Jan 29, 2015
Q&A with Mark Stoessner

Grand Valley State University

When Mark Stoessner, MA, ATC, began work as Head Athletic Trainer at Grand Valley State University in June 2007, he knew a challenge lay ahead. The position had been vacant for five months. Before that, it had been filled by the much-loved Todd Jager, who succumbed to cancer in January 2007 after a 19-month battle.

The football team, which had won NCAA Division II titles in 2005 and 2006, was under pressure to keep its streak alive. The university was hoping to win its fourth consecutive NACDA Director’s Cup, and plans were underway to begin constructing a new athletic facility in the summer of 2008.

Determined to hit the ground running, Stoessner worked closely with administrators, coaches, and the current athletic training staff to make the transition as smooth as possible. On the opening day of the football season, he passed his first test, helping treat four season-ending injuries. Since then, he’s made steady progress developing relationships with sport coaches, leading his staff, and ensuring optimal day-to-day delivery of athletic training services to 500 student-athletes competing on 19 teams.

Stoessner started his career in 1988 when he became Coordinator of Athletic Training at Northern Michigan University. Thirteen years later, he moved to the University of Michigan, where he taught in the athletic training education program and worked as an assistant athletic trainer providing coverage for women’s basketball, men’s gymnastics, men’s tennis, men’s volleyball, and women’s water polo. By the time he left for Grand Valley State, he’d become Michigan’s Coordinator of Athletic Medicine and was a respected member of the Michigan Athletic Trainers Society (MATS), where he currently serves as vice president.

In this interview, Stoessner talks about the transition to his new job, the importance of being active in the profession, and the best way to defend against a lawsuit.

T&C: What was the athletic training program like when you started at Grand Valley State?

Stoessner: Todd had been very sick for a long time, and after he passed away, the department didn’t replace him until I came on board. He had had good days and bad days, and he’d been working around his treatment schedule.

When he was diagnosed in May 2005, the department hired one of the graduating graduate students full-time, which meant there were two young athletic trainers running the show with a couple of grad assistants. Obviously they did a great job, because we won five national championships in that time. There was an effective system in place, with a lot of help from the administration, the coaching staff, and the medical community in the area. Everybody pitched in, which allowed the athletic trainers to handle the work.

How are you putting your stamp on the program?

My style is to provide supervision and support to my staff, but to also let them do their jobs. So I spent a lot of time last July getting to know the structure of the athletic training department by talking with Meghan Berry and Adam Buchalski, our two full-time assistant athletic trainers. We spent hours discussing how things had been handled in the past and whether we wanted to change anything.

That helped a lot when I started developing a policies and procedures manual, and I got a ton of help from Meghan and Adam in establishing relationships inside and outside the department. In the last few years, a lot has changed in athletic training education, and without a head athletic trainer to communicate with the program staff, that needed some updating. As a staff, not only do we have to provide quality health care for student-athletes, we also have to provide a quality educational experience for athletic training students.

I’ve spent a lot of time building relationships with the sport coaches. I ask them about their visions for their teams and for our athletic training services. Building good relationships with coaches begins with listening. You need to show you’ve bought into what they’re trying to do. Then, once you’ve developed trust, if you say an athlete can’t play, they’re ready to believe you.

Years ago, if a coach ranted at me, I ranted right back. It wasn’t a very successful strategy, so I now make sure to stay calm and not get into any shouting matches. I need to show them that their vision is important to me, because it’s a lot easier to get along with coaches than it is to fight them.

How did you prepare for the transition from assistant to head athletic trainer and from Division I to Division II?

If you’re working at a Division I school like Michigan, you’re going to spend your time taking care of the team you’ve been assigned to 24/7. Coming to Division II, one of the biggest challenges I face is making sure every student-athlete has access to the same quality of care, which is something many smaller schools struggle with. For a Division II athletic program, we have a good sized staff and cover a lot of games. We’re well organized, with a weekly meeting to give the staff a chance to talk about things in an informal setting.

What was the most challenging rehab you had last season?

By the end of our first football game, we’d had three ACL injuries and a hip dislocation. I’d never treated a hip dislocation before. Our doctors reduced it on the field, and we got the player into the athletic training room, then quickly transported him to the ER.

For six to eight weeks, we gave him very limited, non-weight bearing activity, just allowing the tissue to heal, and then we started working on motion and strength. We went from open-chain exercises with cuff weights and bands to functional work as soon as he was able to tolerate it. He’s doing quite well today. He hasn’t played football yet, but he’s getting there.

What did you learn from working on a rehab you hadn’t experienced before?

As athletic trainers, we can get excited about the latest cure-all, whatever it happens to be. For me, this rehab reinforced the idea that it’s the basics that really matter. If somebody is injured, he or she needs to regain range of motion, strength, and sport-specific function. Even with something as significant as a hip dislocation, it still comes down to that.

