By August, sports massage therapist Lori-Ann Gallant-Heilborn will be in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, massaging U.S. athletes as they get ready to compete in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.
It’s fitting that Gallant-Heilborn will be part of an event that showcases the peak level of athletic achievement, because she herself operates at peak level, having created sports massage facilities and participated at many sporting events in both national and international arenas.
Gallant-Heilborn shared details on how she works with the world’s best athletes, how she got into sports massage, and how other massage therapists can do the same.
Types of Athletes
The Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, held Aug. 5–21, will be Gallant-Heilborn’s fourth Olympic Games. As a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee Sports Medicine Division staff, she will arrive in Rio de Janeiro with the athletes a week and a half before the games begin.
The athletes use this time to acclimate themselves to their new environment. While they train, they make frequent visits to a sports medicine clinic, in a central location where massage therapists, chiropractors, athletic trainers and medical doctors all provide health care.
Although Gallant-Heilborn works primarily in the clinic, if the organizers need a massage therapist to travel to a location where a group of athletes are, she will leave the clinic to work on-site.
The types of athletes that sports massage therapist Gallant-Heilborn works with run the gamut. “When I was in Beijing, [China], I was the massage therapist who was responsible for the men’s volleyball team, but I also helped boxers, swimmers and wrestlers,” she said. “I see everybody.”
Providing massage in such an environment is demanding, she added. According to Gallant-Heilborn, working at the Olympic Games demands flexibility—and long hours.
Let Go of Old Ideas
In addition to working at the Olympic Games, Gallant-Heilborn has created sports massage facilities in Rhode Island and North Carolina, and has put together a sports massage team that travels to sporting events around the country. She has worked for 12 years in Washington, D.C., at the Marine Corps Marathon and has been to Colorado Springs, Colorado, for the Wounded Warrior games. She has also travelled twice internationally with USA Bobsled & Skeleton.
When asked about the skills a therapist needs to work on the world’s best athletes, Gallant-Heilborn stressed the importance of deep knowledge of the muscular system.
“You have to know the origins, the insertions and what muscle groups work together,” she said. ”[And] to get muscles to respond the way you want, you need to create cellular communications between the muscles by manipulation of the soft tissue.”
She said that to adopt this approach, therapists need to be willing to let go of “old ideas” they were taught in massage school and embrace new modalities in the sports medicine arena.
She added that with athletes, massage is more than just relaxation.
“The majority of massage therapists who work with athletes just give them a polished-up, relaxing massage,” Gallant-Heilborn said. “What they need to do is focus on specific muscle groups.
“[Massage therapists] need to know that sometimes in the work they do, they are going to create a certain amount of discomfort in the moment,” she added. “Instead of just thinking of providing comfort, the massage therapist needs to understand that they are an active participant in the athlete’s maintenance and recovery phase.”
Become a Sports Massage Therapist
It’s an exciting time for sports massage, with collegiate and professional athletes—and their support staff, including athletic trainers, physical therapists and sports-medicine doctors—recognizing the benefits of hands-on health care.
“Sports medicine professionals … are recognizing the need for skilled and knowledgeable sports massage therapists and requesting that they be added or included when developing protocols for maintenance, recovery and traveling sports medicine teams,” said Gallant-Heilborn. “Sports massage opportunities are opening up every day, and we are being paid for our service.”
Regarding specific ways a successful sports massage therapist can prepare to work with athletes, Gallant-Heilborn suggests the following:
- Know the muscular and skeletal systems. Understand the mechanics of injury and what your professional protocol is to help athletes with recovery when and if an injury occurs.
- Start taking courses on various stretching, myofascial release and taping modalities, and anything else that you believe will add to your skill set.
- Partner with athletic trainers, sports physical therapists and chiropractors. Apprentice with those who are willing to teach you new things that can be brought into sports massage.
- Start networking with your local high schools. This is where you can start educating young athletes about the importance of sports massage, along with educating parents and coaches.
Capping off this advice, Gallant-Heilborn stressed the importance of persistence. “Set goals and keep after them,” she said.
She Set the Bar High
Although Gallant-Heilborn is involved in sports massage on multiple fronts, including via her practice, Ultimate Sports Massage LLC, her work at the Olympic Games remains the highest, so far, hurdle she has cleared.
“The most touching and emotional response I have had [from an athlete] was at the 2008 Olympic Games,” she said. “It was the end of the games following the gold medal match of the men’s volleyball.
“After the U.S. men’s team clinched the gold, a key player on the team came to me and placed his gold medal around my neck and said, ‘You deserve this; I couldn’t have done it without you.’”
Editor’s note: Read “Specialize in Sports Massage: Advanced Certification Can Change Your Practice” in the August 2016 print issue of MASSAGE Magazine.
Phillip Weber is a San Diego-based writer and co-founder of The English Adept, a language-learning website where he blogs frequently.