Jan 29, 2015
Going Pro

For some, working for a professional sports team is a dream come true. In this three-part article, athletic trainers at NFL, MLB, and MLS franchises explain how they landed their jobs, as well as the ups and downs of treating elite athletes.

By Sonia Gysland

Sonia Gysland, MA, ATC, is Assistant Athletic Trainer for the Pittsburgh Steelers. She previously served as Assistant Football Athletic Trainer at Duke University and worked as an intern for the Steelers.

The smell of freshly cut grass fills the tunnel as the Pittsburgh Steelers wait to make their entrance. The home crowd appears through a small window from my vantage point behind the team’s towering linemen, revealing a sea of black and gold. I can’t help but smile and soak up the atmosphere of an NFL game day, but once I step onto the field, I have a job to do.

As an athletic trainer for the Steelers, I go through a pregame checklist: give out custom mouth guards to the athletes who requested them, make ice bags, hand an inhaler to the wide receiver with asthma, tape our starting running back’s shoelace loops together, buddy tape two of our cornerback’s fingers, and check the emergency equipment one more time. During this organized chaos, there is always a split second when time stands still, and I think, “This is why I love what I do.”

I didn’t always aspire to be an NFL athletic trainer. In fact, I wasn’t introduced to the sport until my clinical rotations as an undergrad with the University of Wisconsin’s football squad. Football can be challenging to cover due to the number of athletes on a team and the frequency of injuries, but I quickly gained an appreciation for the fast-paced and competitive NCAA Division I football environment. There was always a job to do, and I enjoyed having a sense of purpose and a role on the team.

My excitement for the game developed further as I pursued my master’s degree at the University of North Carolina in 2008 and served as a Graduate Assistant Athletic Trainer for football. After my first season, my mentor and clinical supervisor, Scott Trulock, MA, ATC, UNC’s Head Football Athletic Trainer at the time, approached me with the idea of applying for an NFL summer internship.

I was honored that Scott thought I would make a good candidate, but it had never occurred to me to work in professional football. However, Scott had worked in the NFL for 11 years prior to UNC and knew what was expected of an intern. The opportunity excited me, and I applied to work for many teams, eventually being accepted by the Steelers.

The summer internship was an amazing experience. Besides the fact that I was able to observe the inner workings of a well-oiled professional sports medicine machine, I got to witness Ariko Iso, MA, ATC–the NFL’s first female athletic trainer–in action. She was trusted and highly respected by the athletes, coaches, and staff, and it was after working with her that I began to aspire to a career as an athletic trainer in the NFL.

Following graduate school, I knew it would take time before I could return to the professional level. After a year at Ohio State University, I spent a year as an Assistant Football Athletic Trainer for Duke University. Then, the opportunity of a lifetime came calling in the summer of 2011.

The Steelers’s Head Athletic Trainer John Norwig, MEd, ATC, called to inform me that Ariko had left to become Head Football Athletic Trainer at Oregon State University and asked if I would be interested in filling her position. I sent in my cover letter and resume and was selected for an interview, which entailed a day of meetings with the Steelers’s owner, general manager, head coach, strength and conditioning personnel, and athletic training staff. I was then offered the job. It was difficult to leave Duke, but I couldn’t pass up on my dream.

I have been with the Steelers for three years now, and I have loved every minute. During the season, my days are spent treating injured players, covering practices, and completing administrative duties.

The offseason, however, is a stark contrast. Because many players leave town, my day-to-day tasks are much more varied. For instance, injured players routinely return for follow-up visits, and I keep track of their progress by communicating with their out-of-town rehab clinic.

I also stay busy preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine and NFL Draft. League athletic trainers and I gather medical information on draft-eligible college players and attend each athlete’s physical during the combine. Once the draft nears, I meet with Steelers staff members to go over the medical histories of our potential picks. For the rest of the spring and summer, I arrange evaluations for visiting free agents, organize team physicals prior to the start of spring sessions, and prepare for training camp.

