Sports Massage Q&A

Working In Sports Massage

What's it really like working in sports massage? What skills are most valued by athletic trainers? Read on for profiles of some very experienced sports massage therapists.

Matthew Parks, Owner, Moving Forward

What kind of education and knowledge does a massage therapist need to work in sports massage?
Aside from finishing a reputable massage therapy school and becoming nationally certified, I feel an undergraduate degree in a related field (exercise physiology or kinesiology, for example) is the better addition to improve the skill set for the sports massage therapist.

What is a day in the life like for you when practicing sports massage?
I am also a triathlon coach and personal trainer, so I mix and match my appointments every week in between massage sessions and coaching and training sessions with my clients. I typically have between five and eight massage sessions per day, four to five days per week. There are typically two sports massage sessions per day. Most massage sessions include corrective exercise review so the client knows what self-care they should perform.

Are there specific personal or professional traits that have helped you be successful in sports massage?
A high attention to detail is important to be successful in sports massage. I also feel my professional communication with clients and other practitioners assists with this process. It’s vital to get all the necessary facts about the client and follow up with them after each session. I also feel it’s important that I have experience in endurance training and racing to help with the rapport with my clients.

What are the benefits and challenges of working in sports massage?
One benefit of being a sports massage therapist is working with a more specific clientele instead of the general population. My clients come to me for a specific reason, not just to relax. A challenge I have is reminding people that the foam roller does not replace a skilled massage therapist!

What advice would you offer other massage therapists looking to specialize in sports massage?
Don’t be afraid to take a more intellectual approach to your massage work. Your intuition may serve you well, but sometimes there is a specific protocol for you to follow in order to improve the performance of your client.

Jerry Scott, Sports Massage Therapist, Olympics & NCAA

What is a day in the life like for you when practicing sports massage??
When travelling with USA Swimming, a typical day for Olympic Trials, which is a 10-day trip, usually looks like the following: Arrive at pool by 9 a.m. to start 20-minute massage sessions for athletes. Break from 1:30 to 3 p.m. for lunch and return to pool by 4 p.m. for finals at 6 to 8:30 p.m. Massage athletes after finals at pool from 8:30 to 10 p.m.

As the trials wind down, only athletes who make the Olympic team would require massage therapy sessions. A 14-hour day is not uncommon.

Are there special ethical considerations when working with athletes?
In short, yes. An athlete’s medical condition and history should not be discussed with anyone except other trainers or coaches. There is nothing the media likes more than to hear a high profile athlete is sick or injured, so those discussions don’t happen outside of closed doors. The athlete is the only person who should be deciding what information they want to share.

For example, I was part of the decision process to send Michael Phelps home from World Championships in 2001 because of an injury. We, as a staff, decided it would be best if he didn’t complete, but it was up to Michael to tell the press and media

What makes working with athletes different from working with other clients?
Athletes tend to know their bodies fairly well, so information presented to the therapist seems to be better. Compared to the general client, the athlete is also in good shape and is concerned about getting back to the field of play as soon as possible. Some athletes have an obsessive compulsive behavior about their sport. This generally makes them very compliant with the therapists’ recommendations. 

What advice would you offer other massage therapists looking to specialize in sports massage?
Love to do the work, which can be hard and physical. Success doesn’t come after one event, and you need to be willing to work long hours, sometimes without being paid a great deal.

For example, I worked on the Indiana Sports Massage Team starting in 1989, as well as the NCAA Swimming & Diving Championships and National Championships. I coordinated massage for the 1992 Olympic Trials and was on the 1996 Olympic Massage Team for the Atlanta Olympics—the first time massage therapy was part of the medical staff for the Olympics. These were all volunteer positions, but I loved it!

Cyril Willemen, Founder & Owner, Chicago Sport Massage

What kind of education and knowledge does a massage therapist need to work in sports massage?
Typically, sports massage therapists hold a certification and maintain licensure. A good option is to become board certified through the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB) and have an active membership with an association, like AMTA, to keep up to date with industry trends. Exact requirements depend upon the state in which the sports massage therapist practices.

