Many massage therapists dream of working with professional sports teams, but what exactly does it take to get there?
Working with professional athletes provides the opportunity to travel and work with some of the best athletes in the world, and to meet and collaborate with other soft-tissue corrective therapists.
Sports massage therapist Richard Lomeli recently sat down to speak with Elizabeth Hulst, a therapist who graduated from massage school in 2008, and now works at EXOS (formerly Athletes Performance), a training facility for amateur, elite and professional athletes located in Phoenix, Arizona.
Hulst works with professional athletes, including NFL, Major League Baseball and National Hockey League players. She most recently traveled with an NFL player, providing sports massage therapy on the road.
Sports Massage Inspiration
Richard Lomeli: Was there any particular moment or person that inspired you to work in your chosen field [of sports massage]?
Elizabeth Hulst: Yes! Her name is Andria Hassler; she worked with elite athletes and your everyday person. In the beginning it wasn’t about working with athletes, it was more the therapy that I wanted to do. I wanted to figure out what was causing the issue and help heal the body. The way Andria worked inspired me to go down that path, and she just happened to work with a lot of athletes.
RL: How did you two meet?
EH: My husband had gotten into a car accident and ended up going to her clinic. She was the one that helped him with his back pain. He recommended I go see her for my back issues. Andria and I started talking. I was a stay-at-home mom at the time, and wanted to go back to work, but I didn’t want to keep doing what I was doing, an 8-to-5 job. I wanted to be around my children, so she suggested going to massage school.
Obstacles and Challenges
RL: Were there any obstacles you faced early in your career—specifically, challenges that helped you to get to the level where you are now?
EH: Andria helped me get a job at Athletes Performance right out of school. I was thrown into the [sports massage] world right away. It was a very humbling experience, and at the same time it was scary. It’s not like I was in my own private room; I was in a room with four other therapists who had been in the industry for six-plus years and working on these athletes a lot longer than I had. They had a better understanding of the body in respect to problem-solving skills.
I knew my anatomy, I knew my bony structures, but when it came to actually putting it into the clinical setting where you have to change your mindset to, “OK, this is like this, but why is it that way, and where am I going to go?” From that perspective I had a great disadvantage. It was difficult, and I had low self-confidence when it came to working with professional athletes next to my peers. I was so quiet one of the nicknames given to me by an athlete was “Silent Suzie.”
RL: “Silent Suzie”? What’s that all about?
EH: I think it came from a lack of confidence. I don’t like to say anything unless I know what I’m talking about.
RL: That’s funny; the more colleagues I meet in this field, I learn that we all had this similar experience early in our careers. We graduate from massage therapy school, then think, “OK, hey, I’m ready to go!” Then you get exposed to this environment and meet someone seasoned in this field and think, “Uh-oh, I’m not prepared for this.”
RL: At first this environment could be quite intimidating. Would you agree?
EH: It’s very intimidating, working with people who know their bodies versus the everyday person who is normally not in touch with the whole mind-body thing. Athletes come in and they can give me an idea of what is wrong, [because] they use their body and they are in touch with it. They have million-dollar contracts and they are allowing you to work on their body.
Working on that level versus working in the clinic at a massage school—where you are working with someone who is there because they only want to pay $20 for a massage—are two totally different playing fields. This drove me to learn as much as I could.
Advanced Sports Massage Training
RL: Driven to advance your skill and clinical perspective, what advanced training did you seek?
EH: I immediately looked into Stretch to Win, fascial stretch therapy. However, they denied me because at the time they had a prerequisite where you have to be in your field for at least two years [so] I had to go a different route. I started studying more neuromuscular therapy. I was new in the industry and had just taken out a huge loan for school.
I had a friend who had gone through a neuromuscular therapy course and had all of the [videotapes], so from there I was able to get my neuromuscular training. Once the two years was up, I took all the levels for fascial stretch therapy. I’ve made sure to surround myself with people who are smarter than I am—because if you’re the smartest one in the room, then you have nowhere to grow.
RL: I understand that you are instructing now for Stretch to Win. How is that program going?
EH: It’s going great. I love it. Ann and Chris [Frederick] have done a great job in cultivating a family feel to the Stretch to Win community. It definitely keeps me on my toes, and although I help teach the courses, I am constantly learning.
Advice for Succeeding in Sports Massage
RL: What advice would you give someone that wants to work with, not just athletes, but also people seeking corrective therapy?
EH: Education. I am constantly learning and evolving. My advice would be to hone in on your problem-solving skills. Not everyone is going to show up with the same why—they may have the same aches and pains, however, the cause could be totally different. [Success rests in] being able to decipher where the issue is originating.
Be confident in your skills and continue to learn. Ann [Frederick] always shares a story with the students in class about one of her NFL clients attributing his success to staying “hungry and humble.” Since I have heard those words, I have chosen to live by them. Stay hungry and humble.
Richard Lomeli, C.M.T., is a sports massage therapist whose primary clientele consists of professional athletes who perform at the highest levels of competition. He was a massage therapist on the Los Angeles Kings professional hockey team’s training staff for the 2014-2015 season, and has worked with NFL and track-and-field athletes, and professional triathletes competing around the world. Check back on massagemag.com for Lomeli’s new blog, launching soon.