As with any job, mine comes with its own set of challenges and rewards. Including training camp, the season spans from July through December and even longer if we make the playoffs. During this time, there are no days off, including major holidays.

However, to me, the pros far outweigh the cons because I love what I do. Yes, I spend countless hours in the team’s practice facility and see my coworkers more than my family and friends, but I genuinely enjoy my job. It’s rewarding to witness one of our athletes make a spectacular play after missing time with an injury. It’s those moments when I know all of the work I put in pays dividends.

The determining factor that makes going to work so enjoyable is the people around me. The Steelers organization is known for having a close-knit atmosphere, and my coworkers have become my second family. Even though I am the only female athletic trainer in the NFL, the players, coaches, and staff were welcoming and respect that I am there to do my job and do it well, just as they are.

Athletic training students often ask me how I was able to achieve my current position. Hard work and professionalism are the two traits I typically cite. As a student, you get better with experience, which means seeking out extra event coverage or internships. You must also conduct yourself in a professional manner at all times. This refers to attire, interactions with athletes and staff, and doing your job to the best of your abilities.

Whatever your goals may be, it is important to realize that reaching the final destination takes many steps. But if you truly enjoy what you do, as I do, the journey will be worth it.

Ballpark Staple

By Paul Lessard

Paul Lessard, LATC, is Head Athletic Trainer for the Cincinnati Reds. He and his staff received the 2012 Dick Martin Award as the best medical team in MLB. He can be reached at: [email protected].

When I decided in college to make athletic training my career, working in professional sports was my dream. I’m a baseball junkie who grew up as Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record, the Big Red Machine was firing on all cylinders, and Reggie Jackson was Mr. October. So the opportunity to work in MLB for the past 17 years has been a privilege. I feel fortunate to have realized my dream of working with the best players in the world.

My first taste of professional baseball came a year after I completed my undergraduate degree from Northeastern University in 1986. I received a call from Kevin Rand, ATC, who was then the Head Athletic Trainer for the New York Yankees’s Triple A affiliate, to inform me the club was looking for a minor league athletic trainer. I had met Kevin while working a co-op job at Bowdoin College during my undergrad years, and when looking to fill the position, several people had recommended me to him. Once offered the job, I rushed to accept it.

I was assigned to the Yankees’s Single A team in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and I enjoyed the experience immensely. However, after two seasons, I began thinking about returning to college to work on my master’s degree.

Fortunately, I received a call shortly afterward from Boston University’s then-Head Athletic Trainer Maria Hutsick, MS, LAT, ATC, CSCS, who needed someone to cover football, ice hockey, and baseball. I accepted the offer, and it was a good fit. I spent the next six years at BU and followed that with three and a half as Head Athletic Trainer at the College of the Holy Cross.

By this point, I had been at the college level for nearly a decade, and I was ready for another change. My experience at both institutions was stellar, but I knew I wanted to return to the pros.

This desire coincided with MLB adding the Arizona Diamondbacks as an expansion franchise in 1995, to begin play in 1998. The club’s manager at the time was Buck Showalter, who had been my manager with the Yankees’s minor league team. We had a great professional relationship, and when I called him to inquire about an athletic training position with the Diamondbacks, he suggested I send in my resume. Initially hired as the Minor League Athletic Training Coordinator, I was later promoted to the club’s Head Athletic Trainer heading into its inaugural season. I know Buck’s opinion helped me get that job, and I will always be grateful to him for giving me the chance to prove myself.

My ride through MLB has been a whirlwind ever since. I stayed with the Diamondbacks until 2005, being a part of the 2001 World Series champions. Then, I became Head Athletic Trainer for the Boston Red Sox, snagging another World Series title in 2007. And since 2009, I’ve been Head Athletic Trainer for the Cincinnati Reds.

Because I spent so long in college sports before making the move to the pros, there was an adjustment period when I first started. The biggest difference was the athletes themselves. College players split their time between classes, studying, practices, and having a social life. Getting into the athletic training room is not always their top priority. But in the pros, the sport is their job. Athletes spend all day doing whatever is necessary to keep playing. They realize the importance of maintaining their bodies and rehabbing injuries to get back on the field. This level of dedication is something I enjoy about working in MLB.

