In October of 2010, I found myself flying to Europe with a group of 20 athletes I did not know and had never treated with sports massage. I had recently graduated from a 2,200-hour massage program and, although I had excelled in school, I couldn’t help but wonder, “How did I get myself into this?”
Fast forward to the present day, and I am still traveling with and treating the same team—the Canadian Long Track Speed Skating Team—and over the years, we have traveled together to World Cups, World Championships, and ultimately, the Olympic Games in 2014 in Sochi, Russia, and in 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Along the way, I have had to learn some hard lessons about what it is really like to work with high-performance athletes. There have been very high highs, and the incredibly low lows that come with this career.
Understanding a Sport
Since that first trip, I had to increase my knowledge about speed skating quickly because I didn’t have a background in the sport. Luckily, the other massage therapist who worked with the team was a former skater and was able to talk to me extensively about the sport.
I also spent dedicated time trackside watching practices and listening to coaches’ feedback to athletes to better understand the technical cues of the sport. I also asked our athletes who had the best starts, straightaways and corners in the world and then tried to identify what made their technique different from the athletes I was working with.
One of the benefits of working with a sports team is the ability to see athletes progress over weeks, months and years. When you work with the same group of athletes, you have much more freedom to see them for different durations of treatments, and more often than regular clients; for example, trackside for 10 minutes multiple times in one week if necessary.
This gives the opportunity to develop treatment goals directly related to the athlete’s key performance indicators (KPIs) and to work toward those goals. The KPIs may be related to areas such as in-competition performance, recovery education, sport-specific flexibility or rehabilitation from an injury.
If you plan on working on an integrative support team, the ability to manage your emotions around athletes and staff is incredibly valuable. Athletes and therapists are people first, meaning not every personality meshes up perfectly. You can find yourself in a situation where you are working closely with an athlete you find very draining, either physically or emotionally.
Physically, the days can be very long, with lots of waiting between treatments. I have left hotels for the rink at 6 a.m. and returned to the hotel after 11 p.m. with treatments still left to do before I could go to sleep. Your treatment schedule has to be flexible enough to accommodate performance-improving requests from athletes.
Emotionally, I am in close proximity with athletes I need to collaborate with, even if I don’t necessarily want to. Normally in our clinical practices these clients might only come in once a month, but with a team you have to treat them, travel with them, and eat meals with them all while making sure you’re still providing comprehensive, high-quality treatments to them.
On the road, it is incredibly important to make sure I take small moments to recover my energy so I am ready to treat when the need arises. This has gone so far as to occasionally not watch races to make sure I am ready to treat afterward regardless of the results of the races.
The same can be said about other staff members. It is crucial to work as collaboratively within the integrative support team as possible with coaches, administration, exercise physiologists, physiotherapists and many others. Since all the staff are striving toward a common goal—sport performance—it’s not uncommon for there to be disagreements about how to progress an athlete or deal with rehabilitation and return to sport planning.
My job also requires me to be away from my family for extended amounts of time. My team has been very accommodating since the birth of my children, but travel can quickly become a burden instead of a bonus in this job. The travel can be very rewarding, but often you are in a city for a short amount of time with little to no chance to sightsee.
Hits and Misses
We all have success stories where we helped a client overcome an injury or deal with their pain—but seeing someone achieve a goal they have been working toward every day of their life for 15 to 20 years? Those are the days that make sports massage so fulfilling. To work with highly motivated clients toward a long-term goal can be intoxicating, especially when you’ve seen them try and fail before finally succeeding.
However, watching an athlete miss an Olympic spot, lose a world championship or be retired from sport due to an injury is unbelievably taxing. Over the years, I have forged relationships with every athlete who has gotten onto my table, and I can’t help but celebrate the victories and mourn the defeats. I have hugged athletes after they won Olympic medals or fell in Olympic events. Both of these types of situations are exhausting for me as a therapist.
Although I travel exclusively with the Canadian Long Track Speed Skating team, I also provide massage to other teams and athletes that need treatment either as they come through the city for training camps, or if their integrative support team does not have other massage therapists for them to see. I do this work through the Canadian Sport Institute in Calgary, Alberta.
Over the years, this has included women’s wrestling, short track speed skating, luge, bobsled, alpine skiing and others. Some athletes I only see once or twice before they are back on the road, while others I have had the privilege of working with through multiple Olympic cycles.
Mentorship is an area that is often overlooked within our profession, both between massage therapists and also between massage therapists and members of other professions. I love that I have gotten to collaborate with some amazing therapists over the years. I have treated alongside massage therapists, osteopaths, physiotherapists and chiropractors, and the mentorship this job has provided me over the years has been incredible.
How to Land a Job in Sports Massage
Sports teams can fluctuate between the services they are looking for (massage, physiotherapists, chiropractors, etc.), how much funding they have each year, and which therapist seems to be in vogue at that moment. Although there is no guaranteed path to work with sports teams, there are some tips that can help you stand out from the crowd, both to organizations and individual athletes:
• Understand the sport intimately. The more you know the sport, how athletes train, and the demands placed on different body parts, the more valuable you become to an organization.
• Find out who is currently providing services and reach out to them. Many therapists work with teams as well as the general public. If possible, book a treatment with therapists who work with sports you are interested in. This will provide you a high-quality treatment, and also give you the therapist’s undivided attention for the duration of the treatment so you can ask questions and learn more about their role with the sport.
• Identify services you provide that others do not. If you understand a sport and its common injuries, it’s easier to identify how you can support that sport’s athletes in ways other therapists can’t, thereby increasing your value within the organization.
Sports Massage as a Career
Sports massage can be an incredibly rewarding career, but it’s important to acknowledge its more challenging aspects. If you love traveling, working collaboratively and providing performance-based treatments, then it might be a great fit for you—but make sure you have strategies in place to help you recover and take care of yourself while you’re on the road.
Once you have started with a team, continue to deepen and develop your skills to increase your value within the organization by identifying gaps in treatments that are within your scope of practice.
About the Author
Joseph Bentley, BCR, RMT, FDN-P, is a massage therapist in Black Diamond, Alberta, Canada, who provides massage services to National Sport Organizations through the Canadian Sport Institute in Calgary. He also teaches sport massage continuing education courses in person and online.