Continuing education is important to stay abreast of the evolving field of sports medicine. In addition, sports massage therapists must have a strong understanding of the demands that sports put on the body, both physically and mentally. Because I also train and race, I feel better able to understand body mechanics—including common injuries and performance goals—which gives me the opportunity to communicate and share my experience as well as my skills to help athletes reach their

What makes working with athletes different from working with other clients?
In addition to facilitating rehabilitation, controlling pain, reducing stress and promoting relaxation, working with athletes gives me the opportunity to be a part of their training plan and help them reach their performance goals.

What are the benefits of working in sports massage?
Being a part of an athlete’s performance plan, as well as providing continuous well-being, are the most rewarding and challenging parts of working in sports massage. I live, talk and breath sports massage therapy, and I am always highly motivated because I am able to positively affect my clients’ performances.

How do referrals work in the hierarchy of a sports massage team?
A massage therapist is a crucial part of a medical staff within a team. A sports physician usually runs the staff along with an osteopath, physical therapist and other team members. Within a team environment, an athlete always is referred by the medical staff for massages.

In a private practice, an athlete can come directly to a sports massage facility.

Lee Stang, LMT AMTA-CT Chapter, Core Massage Therapist, Women’s Tennis Association

Describe some of the work environments you’ve been a part of.
I’ve worked in a variety of exciting environments, including the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, the Greece Paralympic Summer Games and on the road with the U.S. National Powerlifting Team. Plus, I have worked with collegiate, ABL and WNBA athletes. Currently, I travel with the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) as part of the sports science and medicine team. In my private clinic, I specialize in orthopedic massage.

What is a typical work week like for you?
On the road with the WTA is intense but energizing! I have traveled to Paris, Madrid, Istanbul, Monterrey, Acapulco as well as sites in the U.S. The day generally begins at about 7:00am with breakfast, followed by a team meeting. On the first day, we cover every player as well as their individual needs before and after a match. We arrive onsite in the training room one hour prior to play—work can include anything from a quick warm up of a shoulder to cutting tape for an athlete to prepping sports drinks or ice and towels.

Once play begins, the massages start. Players can sign up for 30, 60 or 90 minutes of specific massage. If not scheduled for a massage session, massage therapists work in the training room doing spot treatments, warm ups or flushes, and even paperwork. It is not uncommon in the middle of the week to have a few days that go until 12:00 am or later. It is intense, but the days fly by and it is tremendously exciting.

What are the benefits of working in sports massage?
For me, the opportunity to work with individuals who have such an awareness of their bodies is exceptional. You and the athlete are a team. Locating an area of dysfunction, aiding in the relief or facilitating improvement in the area, then watching the athlete go out and perform well is uplifting. The environment is charged. What’s more, learning from health care professionals while teaching them how massage fits into overall health and wellness is just plain awesome! 

Challenges include breaking into the sports arena. Often, massage is not viewed as a primary service. If you do get in with a team or individual, the travel schedule can be daunting; long hours, little sleep, and being away from your family and business can be really difficult. Finally, the work can be very physically challenging. This can take a toll on the massage therapist, so exceptional body mechanics and self-care are essential.

What advice would you offer other massage therapists looking to specialize in sports massage?
Expect to work hard breaking into the sports environment. Get additional training and develop your expertise in orthopedic massage and functional assessment, clinical massage, myofascial work and stretching. Start by getting involved with your AMTA chapters’ Sports Massage Team; this provides excellent hands-on experience and each event looks great on a resume.

Sports Massage Resources

AMTA/NCBTMB Sports Massage Specialty Certificate Program

FREE Career Guide: Working in Sports Massage

5 Sports Massage Benefits

"AMTA is very supportive. I definitely am glad I chose to be an AMTA member."

Bailey L., AMTA member since 2016