Another adjustment was boosting my communication skills. I was used to updating athletes on their progressions and keeping the coaching staff in the loop at the college level, but there are more stakeholders in the pros. Therefore, I send out a daily injury report to around 40 people among the front office, medical team, and coaching staff to make sure everyone is on the same page and up to date on player availability.

During the season, an average workday for me spans between 10 and 12 hours. When we have a home game at night, I arrive at the ballpark at around 11 a.m. to prepare. I try to get in a workout, complete some paperwork, and grab a quick lunch before the athletic training room starts humming at around 1:30 p.m. with the arrival of our rehabbing players. They are followed by healthy athletes looking for pregame tune-ups at 3 p.m., and the starting pitcher becomes my top priority when he comes in for treatment at around 5:30 p.m. I finish off with a few last-minute stretches and tape jobs, and I’m in the dugout for the first pitch at 7:10 p.m.

When the game concludes, I treat any injuries that occurred and write my daily report. If I’m lucky, I’ll grab something to eat and be home before midnight.

Accompanying me at home games are the rest of the Reds’s sports medicine team: Assistant Athletic Trainers Steve Baumann, ATC, CSCS, and Tomas Vera, ATC, and Medical Director Timothy Kremchek, MD. We also utilize massage therapists, physical therapists, chiropractors, and other physicians when needed. I am very lucky to work for an organization that has a lot of tools in its toolbox.

My advice for athletic trainers who dream of working in the pros is simple: Go for it. Although it can be hard to break into a professional league, it’s worth the effort. I absolutely love what I do and feel fortunate to have this job.

From Diamond to Pitch

By Armando Rivas

Armando Rivas, MS, ATC, PES, CES, is Director of Sports Medicine and Head Athletic Trainer for the Los Angeles Galaxy. He can be reached at: [email protected].

It’s not every day that you find NHL athletic trainers with experience in the NBA or find NFL sports medicine personnel making the jump to MLB. Often, health care professionals at that level are there because they found their niche and stuck with it. But that doesn’t mean it never happens, and I’m proof–an athletic trainer who went from MLB to MLS.

I thought I had found my niche following my undergraduate years at California State University, Fullerton. In 1999, I took a summer internship with the then Anaheim Angels. I had grown up playing baseball and have always had a passion for the game.

When summer turned to fall, I picked up a new internship at UCLA with the Bruins baseball and men’s soccer teams. I quickly found out that I enjoyed working with men’s soccer players and respected the physical demands of their sport. It came as a surprise, but I started getting attached to soccer.

During my time at UCLA, however, the Angels came calling with an open minor league athletic training position. Although I knew I would miss working with soccer, I was excited by the opportunity to get back to professional sports and couldn’t say no. Starting in 2001, this new position led to seven exciting years of traveling the country with some top minor league squads. I started with the Angels’s Single A team in Provo, Utah, followed by a year in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and two years in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. A promotion to Double A sent me to Little Rock, Ark., for a season, and then I was boosted again to the team’s Triple A affiliate in Salt Lake City.

I was slated to return for my third season in Salt Lake City when I received a call from Ivan Pierra, MS, ATC, who was the Head Athletic Trainer for the Los Angeles Galaxy at the time. Ivan was a grad student at Cal State-Fullerton when I was there, and we had developed a friendship. He wasn’t calling to catch up, however. Instead, he wanted to know if I would be interested in applying for his position, since he was moving on. The invitation caught me off guard, but I assured him I was intrigued by the idea.

Within hours, I received a call from the Galaxy’s general manager, who discussed the position with me in detail. We set up an interview, and I think my previous experience with professional athletes and soccer players paid off because I was offered the job.

