It may come as a surprise to most U.S. massage therapists that there is a thriving competitive massage scene happening in Europe right now.
In addition to dozens of national championships, there are several large-scale international events, including the World Championship in Massage, which is taking place June 22-23, 2019 in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Competitors from around the globe—for 2019, competitors from France, Peru, Thailand, Serbia, the United Kingdom, Italy, Sweden, Mexico, Canada, Singapore, Germany and the U.S., among other countries, are already signed up—converge to network, learn from each other, and present effective and innovative touch in front of judges and attendees.
MASSAGE Magazine caught up with Jeppe Tengbjerg, the World Championship’s founder and organizer; Joe Lavin, a judge at last year’s event; and three American massage therapists, Tracey Windmill, Travis Knuth and Chaz Armstrong, who won medals in 2018, to find out what it takes to compete in massage on the world stage.
An Emerging Trend
The World Championship in Massage sprang from the mind of Tengbjerg, a former professional football player who started his own massage school. According to Tengbjerg, the idea came from a brainstorming session about how to gather the best massage therapists in the world and compare styles.
“I wanted to make a master class of the world’s best MTs,” Tengbjerg said. “I thought to myself, ‘maybe you can put them in the same room and have them teach each other.’ Then I had the idea of making it a championship.”
Tengbjerg’s organization, the International Massage Association, held its first national championship in 2016. Tengbjerg and his team expanded the event in 2017, naming it the World Championship in Massage, and opened its doors to therapists from all over the world.
While the notion of inserting an activity associated with relaxation into a competitive landscape may strike many Americans as counterintuitive, Europeans have been doing it to great fanfare.
According to Tracey Windmill, who medaled in 2018, “In Europe it’s huge. The therapists that win over there get treated like celebrities.”
America Brings Something New
Thus far, the participation of American massage therapists in the World Championship has been fairly small. In 2018 there were fewer than 10 Americans out of about 130 participants.
Despite their small number, Americans have made an impact. Tengbjerg said. “The Americans are doing something that we do not do in Europe,” he said. “They are bringing something new over.”
Apparently the judges agree, as roughly half of the Americans present at the 2018 event medaled in their categories. Windmill won silver in the Freestyle category; Chaz Armstrong won silver in Chair Massage. Jonathan Grassi won bronze for Freestyle; and Travis Knuth took home the gold in Freestyle.
“I know this is a long trip for Americans,” Tengbjerg adds, “but it’s important that they come over.”
Armstrong, who traveled to the event alone, said he felt very welcome in Copenhagen.
“Most of the people there understand English,” he said. “The cool thing about this competition is that no matter what language you speak, there’s only one language of touch and if you’ve got that touch, they’re going to see it.”
What to Expect
Flying across the world to compete in front of strangers can be intimidating. But those who have made the leap have found the experience rewarding. According to Joe Lavin, who served as a head judge in 2018: “I got to see some things that I’ve never seen before and I got to meet a ton of people from all around the world.”
Regarding what a new participant can expect, Windmill said, “When you arrive you are selected to be in groups of three. One is the giver, one is the receiver and one is the witness watching. The receiver is part of the judging criteria, because the judges check with them and get their feedback.”
There are five main categories: Swedish, Wellness, Chair and Freestyle Western-inspired and Eastern-inspired.
Judges are looking at the technique the therapist is using, body mechanics, flow, innovation and interactaction with the client.
“On the second day of the competition they choose eight participants to then go on,” Windmill said. “Everyone is a contender for a medal, gold, silver, or bronze for their categories, and then there’s a gold, silver
Whoever is a contender for the gold in their category ends up going in front of all the participants. And there you have an hour to give your massage while 130 participants watch you. Each of the audience has a point, or a vote, to give to one of the eight finalists.
“And there are also judges at this round,” Windmill said. “When you are a finalist you are massaging a judge.”
Here Comes the Judge
Regarding the judging process, head judge Lavin has an interesting perspective. “Massage therapists are artists as much as we are therapists. Our work is very personal, so judging is a heavy responsibility. It was a lot of gut checks along the way. You’ve got the criteria, the criteria is nice, but it’s still subjective.”
“We would talk after every round, and people would like this person and they would want to give this person so many points, but then somebody else with a whole different background who has a whole different idea of what ergonomics is would think differently,” he said.
As to how differences between the judges are hashed out, he said, “You have your criteria but you also have a group of professionals who have to get together and work together and listen to each other and come up with a consensus.”
Lavin has a measured perspective on the importance of getting a medal. “All the medal says is that on this particular day, this particular therapist’s performance was the third best out of a 100. It doesn’t tell you who’s good or bad.
