Championing athletic training: Meet John Ciecko III

March 22, 2024


By Dayne Hopkins

For eight years, John Ciecko III has been an active member of the Michigan Athletic Trainers’s Society (MATS), an organization dedicated to advancing athletic training knowledge throughout the state. For the past two years, he’s held the position of president and has been working to spread awareness about the importance of having access to an athletic trainer, which includes a goal of one day making sure that every high school in the state of Michigan has access to a dedicated AT in their respective schools.

A Michigan native growing up in the city of Warren, Ciecko completed his undergraduate education at Albion College and then went on to get his first master’s degree at California University of Pennsylvania (known today as Pennsylvania Western University, California). Following graduate school, he got a position with Oakland University where he spent four years as an assistant athletic trainer.

Looking to grow in his career, Ciecko ended up leaving OU and stepped out of Division 1 athletics to make the move into the secondary school setting, securing a position as the head athletic trainer at Bloomfield Hills High School. Over his eleven-year stay at Bloomfield Hills, he managed a student-athlete population of over 1,200 and also managed services for three area middle schools. He loved watching the program at Bloomfield grow and hopes other schools can follow suit if and when resources allow.

Ciecko later went back and got an MBA, focusing on healthcare management, and at the time, got married and also had two kids of his own. He enjoys the work he does but notes the importance of having a healthy work-life balance, something he didn’t learn until much later in his career. 

From Education to Corporate

Today, he works in the corporate world as a musculoskeletal health expert and a health and well-being specialist with Personify Health. Ciecko notes that moving from education into the corporate space is both interesting and fun – “the memes about working in corporate are true, said Ciecko. “You really do hear phrases like ‘Let’s circle back’ or ‘I’ll ping you”. One of the things he enjoys most about working in the corporate space today is that the c-suite managers are more familiar with athletic training and just 15 years ago, that knowledge wasn’t as prevalent in that environment.

Ciecko regularly meets with corporate executives and frontline workers to make sure they’re able to do their jobs successfully and safely by sharing information about various topics including injury prevention. He noted that people today seem to care about the health information he’s providing in the corporate space now that they better understand the impact it has.

“We’re no longer the individuals that put tape on or hand out bandaids, said Ciecko. We are true healthcare providers and professionals”.

Proud moments

When reflecting back on his career, Ciecko stated that one of his most memorable moments was working with a semi-professional soccer team, and over the course of 15 years, they had won 4 national championships. He loved seeing everyone enjoy the feeling of a team experiencing success together.

“The truly memorable moments of my career are when everybody gets involved to achieve a goal and gets to experience that feeling together”, said Ciecko. 

While being technically proficient as an athletic trainer is important, Ciecko also wants people to know that soft skills such as communication and being able to connect with patients and clients are extremely important to be successful in the field. He notes that the difference between good athletic trainers and great ones comes down to being an active listener, being empathetic, and having humility.

Ciecko has worked with several amazing doctors and athletic trainers but has witnessed individuals lacking those soft skills in practice and that can affect patient care. “We deal with some catastrophic injuries and if you can’t be empathic in those times, it’s hard to help a person, said Ciecko. They won’t care that you have a high level of expertise if you can’t connect with them, making it hard to effectively treat”. 

Knowing the importance of these skills, Ciecko has put a lot of time into being an active listener and practicing empathy when working with his athletes and clients. 

Looking ahead

“One of the biggest challenges in athletic training, since I’ve been in the field, is the increased requirement for more education”, said Ciecko. However, he believes that the more extensive training over the years has helped the general public respect the position more as a healthcare professional, while also adding to the toolbox of skills that ATs have access to.

Ciecko made it clear that being an athletic trainer is, at times, a rigorous career, so it’s also important to practice self-care to stay sharp in the field. He maintains his health and well-being by following the quote, “Treat myself like somebody I am responsible for”. He knows that neglecting your own physical and mental health can quickly lead to other struggles and is an advocate for exercise, reading, and the occasional Jiu-Jitsu competition, something he picked up over the past year to stay fit. 

Ciecko mentioned that he had some great guidance over the years as he entered his career field, and pointed to Tim Koberna, head athletic trainer at Hope College, as one of his biggest mentors. Ciecko looked up to Tim early on and appreciated his work ethic for both, his career and family. He valued that Tim was able to give 100% in both places.

“He’s an awesome individual, said Ciecko. He has a lot of humility and is great at being empathic.” 

When asked if he could rewind and change anything about this career path, Ciecko said that he’d still be on the same career path, but he’s noticed that a lot of the younger generation today are more loyal to themselves and he admires that. He mentioned that he probably would’ve made a few different career moves earlier on and would’ve liked to focus a bit more on himself, but was always very loyal to the organizations he worked for. Ultimately, he loves the work that he does though.

“I need a dynamic environment to work in where people are tossing hand grenades at me every minute, said Ciecko. Athletic training is that type of environment.”

National Athletic Training Month

With March in full swing and National Athletic Training Month taking off, Ciecko wants to continue spreading awareness to the public about the extent of educational standards athletic trainers are held to and what it takes to stay licensed so that appreciation for the profession continues to build. 

He also hopes to see more ATs in more schools around the state, mentioning that currently, we’re sitting at about 33% of schools having a full-time AT and about 60% of student-athletes have access to an AT. Ciecko wants to see that number grow. 

He encourages people to get involved in spreading awareness about the importance of athletic training and noted that those interested in taking part can reach out through the MATS website. The U-M Concussion Center also caught up with Ciecko in a recent podcast where he talks more about athletic training and provides some great advice to clinicians on working with patients. That podcast can be found here.