The Healers in the Family

By Huy Nguyen

How Northeastern’s athletic trainers heal their athletes and become part of the family along the way.

A sprain. A tape job. A tear. A rehab session. There are a variety of reasons an athlete enters the Michael and Dr. Deborah Gries Center for Sports Medicine and Performance inside Cabot. And in the following days, weeks, months, or even years, athletes come out healed and ready for peak performance. That is the result of the athlete’s work with the athletic trainers, the people behind the magical healing process, which includes more than just putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Mike McKenney has been the Director of Sports Medicine and an athletic trainer at Northeastern since 2013, and he currently works with the men’s and women’s cross country and track and field teams. He developed a strong interest in researching athletic performance in college, investigating the effects of consuming pickle juice while exercising as part of his master’s degree. He describes the time he spends with athletes as more than just the moment surrounding their injury.

“We are responsible for their medical care the day that athlete steps onto campus for the very first time,” McKenney said.

In fact, by the time an athlete is hurt, the athletic trainers and athletes have already developed a strong and friendly relationship, one that has value outside of work. Jai Chopra, an athletic trainer at Northeastern since 2017 who currently works as the primary athletic trainer for the women’s basketball team and the coordinator of care for the men’s soccer team, describes the way McKenney interacted with his patients when he first took Chopra under his wing.

“The way he thinks, the way he talks to athletes, is just so progressive and patient friendly that I was almost taken aback,” Chopra recalled. “I was just so impressed by that.”

Nate Bocko, an athletic trainer at Northeastern since 2016 and the primary athletic trainer for the men’s basketball team, emphasizes that an athlete’s relationship with trainers differs from that of a typical doctor-patient relationship.

“By building their trust, we developed a really good kind of working, friendly yet professional relationship,” Bocko said. “It’s really awesome, and probably the most fulfilling part of my job.”

When an athlete is going through a mental or physical struggle, whether it be from an injury, a loss, or something outside of sports, trainers pay attention to how the athlete is feeling and the best way to approach them.

“An athlete is still coming through our doors and seeking resources from us,” McKenney explained. “Whether it’s the mental health side of things, how to better myself as a team captain, how to learn to be a leader, how to manage stress – we help a lot of people with those things above and beyond.”

For Chopra, treatment for athletes isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Every athlete he works with has different characteristics that make each of his treatment methods unique, and he shapes those methods when he becomes more familiar with each individual athlete.

“I’m with them pretty much every day on a typical season, and you start noticing and getting more information on their personalities and stuff,” Chopra described. “You learn how to treat them because you notice different subtleties and personalities and characteristics, which helps you gain information on, ‘What is this person going to respond to the best?'”

McKenney recognizes the vulnerability that some athletes may carry when they’re in a bad spot, especially when they’re injured.

“When someone gets hurt, that could be their worst moment,” McKenney said. “There’s a lot of growth that can occur emotionally and individually within a game, and being separated from that can be really damaging to people. We’re there to help bring them back to something that they deeply value and love.”

McKenney describes Northeastern’s rehabilitation center as a learner centered model, focusing on the educational aspect of the trainer-athlete relationship. While it may seem that their sole job is to rehabilitate injuries and improve performance, their day-to-day interactions are filled with educational guidance, which helps the athlete to grow to be self-sufficient while providing insight about how their body operates.

“The kind of holy grail of what we do is educating athletes about themselves, about how they can be very self-sufficient throughout their four or five years here,” Chopra explained. “Educating them on sleep, nutrition, and things like that helps you stay healthy.”

Bocko makes a point to dive into the aspects of life outside of practice and games, which may be affecting performance and overall health, from workout regimens and techniques to their posture in class. Teaching them to take care of themselves outside of sports, he believes, helps them develop the toolset to better themselves years after they’ve left Northeastern. And after spending countless hours with their respective teams, the trainers have also grown to appreciate the athletes and teams they work with and the relationships they’ve garnered, highlighting many things that differentiate Northeastern from other schools.

“One thing about Northeastern compared to any other place I’ve seen is the engagement of the athletes and their sort of intrinsic motivation to be better,” Bocko said. 

For Chopra, the teams he’s worked with have provided him with a warm welcome and made his experiences at Northeastern unforgettable.

“They were so open to accepting me within their group,” Chopra recalled. “They didn’t see me as a staff member; they were just like ‘Hey, you’re going to be with us every day. We’re going to be great friends with you. We’re going to tell you everything.’ That was just a great feeling.”

Even when he was reassigned to the women’s basketball team mid-season, he was met with the same open arms.

“They were already in the thick of things, and they were just so welcoming.” Chopra said. “‘Jai’s a part of the group, he wants us to be successful. Let’s make sure he feels welcome.'”

While Chopra loves the energy of the team, they feel the same way about his presence. Junior guard Katie May credits her return to basketball following two surgeries to Chopra and his high spirits.

“Jai has become a friend; his kindness, joy, hard work and sense of humor make him someone everyone wants to be around,” May said. “He attracts positive energy because of the energy he brings to practice every day.”

While the trainers’ job is to educate, rehabilitate, and keep the athletes in tip-top shape to compete, the close relationship between the trainers and the athletes is what solidifies Northeastern’s sports teams into one big family. Chopra even has a loving nickname. 

“They were just like, ‘Jimmy Hoops,’ and it stuck,” Chopra laughed. “They’re just like your family, almost, you know? You have those weird quirks with them, like this nickname for this person, or this handshake with this person. That’s just what happens when you work in athletics and you see the same people every single day; you just become a big family.”