Dan Matthiesen, E.M., C., starts educating student-athletes on the finer points of equipment safety early in their careers at the University of California, Berkeley. In fact, his conversations with student-athletes begin at the recruiting stage. When recruits make official campus visits to Cal, Matthiesen will sit down with both prospect and parents to discuss equipment and safety. Communication between equipment manager and student-athletes at the beginning of their careers at Cal, and through the duration of their participation in its football program, is paramount.
“I spend 30 minutes with the student-athletes and their parents in a question-and-answer session on campus visits,” he says. “To be honest, I truly think a lot of the time, this is the first time a parent has ever really gotten a solid answer and something they can believe … when it comes out of an equipment manager’s mouth.”
As the head football equipment manager for Cal who is also certified through the Athletic Equipment Managers Association (AEMA), Matthiesen is in a unique position to make sure players and parents understand why the program selects the equipment it does, chooses the helmets they have available, and manages all manner of different variables associated with what’s going to have best chance of keeping players protected.
Once a player officially becomes part of the program, Matthiesen works closely with him to determine which equipment fits best, even if it’s not the equipment the player is used to. As usual, knowledge — especially in this situation — is power.
“As a certified equipment manager, I know how to talk to kids and say, ‘I don’t think you should be wearing this; you should switch to this,'” he says. “When it comes to helmet safety, the proper fit is key. A helmet can generally fit a player, but is it properly fitting that player? If it properly fits, like it’s supposed to, then we’re significantly lowering the chances of head injury. It’s my job as an equipment manager to have this knowledge and educate my athletes so they can compete at the highest level and not have problems with injuries. I can’t prevent all injuries, but I sure as heck know all of the information that I need to know fit them with the best equipment for that job.”
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Coaching a player up on what equipment he ought to be using is a never-ending battle for equipment managers, but Matthiesen knows that if he comes to the conversation with direct, reliable information, student-athletes typically listen to reason instead of choosing equipment based on style or “what they’ve always worn.”
“Most of the time, kids are very open to what we have to tell them because, honestly, they’ve never been educated on it,” he says. “I’m not trying to discredit anything that happens at the high school level, but not many people have the passion for equipment that certified equipment managers have. The running backs coach is there to be the running backs coach, not necessarily to know every aspect of every piece of equipment they’re using. We do know that information. When these players come to our program and they hear somebody talk who has a lot of information and knowledge on equipment, it helps them make good choices.”
Coaches may find that these discussions about the nuts-and-bolts, the purpose and design of certain equipment, are welcomed by student-athletes. In this age of information, opportunities abound to educate oneself on the tools of the football trade.
Other times, student-athletes come in already knowing about equipment specifics, Matthiesen says. This is especially true at Cal, which U.S. News ranks as the #2 public institution in the U.S. His kids are well informed, and they’re interested in making good choices. They are educable and curious, willing to learn which equipment Matthiesen thinks best and comparing that to their preconceived notions. This kind of curiosity certainly helps equipment managers do their jobs better and is the type of curiosity today’s coaches at all levels must encourage in their student-athletes. As Matthiesen says, he has the privilege of working with players who put the “student” in student-athlete.
“These are very smart kids I work with; many times, they outsmart me,” Matthiesen laughs. “They’re often open to trying something new and know about the technology in some of our equipment before I have to explain it.”
Still, it’s not always the case that every student-athlete has quality information when they come through the door. Matthiesen also has to help his student-athletes temper their desire to make a change for change’s sake. After all, Matthiesen’s No. 1 job is promoting safety, so even if a student-athlete wants to make change — especially mid-season — Matthiesen must communicate with the player and ask appropriate questions.
“Why do you want to change? What’s going on with your current equipment that’s not working? If we’ve already gone through four weeks of camp and are five or six games into the season, what’s driving this desire for change? Look, if you’re wanting to make a change because Aaron Rodgers wears it or whoever else wears it or it just looks cool, and that’s why you want to wear it too, that’s not good enough. All equipment fits differently. So if a kid isn’t actually having a real problem with his equipment, it makes me ask deeper questions,” he says.
Bottom line: Communication about athletic equipment and why it works can be just as important as the equipment itself. By beginning these conversations early in a student-athlete’s career, and encouraging curiosity about how the equipment works, coaches, parents and student-athletes — along with their partners in equipment management — can make the game of football safer for everyone.
This article was written by Paul Markgraff, managing editor of AFCA Magazine and AFCA Insider. Follow him on Twitter at Football Coach Daily.