Career of an Athletic Trainer in Medical Sales
Level 1: Amateur
Welcome Players! Most students enroll in Athletic Training with the hopes of one day working for their favorite professional sports team; that’s the dream. Very few are able to get to that level and are heralded as the best of the best. So why would someone choose to leave? This post is guest-written by a Certified Athletic Trainer (ATC) who spent the majority of his career climbing the ranks working with the Football team at a major D1 University. Then he got a job in the NFL. Then he quit. This is his story of why he chose to leave traditional athletic training to go into medical sales.
Please welcome Nate Sultan to the writer’s circle!
Coaches note: This article is written entirely by Nate. It has been lightly edited for clarity to the reader by me. All emphasis (bold, italics, etc.) has been added by me. Comments included by me have been delineated with the quotation box in green, such as this paragraph.
Time & Change Surely Show
Message to You (ATC’s)
Life in Medical Sales
Part of the Job
Message to You (Medical Sales)
What the Future Holds
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[Trainer 01] offered me an opportunity to share my thoughts/experience as an Athletic Trainer and someone who has recently left the profession for a medical device sales role. I felt this was a great chance to contribute to the conversation he has started on how to leverage the profession, advocate for ourselves, and use our skills towards potential non-traditional athletic settings.
I’ll keep credentials short as there are other, more important thoughts I want to get to.
I graduated from The Ohio State University in 2017, then transitioned to a Graduate Assistantship program with Track & Field at University of Iowa. Graduating in 2019 with an MS from Iowa, I was fortunate enough to return to OSU as the football and men’s tennis intern ATC. The plan was to leave in 2020, but after COVID, that didn’t work out, so I was again lucky enough to stay a second year in the same position. May 2021 I wanted to try my hand at the NFL and accepted a seasonal intern position with the New York Jets, leaving at the end of the season. March 2022 I accepted a sales role for ZimVie selling invasive and non-invasive bone growth stimulators and have been here since.
In summary that is eight years around Athletic Training; three in the undergraduate program, five as an ATC. Although I was treated like one at most places, it should be noted I was never full-time staff anywhere.
Some common questions I’ll answer first:
Why Athletic Training (AT)?
The answer is not that deep. I enjoyed athletics. I enjoyed some aspects of healthcare from what I knew as a 17-year-old. I knew that I didn’t want a cubicle life, and I didn’t make it past the A’s when looking for a major.
What did I know about Athletic Training before starting?
Not much, I just knew that it was an avenue to provide healthcare in ways I might enjoy. What an ATC’s daily life was like at a basic level didn’t start to click until later on in undergrad.
What was my perception of AT as a student?
There are plenty of ups and downs as a student in athletic training. Not everything comes easy — some of the work is a necessary evil.
What you do get is an immediate group of friends that go through all of it alongside you. What you learn is that if you can show up, work hard, be attentive, volunteer for things, and be a bit of a “yes man,” opportunities will come your way. Even though it feels like you know nothing or are contributing no significant academic value at the time, you could potentially be auditioning for a future job or other opportunity.
Time and Change Surely Show
By the time I finished a season in the NFL I was in an interesting position. I was 26, had 5 ATC years under my belt, all “intern years”, so the logical thing to do would be to try and get a full-time staff position. I told myself I was going to make sure it was the absolute right fit before committing to something permanent.
That February I attended the Big Sky Sports medicine conference with an Iowa boss of mine.
Quick sidebar, Big Sky sports med conference for CEU’s is highly recommended; 3-4 days of meetings 7am-9am, Skiing, meetings 4pm-7pm, and no one cares if you enjoy a libation in the afternoon meetings. Most people are still in their ski gear.
While attending this conference I was throwing out feelers to staff from schools about employment, direction I should take, etc. I would even slip into conversation there was a thought that I might interview for sales roles and get out of AT.
Surprisingly, or maybe not that surprising, as soon as I mentioned leaving AT the conversation turned from job feelers to taking the sales direction:
“Get out while you still can.”
“Nothing is going to change with this profession.”
“Pay isn’t worth the work anyways.”
These were some common phrases that I heard. Everyone has their own opinions and stories on compensation but the one that sticks with me the most is that a Big Ten Football ATC who had been an assistant 5+ years was getting paid less than several of their former students who worked 40hrs/week at a clinical site with the same hospital system.
