Sports massage therapist Zechariah Scheiding (R) and client Carl Lawson Jr, a pass rusher with the NFL’s New York Jets.

Photos Courtesy of George Kousaleos

At my massage school graduation in Gainesville, Florida, in 1978, Benny Vaughn, LMT, BCTMB, ATC, the school’s owner and lead instructor, stated that sports massage would one day be integrated into the field of sports and performance medicine. Vaughn envisioned well-trained massage therapists working with collegiate, professional and Olympic athletes, becoming an essential part of recovery, rehabilitation and performance enhancement.

I immediately decided I would push my career goals in that direction. Little did I know how much time and dedication it would take for these goals to manifest into reality.

My Path to Sports Massage

I became a massage therapist after suffering a severe cervical injury playing rugby in 1975 for the Florida State University (FSU) rugby club. The orthopedic surgeon who worked with FSU athletes diagnosed a cervical C3-C4 disc trauma that would require exploratory surgery to assess the damage.

Luckily, the head athletic trainer pulled me aside and expressed his view that a treatment plan utilizing manual therapy and flexibility exercises was a more prudent course of action. His guidance during my rehabilitation was invaluable.

Sports massage therapist and educator George Kousaleos (L), and Forrest Lamp, a former offensive guard with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, Buffalo Bills and New Orleans Saints.

After many discussions about anatomy and athletic performance, he recommended I take courses in anatomy, physiology and exercise science. It took two more years of study before I felt prepared to study massage therapy, myofascial therapy and structural integration.

One of my first clients was a student in the FSU school of dance. As many massage therapists quickly learn, word-of-mouth advertising is free and often very effective. I also reached out to former members of the rugby club, and took a job as the massage therapist for a local tennis and fitness club.

It took perseverance to gain a reputation as an excellent massage therapist with a variety of athletes. Eventually I received a call from my first client, who had become a professional ballerina in New York City. She asked if I could come to the city, and I began working with other dancers and the director of her ballet troupe.

He introduced me to their chiropractor, who worked with elite dancers, musicians, singers and actors. My job for the next two years was to coordinate myofascial therapy and structural integration protocols with chiropractic and mobilization treatments.

In 1990 I opened the CORE Institute in Tallahassee, Florida, where we offered entry-level education and advanced training in myofascial therapy, sports massage and structural integration. Five years later the British Olympic team announced they would bring their athletes to Tallahassee for warm-weather training in preparation for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia.

Again, an incredible opportunity presented itself. I convinced the British Olympic officials to allow me to bring in therapists from all over the U.S. for advanced training. These therapists worked later in the day and evening with the British athletes and lived in the same dorms, sharing meals and recreational activities. Many of those therapists became part of the Olympic Sports Massage Team Vaughn was asked to organize for the 1996 Olympic Games.

Yet, it took another decade for FSU to recognize that massage therapists should become part of the sports medicine team.

My work with the Olympic Games continued. I was a co-director of the International Sports Massage Team at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. In 2009 I was asked to teach multiple training classes for the next three years in the United Kingdom to prepare British, Scottish, Irish and Welsh massage therapists for the 2012 Olympics in London, England.

Sports massage therapist and educator George Kousaleos (L), and client Jameis Winston, a quarterback with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints.

Sports Massage at FSU and Beyond

In 2011 FSU called and asked if I could coordinate a team of therapists to work twice weekly with the football team. We quickly became an integral part of recovery and rehabilitation. Soft-tissue injuries decreased by 40% during the first season. By the next season, we were working with football players during spring training, summer conditioning programs, and three times weekly during the fall season.

In 2013 the team won the NCAA Division 1 Championship, which led to massage therapy services becoming available for FSU athletes from multiple sports, including track and field, basketball, beach volleyball, soccer, golf and tennis. This continues to the present time, with many of the massage therapists who were there from the first year. Other universities have copied the FSU model, which has given support to the understanding that sports massage is an essential part of sports performance.

In 2015 an opportunity to work with future NFL athletes developed as I watched the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, Indiana. There, I saw massage therapist Don Stanley, LMT, who had worked with me during the 1996 British Olympic preparation camp. He was working on athletes who were preparing to participate in seven events to be used to evaluate their readiness to be future NFL athletes.

He introduced me to Tony Villani, owner and lead trainer of XPE Sports in South Florida, where many professional athletes train during their off season. XPE Sports also hosted an eight-week NFL Combine Prep Camp for 40 to 50 of the top college football athletes. Villani agreed to allow me to recruit therapists from around the country who would come for advanced training while working each day with the combine athletes, an approach much like the one we took with the British Olympians.

