Anyone who has sustained an injury that required physical therapy – most young people would have experienced this through sports – probably had an awesome experience with their physical therapist. Sports physical therapists in particular tend to be this wonderful mixture of soothing, laid-back, hands-on and casually professional. For whatever reason, the field attracts great people, and it’s growing faster than ever.
Following is a guide to the life and times of sports physical therapists. You will find information on how to become a therapist, what you do once you get there and why the lifestyle is so appealing. Get a taste for what it takes to help a professional athlete with this course on sport psychology and the balance of a sportsman’s (or woman’s) life.
The vast majority of sports physical therapists were athletes at one point in their lives. Many of them sustained injuries that were treated by their school’s or local wellness center’s sports therapists. This kind of first-hand experience is not, of course, a requirement to pursuing a career in physical therapy. But it certainly helps when it comes to empathizing with an athlete’s feelings when he or she is injured, anxious to recover and nervous about being treated and/or making it back to the playing field.
Just because sports physical therapy is a fun, active and stimulating career (and reasonably lucrative) does not mean that it’s right for everyone. A general love of anatomy, biology, caring for people, solving problems and working in a high-energy field is just the beginning of being a successful therapist. Because as we’re about to see, the path to becoming certified is no walk around the track.
If you’re curious about career alternatives, read this blog post that examines 7 different exercise science careers.
Education Requirements: Undergraduate
The sooner you decide to become a sports therapist, the better. If you’re already in college, you should talk to your advisor about which majors will allow you to apply to an accredited sports therapy graduate school, which is a necessity to becoming a therapist. Many colleges and universities offer degrees in sports medicine and sports science. You can also look on graduate school’s application requirements to find lists of acceptable majors.
But even beyond your major you will likely have to earn certain credits, which may or may not include: chemistry, biology (get a taste with this introduction to biology course), anatomy, physics, physiology, calculus, etc. Every graduate program will have its own requirements, so make sure you’re well educated on what they are.
Education Requirements: Graduate
You cannot practice sports therapy without a graduate degree. Many students ultimately earn a doctorate, which can be completed in three to four years of study. During this time you will enter a rigorous academic setting in which you quickly amass scientific knowledge (advanced anatomy, orthopedics, pharmacology, etc.) and clinical experience (supervised treatment of all levels of sports injuries, muscular conditions, internal problems, etc.). By the time you graduate, you will be able to diagnose and treat virtually any sports-related injury, but you will still be unspecialized; there’s nothing wrong with being a general therapist, but the advantages of becoming specialized are usually too tempting to resist.
Residency & Specialization
Once graduated from an accredited graduate program, most aspiring physical therapists earn a specialty. While you can become a general therapist, just like you can become a general physician, a specialty goes a long way in increasing your salary and making you more marketable in what is becoming an intensely competitive field.
The most common specialization is sports medicine, which allows its participants to spend a solid year acquiring direct clinical experience practicing sports therapy. While already a general therapist, this specialization will drastically increase a student’s experience and expertise; before the student even works one professional day in his or her life, he or she will have diagnosed and treated certain sports-related injuries that some general therapists are never qualified to encounter.
Ultimately, to earn specialization, a therapist must pass an exam that pertains to their focus of study. These exams are, naturally, very difficult. You can find out more information about these exams and what it takes to earn certification by visiting the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialities website.
A Day In The Life
Now that you know what it takes to become a licensed sports therapist, you realize why a love of sports and caregiving is all but essential; you won’t be happy and you won’t be successful if you force yourself through grueling course work just because someone (me) told you it was a fun career.
But let’s forget about that and focus on what your life would look like once you’re certified.
In the most general sense, your job would be to help people restore themselves to their full potential and to maintain their health following injuries (such as by suggesting the proper nutrition this five-star course recommends for pre-game and half-time recover). You would typically be employed by a therapy clinic or wellness center, but many sports therapists covet careers at a school system because they get to work with young, ambitious people. Many high schools have their own personal trainers and, certainly, almost every college with a decent athletic program would have several. It is extremely difficult to earn one of these positions and most therapists strengthen their resumes at clinics before finding a job in collegiate sports.
Sports therapy is all about evaluation, treatment and prevention. Due to an injury’s nagging tendency to re-occur, prevention is often of vital importance to an athlete’s success. Many athlete’s even seek to come back stronger, to bolster their area of injury, and sports therapists are charged with these responsibilities, as well. If you want to learn how to get stronger in a safe, healthy way, you don’t go to your coach; you go to your sports therapist. It would be a good idea, then, to understand the info this course provides on the risks of athletic supplements.
Most aspiring sports therapists might not think of this aspect of the job, but they will have to spend a significant amount of time with athletes’ families, coaches and whoever else is caring for them. This requires coordination and more than a bit of interpersonal skills. Not all family members are going to be easy to deal with, especially when their loved ones are hurt, attempting to recover and eager to succeed.
Serious injuries will require medical attention that you, as a sports therapist, are unable to administer. Broken bones, badly torn muscles, trauma, etc. In these scenarios, you will coordinate with the physician who treated them to make sure you help them recover at the appropriate speed and in the appropriate manner. Typically, this is where having worked at a clinic or wellness center is beneficial, because there you will naturally have interactions with experienced doctors and will have developed a network of physicians you can work with (as well as just the experience of working with them).
As any good doctor or therapist will tell you, compassion is underrated and, surprisingly, commonly absent from caregivers’ skill sets. Along with compassion you should possess excellent interpersonal skills (for obvious reasons), physical health (you should be an example of what is right, not what is wrong), deep reserves of patience (people are not always easy to deal with) and a hawk-eye for observation (frequently athletes who are anxious to compete will be dishonest about the severity of their conditions). The other requirements you must have are the same ones that you will need to earn your graduate degree, so if you’ve gotten this far, let’s assume you’re an organized person.
As I already mentioned, you will need to become certified and you will need to become re-certified every 10 years if you wish to keep your license.
Compensation, In All Its Forms
According to this data published by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, physical therapists across the board made a good living in 2012.
The median annual wage for physical therapists was $79,860. Even the lowest ten percent of earners brought in around $55,000, which is probably what you could expect to earn in your first year or so on the job. The top ten percent, however, earned over $112,000 annually; no doubt these are the most experienced and work at excellent institutions, but if you work hard the money is out there. The BLS does note that industry affects salary, as well; for example, therapists in healthcare services earned about $10,000 more annually than those in health practitioner’s offices.
But most people don’t get into sports therapy for the money. They do it because they like the high-energy lifestyle and they love helping people make successful recoveries. One of the best parts of the job will be working with athletes over extended periods of time, developing lasting relationships and watching people you helped make stronger succeed in their endeavors. If you think this sounds like something you could get used to, check out this top-rated course that takes you on a journey through medicine and helps you approach the admissions process you’re up against.