Rejection. Experience. Hard work. Discretion.
These are all necessary components of making it as a pro sports massage therapist.
Before you consider becoming a pro sports massage therapist, you should prepare yourself to endure some, or a lot, of rejection.
Fresh out of massage school, I knew I wanted to work with pro sports teams. I’d always been involved in sports, competed in sports and followed sports, so it was a natural progression to want to work with pro sports teams.
I was very fortunate to attend high school in central New Jersey with one of the winningest public school football coaches in the country, Warren H. Wolf, who allowed me to work with his head athletic trainer both my junior and senior years of high school. I learned how to fix equipment, tape up shin splints and ankle injuries, stretch out athletes, massage out cramps and lift 50-pound jugs of sports drinks.
The head trainer, “Bear,” told me that I’d better work twice as hard as anyone else, and maintain a calm, relaxing smile on my face, because, as a woman aspiring to work in the pro sports arena, I would need to do this every day to prove myself. He was right.
Upon completing massage school, I used my free time to work on first responders. After having hundreds of hours under my belt, I thought I was ready for the pros.
I know, I know, that’s laughable now, but being new to massage, I didn’t know about paying my dues and honing my craft as a sports massage therapist. So, off to the pros I went.
Living in New Jersey, I had access to over a dozen pro teams in the Tri-State area and an equal number of semi-pro teams. I approached every football, baseball, basketball and hockey team in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York, and the answer from all was a resounding “No!”
Breaking In as a Sports Massage Therapist
During this time, I continued to get more specialized education, continued to work free charity events with pro athletes, and then started working on more obscure, lower-paying sports and athletes, such as bowling and jockeys.
It was in my working free charity events for kids, alongside pro athletes, that I first got my foot in the door.
Because no local teams were giving me a chance to work as a sports massage therapist, I was commuting three hours to work with individual Baltimore Ravens football players. It was in Baltimore, Maryland, where I met Superbowl Most Valuable Player Ray Lewis, who allowed me to stretch and warm up the kids who were attending his annual fitness camp.
For those who don’t know Ray, he has a very high standard for what is acceptable and what is not. For his entire career, he was always first to arrive the day of his free fitness clinics for kids.
For Ray to trust me with his kids’ wellness events spoke volumes to others, and then other pro athletes who volunteered their time at his events started allowing me to work on them (I always brought my massage chair and table to all events—just in case).
Growing up, I was raised to be a New York Jets football fan and a Yankees baseball fan. Being rejected by both teams, I can’t tell you the great joy I had standing sidelines on those fields for the first time. The only difference was, I was standing beside the visiting teams.
This is because most professional sports teams travel light, which means most of them do not travel with in-house sports massage therapists; in fact, a majority of professional teams still do not have in-house massage therapists.
Each time I worked on a player in Baltimore, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami or another city, I would give him my card and tell him to call me when he was competing in the tri-state area and that I would work them at the stadiums.
People started recognizing my shirts, my branding. To this day, some people don’t know my name, but will point to the embroidery on my shirt and say, “Bodyworks, can you help us out?”
(This is why my first piece of advice is to select what your branding is going to be and always wear an article of clothing showing it—always. It doesn’t matter to me if people know my name, but they know when they see the logo that they are in the hands of someone who has experience.)
In working as a sports massage therapist with visiting teams, you get the chance to have a much broader base of clients, not just the teams, but the individual players during their season, after their season, and even when they are on vacation.
Another great plus of working on visiting players and teams is getting the chance to work with some of the greatest bodyworkers, sports physicians, physical therapists, athletic trainers and athletes.
Interview with the Miami HEAT’s MT
There is a special comradery among sports massage therapists working with professional teams.
One of my friends is Vinny Aquilino, the long-time neuromuscular therapist for the NBA multi-championship Miami HEAT basketball team. Viinny is in his 11th season with the HEAT.
Before meeting Vinny, I was a fan of his work. One of my favorite pictures of Vinny is of him stretching Shaqille O’Neil on the basketball court, with the caption, “That moment when you are as tall as Shaq’s leg.” I’m 5’8” and Vinny is taller than me, so imagine how long Shaq’s leg is.
Vinny has contributed to three NBA championship teams with the HEAT, been invited to the White House three times, and worked with some of the top athletes in their prime. It’s a pretty impressive résumé.
I wanted to add the perspective of working as a sports massage therapist by someone who is employed full time by a pro team, so I asked my friend Vinny to share his story about how he became a professional sports massage therapist.
BJ Dowlen: Did you always want to be a pro sports massage therapist?
