Q&A with Sally Nogle

January 29, 2015
Michigan State University
When Sally Nogle, PhD, ATC, walked onto the Michigan State University campus in the fall of 1983 to begin her job as Assistant Athletic Trainer, she was taking the first steps of a trailblazing career. Thirty years later, she has become the school's Head Athletic Trainer, is the only female Head Athletic Trainer for Football in the Big Ten Conference, and is a member of the NATA Hall of Fame.

The 2013-14 year has been an especially exciting time for Nogle. Along with helping the Spartans to their first Rose Bowl win in 25 years, she is working to transition the athletic training department into a new age. Opening its doors last summer, the Sports Medicine and Performance Department at MSU brings athletic training, strength and conditioning, sports nutrition, and sports psychology and counseling all under the same umbrella.

Nogle has also offered her services on the international level. In 1984, she worked the volleyball venue at the Los Angeles Summer Olympics and later provided coverage at the U.S. Olympic Sports Festivals in Baton Rouge, La., and Houston. Nogle served as the athletic trainer for the U.S. Women's Basketball Team at the 1987 World University Games in Yugoslavia and for the U.S. Rowing Team at the 1988 Seoul Summer Games.

Before starting her career in East Lansing, Nogle received both her Bachelor's and Master's degrees from San Diego State University, and in 2001, she earned her PhD from MSU. Her honors include an NATA Most Distinguished Athletic Trainer Award in 2004 and Michigan State's Jack Breslin Outstanding Staff Award in 2006. She was inducted into the NATA Hall of Fame in 2012.

Recognized as a great communicator, Nogle is known for building lasting trust with athletes, coaches, and colleagues. In this interview, she looks back at her three decades in athletic training and shares what she has learned along the way, including the importance of continuing to educate oneself and striking a healthy work-life balance.

What were your career goals back in 1983?
When I arrived at Michigan State, I was simply looking for experience. My goals were to eventually work my way up to being a head athletic trainer or to find an associate athletic trainer job in a place where I could be happy. Honestly, when I first started, I thought I would get some experience here and then go back to California.

But East Lansing has been the perfect fit for my family and me and has given us quality of life. I've been very fortunate to work with great administrators, coaches, colleagues, and athletes, and that's also what keeps me here. In the past, I had some offers, but I liked it at MSU too much. Also, when those offers came in, I had young kids and I didn't want to uproot them or my husband just so I could be a head athletic trainer somewhere else.

How did you break through the glass ceiling and begin working with the Spartan football team?
At San Diego State, I was fortunate to study and work under Head Athletic Trainer Dr. Bob Moore, who was probably ahead of his time in that he allowed women to cover men's sports. As a student, I worked and traveled with the football and men's basketball teams.

Then I came to Michigan State and was told I could work with football players in the athletic training room, but I couldn't be on the field or travel with the team. I was a little surprised by this, but after a year or two, then-Head Coach George Perles realized that I could do the job and it didn't matter what my gender was.

What did becoming the first female Head Football Athletic Trainer in the Big Ten last July mean to you?
Since it was something I aspired to when I began my career, it's very satisfying on a personal level. And if I'm a role model for other female athletic trainers, that's great, too. It wasn't my intention, but I'm glad to do it.

How have you handled male coaches who may have had misgivings about working with a female athletic trainer?
All you can do is work hard, do your job, and act professionally toward those coaches. You can't control their behavior--only your response. If they were gruff with me, I would still be polite and respectful. It doesn't matter if that coach is right or wrong, you still have to handle yourself professionally.

What have you learned over the years about communicating with coaches and earning their trust?
If you're paying attention to the details, you're better able to communicate with coaches and keep them informed. That means you can't wait until the last minute to tell them something about a player if it will impact a game or their practice plan. If a player is starting to feel sick, it's important to let the coach know right away so that when practice rolls around and the player can't go, the coach isn't caught off guard. They don't like being surprised.

I also like to learn each coach's style and preferences. Some might want to know about every little problem while others might not want to be bothered with minor issues. Over time, you learn what is and isn't important to each individual coach.

What's your preferred method of communication with coaches?
I like talking with them face-to-face. With football, we meet every day and I give the coaching staff a written injury report and go over it with them. I'll also text them if a player comes in sick or injured to let them know he might not make it to practice.