For reference, Nate is talking about Athletic Trainers working in a Sport Medicine clinic as a Physician Extender (PE) through their employer contract vs. an Athletic’s Department. The hospital system employs the healthcare professional (ATC as PE), and then contracts them to work at a the clinic. That same hospital system also employs the healthcare professionals who work for the university’s Athletics department (ATC as ATC), as that work is also contracted to prevent the Athletics department (coaches mostly) from manipulating the quality of care.
So his point - why does an ATC working significantly more hours, with significantly more work, and significantly more responsibility, earning less pay in the Athletics Department?
As I reflected on options, I had high standards for who I would work for because of great people I had worked under before.
I knew there generally wasn’t great compensation across the country. I was entrenched in the football world and there was no telling what or when opportunities would arise and how long I was going to be in one position before being able to transition to another. I started interviewing with medical sales companies and was fortunate to start the job I have now in March 2022 and have been here ever since.
Message to You (ATC’s)
From my experience I want to try and give some advice to other, younger ATC’s that might have similar feelings.
1. When interviewing for an ATC position, do your best to understand the Job vs Role. If it’s for an internship especially, any hiring manager can easily get by with a phrase such as “you’re seen as an extension of the staff.” While in most cases this is could be true due to staff workload, if you end up in a situation where you have far less responsibility than your expectations, it leads to a very steep, sometimes unwinnable uphill battle and you won’t be happy. Make sure to ask specific questions, respectfully:
“What autonomy will I have?”
“Who would supervise me?”
“If I cover a team by myself, at what point and what sort of communication do you expect up the chain?”
These are all things that might give you a good idea of what kind of ship they run.
2. Mange Your Expectations / Be Honest: Identify the things about a potential opportunity that are very important to you. Make sure you ask about those things. Interviewing for sales jobs I wanted more autonomy from a work schedule, I wanted the potential for higher compensation that was more in my control, I wanted to work for someone who would put some of their time towards my growth in this profession and someone who brought great energy. If you don’t identify and try to single out the things that are important to you then you could be flying blind and run the risk of being severely let down. One important thing to remember is that the grass is not always greener. Don’t leave one job to satisfy one or two things that you didn’t have just to walk into the one or two other things you can’t stand.
3. At the end of the day, who you work under is everything (to me). If you must have a boss, try and make sure they’re a great person first. If you’re working up to 80 hours a week for half a year the individuals you work with matter a lot. That’s something that can turn a potentially enjoyable job on its head.
Nate’s three points here should not be taken lightly. Understanding what is expected of you is a critical aspect to any relationship, and as the employee you may feel you’re at a disadvantage when seeking clarity. If you can’t get the answers you deserve, or are ridiculed/shamed by asking them, that should tell you everything you need to know about that work environment.
His second point is a cornerstone in not only having a happy career, but living a happy life. Creating cohesion between what you want and what you need is essential to not ending up in positions that drain you of your energy. It’s the same thought process that led me to never go into traditional athletic training in the first place. Everyone in life will reach a break-point where they either choose to take back control of their life - or are forced to. Don’t wait until you are forced to. Do it on your terms.
Life in Medical Sales
My current job is a new frontier compared to the hierarchy of Athletic Training.
While I am afforded the opportunity in the medical sales world to satisfy some of the things I wanted, it isn’t to say that it hasn’t come with certain challenges.
One of the things I enjoyed about the traditional setting was that every day you could find energy from somewhere. There is a certain comradery and competitiveness from working in the athletic environment whereas in sales I am waking up everyday and it is no one else’s responsibilities but but mine to stay motivated, keep a great attitude no matter the situation, and stay on task.
While I don’t have to be in a facility from sunrise to sundown daily, as it is in life the more you put in the more return you will see. While I may be able to choose to spend a little less time at work, it is still up to me to put in the same quality of work. Yes, I took advantage of weekends not working football this last season and attended friends’ weddings, bachelor parties, OSU football games as a fan, etc.
The other part of this equation is compensation. Sales reps work on commission after a certain time-period with the company and there are quotas that companies expect to be hit. Pressures of fluctuating salaries, quotas, commission, etc. might be something not everyone wants on their plate.
It certainly isn’t for everybody, however the pro is that there is uncapped potential; a risk I am willing to take.
