is sports. Injuries do happen. We work to evaluate, treat, and rehab all of our student-athletes and get them back in the quickest but safest way possible. We have a team of physicians that are located in Weightman Hall so we’re extremely lucky. It’s a unique situation in college athletics. Most people will have the physicians come to the athletic training room, or they have to send the athletes to a hospital or doctor’s office across town. We have physicians here Monday through Friday to see our student-athletes, so we have a really close, amazing relationship with our team physicians. They’re there to help us and give us guidance. It really helps us provide the best possible health care for our student-athletes. 

Are the team physicians doctors at the Perelman School of Medicine?

Yes, it’s the Penn Sports Medicine Center. It’s located in Weightman Hall. Our head team physician, Dr. Brian Sennett, who’s the chief of sports medicine for Penn Medicine, is located there. There are a handful of other physicians that work with our student-athletes as well.

You mentioned injury prevention. How do you go about trying to prevent injuries?

When a student athlete comes in, the first piece is we take a pretty long assessment of their health history, whether it’s orthopedic- or non-orthopedic-related issues. If we know someone coming in has, for example, a history of ankle sprain, there are preventative rehab exercises we can provide. We can do an assessment of that area of the body, take a look, and see if there are any weaknesses that we may need to address that we could provide a prehab or a rehab for. We also have a system down in the weight room called SpartaTrac. It’s a force-plate base system that assigns a movement signature, and we can look at those variables and differences in force production. Based on which variables are high or low, we can look for indictors for a potential injury and assign specific corrective exercises to address those imbalances.

When we say we prevent injuries, we look at what the potential problems might be and how we can intervene on the front end to potentially prevent something on the back end. We also know that there are going to be situations where football is football. Someone may break an arm. There’s nothing I can do to prevent that, but we can treat them and get them back as quickly and safely as possible.

Is there one sport that seems to have more injuries than the others?

Football is always up there. But then you have certain sports, like wrestling, where it’s a contact sport and those guys are battling and things are just going to happen. Basketball is a long season. It kind of wears on those players at times, so you’ll see injuries with basketball. The contact sports, such as football, lacrosse, wrestling, tend to have more injuries than the non-contact sports.

Is there a sport that has a lot of injuries that people would be surprised about? I have heard that competitive cheerleading has a lot of injuries.

When I got to Penn, I had never worked with fencing before and I was surprised by how intense it is. There are a lot of overuse injuries. Once I learned more about the sport, it made a lot of sense, watching the biomechanics of how everything works.

I think sometimes you don’t realize that until you really get hands-on with a sport and you start to learn the sport and the rules, and how their bodies move when they’re in their activity. It really lends a lot of knowledge to how they may get hurt and what might be potential injuries. That ties into the prevention piece. I was surprised that a sport like fencing can have acute knee injuries. You can get hurt doing just about anything but that one surprised me.

How do you decide when someone is ready to return to play? Playing hurt is pretty common in sports.

Each situation is unique so we look at each individual on a case-by-case basis. One of the things that I look for is to make sure that they have enough protective strength to be able to protect themselves. Sometimes it’s working with Dr. Sennett and he gives us those guidelines. Sometimes it’s activity modification. Each person handles pain differently. Each person handles their recovery differently. You may have two athletes with ankle sprains and they may be on completely different timelines because each person is different, and the way their body heals is different, the way they interpret pain is different. I would be a very rich person if I had that magic formula or magic equation. Coaches always love for us to be able to put a time frame on things, but it’s just how each person responds to the injury that they have.

How do you respond to and treat concussions?

We’re usually the front line of concussion care. If we are there and see it, obviously we are pulling that person immediately from practice or a game. We’re doing an evaluation and we’re setting them up to see a physician. Here at the University of Pennsylvania, no athletic trainer is ever allowed to clear someone to return from a concussion; a physician has to do that. Sometimes athletes don’t realize they have a concussion until they get home later that night and they’re like, ‘I just don’t feel right,’ and they tell us the next day. We do an evaluation as soon as we can and set them up to see the physician. We’re really that front line. Our job is to protect them so we take that very seriously. Anything that could potentially be a concussion, we have checked out by a physician.