When did you know you wanted to become an athletic trainer?

When I was 13 or so, I fractured some vertebrae in my neck in a diving accident. My neck healed, but when I was a sophomore in high school, I reinjured it playing football. A much larger, stronger defensive lineman manhandled me and I ended up landing on my head. At the time, there was an athletic trainer at my school. He wasn’t a certified athletic trainer like we have nowadays, but he got me interested in the profession. By the time I started looking at colleges, I knew I wanted to become an athletic trainer.

I went to Bowling Green State University for my bachelor’s and Northern Michigan for my master’s. The head athletic trainer at Northern Michigan resigned just as I finished my master’s, and I was fortunate to move into the head athletic trainer position. I worked primarily with the football and ice hockey teams, and I taught a class on organization and administration. Teaching is a good way to stay current, because there’s nothing worse than having a 19-year-old ask a question you can’t answer.

At Northern Michigan, an athletic training education student sued you for gross negligence. What happened?

In ice hockey, the key is to watch the puck at all times, which is what I tell my athletic training students. We were on the bench at an ice hockey scrimmage, and a student didn’t see the puck coming. I remember ducking as I shouted, “Heads up!” He was standing next to me, and the next thing I know, he’s down in a heap. The puck had hit him right in the eye. It was a horrific injury, and I felt very bad for him. He sued, saying we were grossly negligent to have him on the bench without a helmet. Fortunately, the legal system didn’t see it that way.

The day they served me the papers, I was up on a ladder painting my house. I immediately drove in to see my boss because I was so upset, and he said, “Welcome to the real world.” So I asked, “Have you been sued?” and he said, “Three or four times. It happens.” That was the start of a long process of depositions and meetings with university officials. If I’d lost the lawsuit, I would have been in big trouble. But the suit never went to trial. It was thrown out at the local level and again on appeal. It was a very educational experience.

What did you learn?

As athletic trainers, we need to document everything we do. We were able to show we’d had discussions about safety with the athletic training students, and we had video that showed this student was probably not looking at the right part of the rink. That was very important proof.

For the next year or two, I didn’t put students on the bench unless they were well-versed in hockey, but then I realized that wasn’t being fair to them either. We’d been doing things the right way before the injury, and we needed to continue doing them the right way.

What are the biggest issues facing the athletic training profession today?

We need to stop fighting the changes in athletic training education. We need to stop saying, “It wasn’t like this when I was in school,” and start adjusting to the way it is now, whether we like it or not. In the process of fighting, we’re only hurting ourselves. It’s great that young people want to move outside the traditional setting to work at clinics or hospitals, and I think we’re doing a good job preparing them for that.

But we may need to do a better job preparing them to work in a college setting. Traditional athletic training has gotten a bad rap because of the hours and misperception that pay is low. As educators, we need to make sure we’re painting an accurate picture of traditional athletic training as a viable career where you can also have a life and a family.

What do you tell students about juggling life and work?

I tell my students that this is more than just a job. If they’re going to succeed, they need to have a passion for it. I love what I do, but if I treated it like a job, I’d stop being effective.

However, I also tell them, when you’re working, make sure you’re focused at work, and when you’re at home, make sure you’re focused on your family. Make the most of the opportunities you have to be at home.

As Vice President of MATS, what are you working on?

We had a state law passed at the end of 2006 to introduce licensure for athletic trainers. We’re still in the process of writing the rules, which we hope will be enacted in the next year or so. It’s a huge step, and it’s going to help the profession increase its role as allied healthcare providers. It will enhance opportunities for people who want to work in non-traditional settings and give employers more opportunities to hire athletic trainers. This process started more than 15 years ago, and people in MATS have been very involved from day one. This law wouldn’t have happened without them.

I was a certified athletic trainer for 17 years before I became active in MATS, and the biggest thing I’ve learned is that people who say they don’t have enough time to get involved are just making excuses. The current president of our organization is the Head Athletic Trainer at Michigan State University, and there aren’t a lot of jobs in athletic training as busy as his. Athletic trainers need to do a better job pumping up the profession. Too many spend time complaining about things when they could be adjusting, adapting, and getting young people excited about the profession.

What’s it like to be at a program that has won the Director’s Cup the last four years in a row?

It’s amazing. At the other places I’ve been, I used to wonder whether some of the kids were really hurt or if they were just tired because they weren’t winning. We don’t have that problem here. Everybody wants to be out there every day, and everybody’s goal is to win a national championship. Over the years, I’ve been with successful and unsuccessful teams, and it’s always more fun when you’re winning, that’s for sure.

What are your goals for the future?

To keep doing the best I can. If all goes well, this will be my last job.

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