The path to massage mastery is paved with dedication and discipline

Some massage therapy sessions are so moving; they resonate so deeply, as powerful and transformational experiences.

How can we, as massage practitioners, consistently create that massage mastery for our clients? In my 40th year practicing massage, I am greatly interested in this issue for two distinct reasons.

First, I’d like to be the best therapist I can be. Second, I find the practice and discipline of massage to be a rich source of personal growth and fulfillment.

Other disciplines, such as the arts, have also explored how some efforts resonate and some do not. In music, I have heard it said that a great entertainer gives you the performance you hoped for, while an artist gives you that which you never knew was possible.

The concert with the entertainer was transactional; you pay a fee and get the concert you wanted. An experience with the artist isn’t transactional, it is transformational.

It is my belief that we therapists, should aspire to elevate our discipline to the level of artistry and massage mastery, benefiting both our clients and ourselves in the process.

The path to mastery is paved with dedication and discipline, my experiences with world-class musicians and athletes have confirmed this as I observed their unwavering focus and discipline to the fundamentals of their craft.

A few years ago, I explored this concept as it applies to massage therapy.

The Pursuit of Massage Mastery

In 2015, I taught 41 educational events. At the start of every seminar, I asked the audience of practicing massage therapists two questions. The first question; “If I wanted to be a great basketball player, what are the skill sets I need?”

I timed the number of skills named (dribbling, shooting passing, etc.) in 60 seconds. The average number of skills named in 60 seconds was 7.8. The second question was this; “If I want to be a great massage therapist, what are the skill sets I need?” The average number of skill sets named was 2.3 in 60 seconds.

When I pointed out the obvious irony that we—massage therapists—knew more about basketball skill sets than we did about our own profession, the answer I often received was, “Well, you just need to do massage a lot.”

Unfortunately, this is a nice idea but far from reality. Using a comparison with another type of athlete, very few golf players I know are substantially better than they were 20 or 30 years ago. If simply doing an activity a lot makes you better, these golf players should be fantastic. They aren’t.

Much has been written about the pursuit of mastery in recent years. One of the ideas you hear is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery. This is a very simple and catchy idea, but it was a misinterpretation of the work of Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson, Ph.D.

Ericsson has been trying to refute this idea with an important clarification: Reflexive practice won’t make you better, only deliberate, engaged practice will. Mastery isn’t achieved by simply showing up; mastery is achieved by paying deep and full attention to the activity.

This is at the heart of what the brain does. We perceive, we respond and we reassess the effect of our action to see if it matches our intention. If the response isn’t what we want, we adjust. All of this is predicated on paying close attention to our actions and the response received.

Every massage therapy session has scores of moments in time where a decision is made, where actions and reactions can be assessed and reevaluated. Those decisions don’t just start when the therapist placed his or her hands on the body; they started with the manner in which the client was greeted, what the therapist chose to wear and the questions asked of the client before getting on the treatment table.

Once on the table, the decisions are endless. I have often overheard therapists ask each other in what position they start with a client: “Do you begin with the client face up or face down?” and “Do you start with the neck or the back?”

Do we position a client because of what is needed at that moment or because it’s the way we always have done it? If we act by default, this is reflexive, not reflective practice.

Throw the Recipe Out

It is my experience—and the experience of others experienced massage therapists—that the recipe approach is not exactly fulfilling for the client. When there is a rigid and fixed routine to the session, the client knows, at some deep level, that the next person is going to get an almost identical session as well.

If every nuance of touch and each action taken is a choice, then each session is a blank canvas, a painting to be created with great care and intention. This creative endeavor isn’t one directional; the client’s input is also central to the process.

An artist must adapt to the nuances of the brush, the particular canvas, and the texture of a particular paint. In the treatment room, needs and responses vary from client to client, and with the same client in different sessions.

What the client needs today may have little to do with what was appropriate in the last session. The only way to respond appropriately is to pay full and close attention to the present moment.

The mindfulness required to pay attention to the present moment is one way massage therapy can benefit the therapist as well as the client.

I often ask therapists who have been practicing more than 20 years what keeps them motivated; and two common themes tend to surface.

The first is a sense that they are making a difference in the lives of their clients and this gives meaning and purpose to their work.

Overwhelmingly, my experience is that massage therapists are a generous and giving people who strive to make the world a better place.

The generosity and true spirit of making a difference in the world is enormously inspiring and uplifting. I wish we could fund many more of these projects than we do.

Second, massage therapists who have stayed in the field for many years say that they experience a sense of constant learning and growing through their practice.

Every client who presents with a musculoskeletal problem is an opportunity for a deeper understanding. My own practice is filled with clients with specific and often difficult muscular issues.

I learn the most with clients with whom I have struggled the most. If I see someone and help them immediately, the client benefits but I have learned very little. The cases that teach me the most are my struggles, when my go-to strategies failed.

Transformational Sessions

Writing this, I can think of several cases immediately. I keep a list of these clients and think of them constantly. They push me to learn more, to dive into the research literature, to rethink my approach to helping them.

Even if what I learn doesn’t help them specifically, it does add to my base of knowledge, potentially helping someone else. In the midst of the struggle, I know that I am learning and growing.

Nothing motivates me more to learn than looking into the eyes of a client who has put his or her trust in me. Clients deserve nothing less than my best effort.

On the path to mastery and artistry, where we are creating sessions the clients perceive as transformational, we are also changed in the process. We have the opportunity to deeply connect with others, learning to listen with our hands, our ears and our hearts.

Discipline and focus serve our clients and help our personal growth as well. Sessions that are deeply connected and transformational are uplifting for client and therapist alike.

How lucky are we to be in a field where this is true?

About the Author

Douglas Nelson, L.M.T., began his career in massage therapy in 1977 and maintains a very active clinical practice. He offers Precision Neuromuscular Therapy seminars (nmtmidwest.com) throughout the U.S. His particular interest has been the role of soft tissue in performance. He has served as a neuromuscular consultant to NBA and NFL teams, as well as high-level musicians. His book, The Mystery of Pain, was published by Singing Dragon in 2013. He wrote “Whiplash: Keys to Working in Collaboration with Other Health Care Providers” for massagemag.com.

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