“But it does tell you how you appear to people, how they see your work, and that’s valuable,” he added. “You can look at it as a good critique, but I wouldn’t base my net worth on what does or doesn’t happen.”
A Master Class of Techniques
It’s safe to say that Tengbjerg’s initial master-class idea has been fully realized.
A big part of the competition is getting the opportunity to see techniques that are popular in another culture that we in the U.S. don’t do, can’t do, or you have to have a different license to do, said gold medalist Knuth. “I was definitely able to pick up a few things here and there from watching people that are just great tools to have and hold onto.”
Tengbjerg is very proud of this particular aspect of the event. “You see methods you have never dreamed about. We had a woman from Mongolia do Mongolian milk massage. Travis Knuth performs acrobatic yoga massage,” he said. “I had never seen this before.”
About the master class of techniques aspect, Windmill said, “It’s not like there’s an official class, but you’re there and you’re observing each other. You’re watching everyone give each other massages and there’s a lot of different styles.
“I received a massage from a New Zealand woman who used rolling pins,” Windmill added.”And boy did she know what she was doing.”
United by Massage
One of the byproducts of the World Championship in Massage is the community that it forms. As Tengbjerg said, “The participants make contact with each other and then they stay in touch and visit each other in each other’s countries. I can see people communicate from the U.S. and Asia and so on.”
Knuth added, “For me, networking is one of the biggest draws. It’s just really nice to meet people from around the world who do the same thing you do and who share the same passion. And then you have contacts from all over the world.”
Tengbjerg said the event forms strong bonds between people. “There’s a lot of love in the air. These are the most passionate therapists in the world, coming to Copenhagen for two days. And when they meet, they hug each other. It’s a great feeling.”
When asked about the effect this global community of massage therapists may one day have, Lavin doesn’t mince words: “The world of massage will change because of this.”
What It Takes to Compete
Even though massage therapists are usually very giving people, that doesn’t mean they don’t like to win.
For those who want to do well in the competition, the judges and participants shared some advice.
First, Lavin said, make sure you’re in the right division.
“You’re going to get judged by other massage therapists,” Lavin said. “So if you’re competing in Swedish massage, you’ve got to do Swedish massage. If you’re going to go into Freestyle, you have to work on everything you do having a good rationale, good draping, good body mechanics, and it has to make sense for the client.”
Lavin recalled that he had to tell some competitiors, “’That’s the most beautiful massage I’ve seen in years, but you’re in the wrong division.”’
Knuth said the judges look for whether or not the therapist seems focused on their clients, the way that they look in their body movements, and whether there is something that makes them stand out from the competition
Innovation Takes Center Stage
Again and again, when medalists analyzed the aspect of their massage that caught the judges’ attention, the same word keeps coming up: Uniqueness.
“When you do your routine, they want uniqueness,” said Armstrong. “So when you’re putting your routine together, think to yourself, ‘Have the judges seen this before?’ If they have, then don’t show it.”
Or as Knuth put it, “I created a uniqueness. I did a type of therapeutic acrobatics. I have the client on my feet, with my feet somewhere around their waist or around their back, somewhere where it’s going to be safe but where it’s also going to create compression in the body to work out some of those knots and things.
“It’s very different and very unique in terms of things that it can do,” he added. “I believe that’s what put me over the edge.”
Windmill said she does a very three-dimensional type of massage. “It’s very dancelike,” she said. “I pick the client up off the table and cradle them, move with them.”
What you do in your home massage room may be really effective and relaxing, but it may not translate visually,” said Lavin. “Realize that this is as much of a performance as it is a treatment session.”
The Right Frame of Mind
All in all, the participants in the World Championship in Massage put an emphasis on having fun. That is the universally agreed-upon component.
“I would say that the best way to prepare is, in a sense, not to prepare,” said Knuth. “Just go to have fun. Go to share the love and passion you have for massage, because the people who are watching will be able to feel that even if they’re not able to feel the actual work that you’re giving.”
For Knuth, this wisdom was hard won. “The first year I was very serious, I was very competition-based,” he said. I made it to the finals, but it was very stressful. I didn’t end up medaling in anything.”
This year, he said, he went with the sole intention of having a great time, and “having that kind of attitude allowed me to bypass any of the pressure that I put on myself.”
Lavin, who has participated in the event both as a participant and as a judge, sums it up. “My advice would be, don’t worry about winning or not winning. Just come and show the world what you want to show the world.”
About the Author:
Phillip Weber is a San Diego-based writer and co-founder of The English Adept, a language-learning website where he blogs frequently. His news and features for MASSAGE Magazine, including “How Crossfit Massage Grew this Practice from Two to Seven Employees” and “Massage Therapists Adopt the Food Truck Trend.”