Now seven years into my position as the Galaxy’s Head Athletic Trainer, I love the excitement and preparation for big games, and I’ve become accustomed to some of the unique aspects of working with a professional soccer team. For one thing, the sports medicine programs in MLS are different than those in MLB. In my experience, because baseball is entrenched in tradition, it was sometimes difficult to introduce new methods of treatment. I think MLS is more open to medical advances, so my sports medicine staff and I are constantly trying to find new competitive advantages with regard to recovery, training workloads, and proper rest periods.

Getting players on board with these new modalities, however, is a skill that I’ve had to learn. Athletes at this level have been playing their entire lives and can be reluctant to try anything that alters their existing treatment or exercise routine. I like to remind our sports medicine team that our approach should not be overbearing to the player. Instead, we must gradually earn his trust before adjusting his program.

This begins as soon as we sign a player. Right off the bat, I like to sit down with him and get a brief injury history as well as an idea of the kinds of treatments, manual therapies, and corrective exercises he has experienced in the past. Then, I explain the Galaxy’s philosophy on treatment and our individual approach to preventative medicine.

The age range of Galaxy players is vastly different from any squad I have worked with before, so that was another adjustment when I came to MLS. Our players are anywhere from 17 to 35 years old, which means I see many different types of injuries. For instance, older players tend to experience chronic issues like hip and ankle joint/cartilage damage, while the younger athletes deal with more soft tissue strains and acute injuries.

One aspect of life as an MLS athletic trainer that I still struggle with is work-life balance. The regular season runs from March to October, and its duration and the constant travel can be grueling. We take only a couple of weeks off in the offseason, so fitting in rest, family time, continuing education courses, and other personal matters is tough.

My solution is getting me-time whenever I can. This starts with a 4 a.m. wake-up call so I can head to the gym for a workout. Early exercise helps me relieve stress and prepare for the day ahead. I also try to take 10 minutes each day to focus on breathing and shutting my mind off to help me reboot.

Recently, my experience in professional sports took another turn. In 2013, the Galaxy made me Director of its expanded Department of Sports Medicine and Sports Science. The new department is responsible for the day-to-day care, treatment, strength training, corrective and preventative programs, nutrition, and data collection for the Galaxy Youth Academy, the second division United Soccer League Galaxy team, and the MLS squad.

In addition to treating athletes, my new position entails administrative tasks such as developing our team of athletic trainers, performance specialists, sports scientists, and various health care professionals, and structuring coverage, staffing, and protocols for each level. So far, the expanded department has been a success, but there are many goals we want to accomplish as it continues to grow.

Embracing my new role has refreshed something that I’ve carried with me throughout my athletic training career, from MLB to MLS: You are never done learning. I make new professional goals every season, and I’m constantly bouncing ideas off other sports medicine colleagues. As an athletic trainer, I think it’s important to consistently fuel your fire and develop.


Although there are many paths to a career in professional sports, making contacts within the athletic training industry can be the key to getting these much-desired jobs. What are some strategies for success?

When others ask Sonia Gysland, MA, ATC, Assistant Athletic Trainer for the Pittsburgh Steelers, how she successfully networked, she tells them professionalism pays off. “I advise athletic training students to treat every day at work like a job interview,” she says. “If they perform well, give their best effort, and keep a positive attitude, they will make a good impression on their supervisor. If that impression develops into a positive working relationship, the supervisor is likely to give them a glowing recommendation for their next job.

“You never know when you’ll meet the person who will make an influential mark on your career,” Gysland continues. “So it’s important to always work to the best of your ability, even when you think no one is watching.”

Once you make contacts in the industry, it’s important to maintain them. “It is easy to make connections, but it is up to you to keep them going,” says Armando Rivas, MS, ATC, PES, CES, Director of Sports Medicine and Head Athletic Trainer for the Los Angeles Galaxy. “I try to send a ‘Good luck on your season!’ message to fellow athletic trainers, physical therapists, and physicians every year. It goes a long way in maintaining relationships.

“I get a lot of calls just to say hello from health care professionals who are just as busy as me,” he continues. “Sometimes we forget that simply being nice and remembering someone along the way when they are grinding through a grueling season gets remembered down the road, which can lead to opportunities.”

–Mary Kate Murphy

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