Timothy Belin, Campus Carrier asst. sports editor
As one of Berry’s assistant athletic trainers, Jessica Howard is responsible for the Vikings softball and women’s soccer teams. But more than just providing medical care for the players, Howard looks to foster meaningful relationships with both athletes and student workers as she helps them grow as individuals.
Howard’s role at Berry is her first job out of graduate school, and she said the student work program and ability to really get to know the players were important factors in her decision to join.
“I think that that aspect really drew me, that I get to spend the time building relationships with my athletes and my students, pouring into them to become better people and mature,” Howard said. “It’s such a transitional time from your freshman year to senior year, there’s a lot of changes that are happening in your life, so not just the medical side of things, but being able to see students being successful and grow as people is exciting, is what drew me to Berry.”
These relationships then help her when it comes time to assess fitness, as they give her a better understanding of each player.
“The coolest part of athletic training is you get to know your patients before they’re injured,” Howard said. “Doctor offices, they come when they’re hurt, but you have no idea what they’re like, what their pain tolerance is, what their demeanor is before getting injured. It’s cool that as an athletic trainer you get to build relationships and I know them when they’re healthy and when they’re playing their sport, and then seeing them through an injury all the way back to when they’re on the field and they’re being successful, so it’s kind of a unique perspective of being able to have those relationships and knowing.”
Her relationships with the players allow her to provide help as student-athletes deal with non-sport-related matters as well.
“Sometimes I mentor and I’m advising them on life things,” Howard said. “When you spend more time with them they start coming to you with their boyfriend problems, their girl drama, or a lot of them end up coming about their coaches. They’re frustrated about this, their teammates, and I’m kind of an outside source: I don’t live with you, I’m not on your team, I’m not your coach who’s going to affect your playing time.”
Junior Kirbi Mathews, a midfielder on the soccer team, said that that is an important side to her and her teammates’ relationship with Howard.
“She’s more than our athletic trainer; she is someone we can go to for those kinds of things as well,” Mathews said. “I think it really shows how much we can trust her, and how she builds that trust with us so that we have a bigger bond than just student and trainer.”
As a former college athlete herself at the University of North Georgia, Howard also knows how to best provide support when players get injured, according to Mathews, who suffered two sprained ankles last season.
“Immediately after we got back she was there and was willing to care for me and wanted to help me get back on the field as soon as possible,” Mathews said. “She walked through the injury process with me and was alongside me, because she’s been injured before and knows what it’s like to not be able to play and wants us to get back out there as soon as possible. But she wants us to be healthy too, so she keeps that in mind.”
When soccer is out of season, Mathews works for the Sports Medicine department, and she said that Howard’s approach to relationships is the same with her student workers as it is with athletes.
“Obviously she is my boss, but I guess one of my friends too,” Mathews said. “She’s a really good mentor as well. She tries to make me a better person, so it’s not just the work aspect. She wants to teach me new things on the job of just how to be better at little things, but she also wants to see me grow as a person, which I think is big.”
Another Sports Medicine employee, sophomore Bohdi Young, said Howard’s approach with her student workers has seen her become more than a boss for him as well.
“At first, I was honestly kind of intimidated by her, but after I got to know her she really just started to pour into me and I grew more comfortable with her,” Young said. “I was able to share more of my heart with her, so it’s not just a work relationship, it’s more of a friendship now. It’s someone I can trust to just talk me through life and give me good advice.”
Howard said establishing that relationship is important because it creates a foundation of trust with her workers.
“I would say that a lot of them I develop good friendships with,” Howard said. “I’m their boss and I end up telling them what to do, but we have a term called destroying hierarchy, where I want them to feel comfortable with me to where they can talk about life stuff, where they can feel comfortable trusting me with information.”
That atmosphere is vital in allowing the student workers to speak up without fear when necessary, according to Howard.
“I want them to be able to give their opinion if I’m doing something well,” Howard said. “I don’t want to be the only one in charge of figuring out the best system, figuring out what this person needs. I want their opinions and their perspective, because they do have a different perspective than I do and they’re coming from a different angle. I guess they don’t all end up being good friends, but I like to build up a good amount of trust where it’s a good working relationship, but also if they did need something they would feel comfortable reaching out to me for outside of work stuff.”
In the end, the personal connections are what is most important to Howard.
“I think the coolest part about athletic training is it’s heavy in medicine, but it’s also heavy in relationships with people and knowing that I get to spend a lot of time with athletes and students and make an impact on them, but they also make an impact on me,” Howard said.