How has working as Head Athletic Trainer within the new Sports Medicine and Performance Department changed your job description?
The department is designed to provide a more streamlined and comprehensive approach to athlete wellness and performance training. My focus remains on taking care of the athletes and keeping them on the field, but now I also have to learn more about some of the ancillary pieces like drug testing and insurance coverage. Having a bigger staff with different types of expertise within the department that I can lean on has helped with my learning curve.

What are your goals for the athletic training staff in the new arrangement?
That we shine. I want us to keep learning and getting better individually and as a group. We're going to keep educating ourselves and make sure that's a priority. My philosophy is not about pushing people and encouraging them to grind, it's about creating an environment where we can help those we serve and enjoy what we're doing.

How do you bring out the best in your athletic training staff and keep them from burning out?
I encourage my staff to be lifelong learners, because that's something that helps keep us all fresh. We also try to help each other maintain a good work-life balance. No matter what you do, or where you work, family is still the most important thing and you have to speak up and let others know how important it is to maintain that balance. My colleagues and I are always willing to step up and cover for one another when things in our personal lives come up.

Burnout is a big problem in our profession. Athletic trainers often leave the field because of the time demands, so we don't currently have a lot of experienced athletic trainers in their 40s and 50s. That hurts, because we need those people as role models to help maintain a high standard.

You coordinate the mental health program for MSU's student-athletes. Why is that important to you?
Going off to college is often the first time a kid is away from home and it can be tough. They're still growing up and maturing and some of them go through pretty big bumps in the road. As athletic trainers, we're in a good position to watch out for homesickness and depression and other struggles they may be having. If you really observe and listen to your athletes, you can sense when things aren't going well for them. If it's something minor, we can try to talk them through it, but if it's more serious we refer them to our sports psychiatrist or another trained professional.

What drew you to working with national teams?
It was really appealing to work with new people and learn about how they approach sports medicine and athlete care. Also, I got to see athletes at the pinnacle of their careers and help them try to reach their goals. Having the opportunity to visit a variety of countries that I probably wouldn't have otherwise was also very appealing.

What did you learn from those experiences?
One of the biggest things I learned was that the sports medicine coverage we have in the U.S. is the best in the world. It also helped me realize how special the collegiality amongst those in our profession is. Everyone is so willing to help one another and share their knowledge.

Looking back, what's the most memorable rehab you've conducted?
There are many, but one that comes to mind is Amp Campbell, who broke his neck in 1998. That rehab was difficult, especially at the beginning when he was in a halo and really struggling with his situation. It was as much psychological as anything with him. But in his first game back, he recovered a fumble and ran it in for a game-winning touchdown. That was special to see.

You've said that being a female can sometimes be an advantage when working with athletes. Why is this?
A lot of our athletes come from single-parent homes, and even if they grew up in two-parent homes, their mothers were usually the ones who took care of them when they were sick or went with them to the doctor's office when they got hurt. I'm not trying to be a mom to them, but I've found a lot of athletes really open up to female athletic trainers and feel they can tell us anything about how they're feeling.

What was it like having your daughter play for the MSU basketball team?
It was special to have Tracy playing here because I could tape some ankles for football and then walk over to the arena and watch her games. It was also interesting because she would come talk to me about things going on with the team and I would have to listen with a mother's perspective, even though I obviously had additional insight because of my relationship with the coaches and other athletes. I tried to listen and be there for her but not get too involved. Just like any other athlete, she had to learn to handle things on her own and work through challenges.

How do you approach working with athletic training students?
It's important to put the students in situations where they can learn. If an athlete gets hurt and the athletic training student can be hands-on with the injury, that's great. If they can't, let them watch you perform the exam. If you're going to the doctor's office with the athlete, have the athletic training student go as well. And if they're skilled enough to pack a supply trunk, have them do it--then double-check their work. We make sure they get as much hands-on experience as possible.

What did your induction into the NATA Hall of Fame mean to you?
It was very humbling. I love what I do and here I am getting paid for it! Then, on top of all that, you want to honor me for it? I was blown away.

The most satisfying part was being mentioned alongside all of the great athletic trainers who are already enshrined. I'm in the same hall of fame as my mentors and role models and that's really cool.
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