Many AT’s will be able to relate here. Sport medicine is a fast-paced, constantly changing environment where you are reacting to shit going wrong. This person got hurt, that person’s sick, why the hell is Johny on the field he just had a concussion… there are no two days that are the same in this world. A large part of my messaging is not to be demeaning towards those who choose to work in these roles for the compensation they’re provided. I have great respect and admiration for all those who do. But the point is, there are THOUSANDS of athletic training students and professionals that think it is the only way. It is not.
Nate recognized this and evaluated what he wanted out of his work-career and what he wanted out of life. When he realized that the traditional setting did not provide him with the things he wanted, he changed (careers). All of his knowledge, skills, and experience helped him make that change, but he changed nevertheless. My encouragement is to my peers, and future peers, that if you fell in love with the profession of athletic training like we did, but cannot tolerate the way it squeezes you into living life - there are other ways.
Part of the Job
Day-to-day life is ever changing but the theme remains the same. Whether it is trying to find the decision maker at a certain office, scouting potential healthcare providers that could benefit from our devices, or treating patients in-home, the diversity a week can contain is what keeps it fun. You may only get one minute with someone who could use your device so the challenge of being clear, concise, and confident about your product scratches the competitive itch.
Rewarding parts of the job are when a patient or doctor lets you know that they succeeded with the product and returned to their normal life. Necessary parts of the job are some longer journeys in the car for either very short meetings or feeling like there was no progress made.
I work more at clinic sites or in-home applications and am not in the operating room like other med reps you might have heard about. Therefore, I cannot speak to the difference between the roles as I have not lived the day-to-day operating room rep life.
The important thing I want to note about this transition into medical sales specifically is the level of knowledge an Athletic Trainer brings to the table when taking a sales role, especially if in the orthopedic realm.
You have the knowledge and experience necessary to get a big jump on other non-healthcare majors who have never had to assess an injured ankle on a sideline, communicate daily with a physician, or have implemented less clinical-related problem-solving skills in general. By the time you finish undergrad alone you have thousands of hours of clinical practice and knowledge that is relative to many professions outside the traditional setting.
This experience certainly has made the transition easier than what it probably could’ve been.
I’d even go one step further and say that an undergraduate degree in Athletic Training prepares you for any health, wellness, or medical-related field better than any other major. It’s a hell of a lot more work, too, but you will leave as a professional, not just a graduate.
Message to You (Medical Sales)
If you’re interested in transitioning to medical sales there are a few key pieces of advice I have taken from another OSU AT undergrad cohort of mine who immediately started in medical sales after graduation, Justin Miller.
1. The knowledge from ATC is a fantastic tool to get ahead during your training and people will envy the tools you already possess. However, this does not make sales easier. When you walk into a room you need to set a certain tone. Listening is most important. Taking in every facial expression, comment, and question as if you were doing an evaluation. Finding ways to ask clarifying questions and provide value to that provider.
2. Choose what interests you. There are a lot of avenues with medical sales and if you do not enjoy or believe in the product it is going to come off the same way and you will struggle.
3. Get comfortable talking to anyone and everyone. The next time a rep swings through the athletic training room have a discussion with them. Salespeople love to talk about sales. Talk to your current physician and see if they have a rep they trust that would speak to you. Is that physician being underserved in any capacity rep-wise? Use your current relationships to help bridge the gap. Remember, closed mouths don’t get fed.
4. Relationships are everything. You can have all the knowledge in the world but if you can’t build the relationships and handle some rejection along the way it is going to be much harder.
What The Future Holds
Although cliche, I should mention that I wouldn’t change anything about my journey to where I am now.
I have met some amazing people that will be lifelong friends, I have had unbelievable experiences and stories that I would never want to give up.
Being in Athletic Training taught me how to work hard. It taught me how to problem solve and it taught me what I think is important in life professionally and personally up to this point. I will always be pro Athletic Trainer and advocate for the profession.
If you’re wondering if I would ever go back, the better question might be:
“Would I be able to?”
For now, I am very happy where I’m at and am excited to see how far I can take this sales role.
Hopefully this has been helpful to some, and I am happy to answer questions or whatever comes to mind.
P.S. If you’re a healthcare provider and are interested in an easy-to-use, very effective bone growth stimulator I am happy to serve you that way as well!
Nate can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please reference Train Like a Pro should you choose to reach out.
Please give Nate a big thank you for guest-writing this Train Like a Pro article!