Vinny Aquilino: Yes. My intent in going to massage school was to be sports massage therapist, working with a pro team. I attended a seminar led by Benny Vaughn, and I was so impressed with his presentation that I approached him after it was over and asked if he offered any kind of apprentice or internship programs. He said yes.
At the time, I was living in south Florida and the three-month sports massage program with Benny was in Gainesville—so off to Gainesville I went.
BJ: How did you break in to the field of becoming a pro sports massage therapist?
Vinny: I started knocking on doors, lots of doors. I sent résumés and received plenty of rejections. The drill would be, I’d knock on the door, send a résumé, make a phone call and do it all again six months later.
BJ: While you were facing rejection, like I did, what were you doing with your practice?
Vinny: For nine to 10 years, while knocking on doors, I continued to work on my craft, attending seminars and getting my certifications in Neuromuscular Therapy (by Paul St. John) and Active Isolated Stretching (by Aaron Mattes). After many attempts of knocking on doors, sometimes the same doors, finally the door opened with the Miami HEAT.
BJ: Now you’re in the big leagues and under a huge spotlight. What is it like to be part of a professional team?
Vinny: Exciting, nerve-wracking, hard work and fun. Each day is different, each player’s needs are different; each facility is different, so being flexible and adaptable is crucial.
BJ: What is the team environment like?
Vinny: Collaboration is key. First and foremost, all massage therapists’, physical therapists’, equipment managers’, athletic trainers’, orthopedic docs’ and coaches’ jobs are to prepare athletes to perform at their top level.
Our whole purpose is to support and prepare the athletes, however we can, working together, with no ego. Without that concept, you won’t last long in the industry.
BJ: I have to tell them the breakfast story. A few years ago when the HEAT was in Philadelphia, we met up in the hotel lobby and then went to a local breakfast spot that the players like. Vinny and I went early and grabbed our own table, so we could spend time alone talking and bouncing ideas off of each other.
A little while later, the team walked over from the hotel to the restaurant.
Because we were sitting at our own table, and the team and coaches sat together, my friend Vinny took a lot of ribbing, both while we were at breakfast, and later in the day at practice. I also happened to mention to [a player] that Vinny made me pay for breakfast (which wasn’t the case).
I love that restaurant, yet, I will never mention the name or location of the restaurant (or the hotel), as in this industry, discretion is absolutely necessary.
There are so many times I’d love to share with people where I was or who I was with; however, discretion (necessary with this) job doesn’t allow for that.
Vinny: Yes, discretion is always a must when working with a pro team. (And thanks again for telling them that you paid!) For those looking to work directly for a pro team, it’s likely you will be required to sign a confidentiality clause [as part of] your contract.
BJ: What are three positive things and three negative things about working and traveling with a pro team?
Vinny: First, I love what I do. I work for a great team, with great management and a great owner, which creates a great work environment.
Second, I’m not a pro athlete, yet I get to be part of a championship team.
Third, I like being part of a team that helps prepare athletes to be their best. I could go on but you said only name three.
In terms of negative things, first, you don’t have control over your schedule, which means there are missed birthday parties, anniversaries and holidays. I’m very blessed to have a very supportive wife and son, and we do our best to celebrate occasions before or after the actual dates.
Second, I get attached to my players on a personal level, and I miss their intensity and joy when they retire or move on to another team.
That’s it, just two. I don’t have a number three. Like I said, I love what I do and the team I work for.
BJ: What do you do on your breaks between seasons?
Vinny: Quality time with my family and friends. We definitely make the most of our time together.
There are always summer practice leagues and other teamwork needed between the official season’s [events]. Recently, I started working with individuals and groups, leading mentorship programs and tutoring recently licensed massage therapists.
I like the idea of giving back to the profession that’s been so good to me.
BJ: I was going to ask you for a final tip or advice for someone looking to be a pro sports massage therapist, but I think your advice would be to train with you.
Vinny: Yes, that could help. But for those who can’t work with me in person, my advice would be to work hard at developing your craft, and take workshops and courses to increase your value.
That way, when that door of opportunity opens, you are ready to step through it.
About the Author
BJ Dowlen began her massage career in 1999. Founder of Bodyworks Enterprises, she’s worked with elite professional athletes, sports teams and Fortune 500 companies for 17 years. She is also inventor of the award-winning BodyworksBall, a self-massage tool for relief of neck cricks, shoulder knots, back pain, aching hands and feet. BodyworksBall has been featured in the L.A. Times, O Magazine and USA Today, and on the Today Show, MSNBC and FoxNews.
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