Every Tuesday, NFL massage therapist Kevin Burns packs his bag, loads his car with his massage table and drives over the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge to Alameda to meet the players of the Oakland Raiders football team.
He is part of an elite team of massage therapists, athletic trainers and medical staff who take care of the players. This is his fourth season with the Raiders; he previously worked with the San Francisco 49ers for 10 seasons.
Burns is a person who dreams big and knows how to listen to his heart—and in the 25 years he has been a sports massage therapist, his heart hasn’t steered him wrong. He is “changing the world one body at a time,” a motto he adopted from his days in massage school.
NFL Massage Therapist: A Big Job
On a typical workday at the Oakland-Alameda stadium, Burns helps eight to nine players in 20- to 30-minute sessions.
It’s a big job; NFL players have a lot of body mass. The average size of a lineman is about 6’5″ and 312 pounds, according to Business Insider.
“There is a lot more mass and muscle tissue, but their soft tissue responds a lot quicker to the manipulation … than someone who comes in who is totally dehydrated and it feels like you are working on beef jerky,” Burns told MASSAGE Magazine.
After working on football players, Burns heads back across the bridge to work on clients in his private practice, San Francisco Sports Massage and Performance.
As a sports massage therapist, he has a well-earned reputation from his years working with high-caliber athletes, including those from Major League Baseball, Team New Zealand in America’s Cup Sailing, professional triathletes and Olympic Games competitors.
Hands-On Sports Massage Training
Burns’ successful career, spanning more than two decades in the field of sports massage, didn’t happen overnight. He had a vision, birthed before he even started massage school.
A New Jersey native who graduated from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City with a degree in exercise physiology, Burns had his sights set on a career in physical therapy, but he had to wait several months before the next training program was scheduled to start.
While he was waiting, he took a friend’s advice and enrolled in massage school with the intention of gaining additional skills before heading into the physical therapy program.
Two weeks later he found himself registering for a six-month accelerated program at Utah College of Massage. It was an intense program, requiring weekly classes and weekend clinics. It wasn’t easy to go to school and work at the same time, but he was determined and put his full effort into it.
Burns’ degree in exercise physiology gave him a leg up in anatomy and physiology, which was a common struggle for many of his massage-school classmates. Early in his training, he was in a two-week rotation with the U.S. Ski team, which had all the workings of a sports medicine program, from strength and conditioning to physical therapy.
As he worked on athletes, he made a decision.
“I was really enjoying what I was doing, so I felt that I didn’t really need to go to PT school,” Burns said.
Keys to Business Success
After graduating, Burns opened a sports massage office in Utah and later moved to the Bay Area. There he opened San Francisco Sports Massage and Performance, where he now sees an average of 30 clients a week—triathletes, lacrosse players, runners and people seeking relief from pain.
He also sees Raiders players privately for extended sessions.
Burns says the key to his successful practice as an NFL massage therapist is in continuing education, not only in massage but in the field of sports medicine.
He familiarizes himself with the terminology, treatments and protocols that sports medicine professionals use. This helps him work better with trainers, medical staff and clients.
It also elevates him to a level of professionalism elite athletes expect.
“I have a lot of tools under my tool belt,” Burns said.
An Athlete Himself
Sports massage requires passion, appreciation for sports and lots of education on injury and injury prevention.
As an athlete himself, Burns had firsthand experience with this. He played collegiate ball in Utah and grew up playing sports. His techniques in stretching and massage give him the right tools to treat and educate his clients.
“The good thing about athletes like this is their body is their temple. They take good care of it,” Burns said.
“From a soft tissue standpoint, their tissue is in a lot better shape—even though it can be beat up from the use—than the general public, because they stay hydrated, they are good with their nutrition and they do strength and conditioning, and they do a lot of other things to help themselves … that most of the general public don’t have exposure to or access to,” he added.
Common Issues for Athletes
In his practice, Burns uses active release techniques, functional release conditioning and functional range release.
He also incorporates cupping, massage instruments and fascial stretch therapy. His treatments are a combination of modalities depending on what his clients need in their protocols; for example, rehab, pre- or post-training.
“The work I do is very detailed and very specific,” Burns said, adding that what drives him to work with high-caliber athletes is the problem-solving aspect of the job.
“I get a lot of different kinds of injuries and problems to solve that you don’t see with the general public,” Burns said. Mainly lower limb injuries in the ankles and knees, anterior cruciate ligament problems, high ankle sprains and hip injuries. For him, it’s a sports massage therapist’s dream.
Teaching Injury Prevention
On the flip side of dealing with physical trauma, Burns teaches athletes the importance of neck and cervical spine health, and works with concussion protocols as well. Working with athletes is “where my mindset and heart-set is,” Burns said.
“It is a great environment. It is something I am familiar with. I love working with athletes,” he added.
Another facet to sports massage, one to which most massage therapists coming out of school are not exposed, is the psychological aspect to the hands-on work therapists do with athletes.
As a massage therapist you can have an impact with what you say as well as what you do to help a person along, explains Burns, and that can make all the difference.
When an athlete gets injured, often doctors focus on telling them what they can’t do anymore, but Burns says part of his treatment is rooted in working on what they can do.
“You can really make a difference just talking with them. I have athletes that come in and we end up talking more so than [doing] hands-on work. I find that more beneficial at times,” Burns said.
About the Author:
Aiyana Fraley, LMT, is a freelance writer and healthcare professional with more than 17 years of experience in the massage field. She teaches yoga and offers sessions in massage, reiki, sound healing and essential oils. She wrote “American Society of Clinical Oncology Endorses Massage Guidelines for Breast Cancer Care” recently for massagemag.com.
Photos courtesy of Kevin Burns