That first-year experience continued over the next five years and has significantly increased the number of professional athletes who seek expert therapeutic sports massage and bodywork services. Many of the attending massage therapists now work with professional football, basketball, baseball, soccer, track and field, and mixed martial arts athletes.

Liana Eyre
Liana Eyre

Two of these sports massage therapists, Liana Eyre, LMT, and Zechariah Scheiding, LMT, are great examples of how dedication to increasing one’s knowledge base, clinical skills and use of adjunct modalities develops successful sports massage practices.

Attuned to Clients’ Needs

Eyre was an amateur ice hockey player and expert surfer before she became a massage therapist. She attended the XPE CORE Sports Bodywork training in 2017 and worked on multiple athletes, including Derek Barnett, a consensus All-American from the University of Tennessee.

Sports massage therapist Liana Eyre (L) and client Derek Barnett, a defensive end for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles.

Eyre lived in Philadelphia. Luckily, the Eagles selected Derek in the first round of the NFL Draft. She provided sports bodywork services to Derek and other members of the Eagles, who won the Super Bowl that year.

The following year Eyre completed her training in CORE Structural Integration and moved to St. Augustine, Florida, where she worked with CrossFit athletes and eventually members of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Now living in Jacksonville, she maintains a private practice and has been a contracted employee of the Jaguars for the past five years.

“In-depth communication with elite athletes before, during and after sessions is key to achieving their goals,” says Eyre. “I believe it is important to be honest about what my clients can expect from bodywork sessions. I attune to their needs to tailor their bodywork experience to best serve their physical issues.”

When working with injured athletes, she says, “I work under the guidance of the Jaguars sports medicine staff to follow their rehabilitation protocols. I am always dependable and friendly, I have a sense of humor, and I truly care about maximizing the benefits my clients receive during every session. I believe they sense that commitment.”

Eyre utilizes a blend of techniques and allied modalities including myofascial therapy, structural bodywork, neuromuscular therapy, cupping and instrument-assisted soft-tissue mobilization.

 “I truly love working with elite athletes as the principal clients in my practice,” Eyre added, explaining her sense of professional and personal satisfaction with her career choice. I can’t imagine finding as much satisfaction in any other career. I help people who are the very best at what they do, by doing what I love!”

Committed to His Clients

Zechariah “Zeck” Scheiding also attended the XPE CORE Sports Bodywork training in 2017. He was a recent graduate of a massage therapy program in the Cincinnati, Ohio, area.

One of the other elite defensive ends attending XPE that year was Carl Lawson Jr., who was an All-American from Auburn University. Carl was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals, and Scheiding became his sports massage therapist, which led to 20 other Bengals seeking his services.

Sports massage therapist Zechariah Scheiding (R) and client Carl Lawson Jr, a pass rusher with the NFL’s New York Jets.

Scheiding continues his work with multiple Bengals athletes, including Joe Burrow, the quarterback who led the Bengals to the 2022 Super Bowl. Scheiding has increased his clinical responsibilities during the past two years by also working with the professional soccer team, FC Cincinnati.

Scheiding said his attitude reflects his overall commitment to his clients’ well-being, by being attentive to clients’ specific needs, being outgoing, passionate, caring and supportive of my clients’ interests. I go to their recreational basketball games and charity events, donating to help support them in a cause that is important to their community.”

Sports massage therapist Zechariah Scheiding (R) and client Joe Burrow, a quarterback with the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals.

The primary benefit of his clinical program, Scheiding said, is overall rehabilitation. “Working with two separate pro sports teams and making sure they are rehabbed to the best of my ability is crucial for recovery time,” he said. “Decreasing and alleviating pain comes first, followed by increasing range of motion, reducing risk of further injury, and lastly helping to boost performance. If I can achieve the first three benefits, the fourth benefit comes naturally.”

Like many experienced therapists, Scheiding utilizes multiple modalities. “I start with myofascial therapy, blending in deep tissue, active release, and functional assessment and kinetic treatment with rehab, while also utilizing Graston, cupping, compression therapy, flossing, and heat and cold therapies.”

What Makes a Great Sports Massage Therapist

What is most obvious about not only Eyre and Scheiding, but about most of the wonderful sports massage therapists I have had the opportunity to work with during the past four-and-a-half decades, is their passion and dedication to both their craft and to the people they serve. This professional and personal caring allows them to shine and be noticed as leaders in their field.

George Kousaleos

About the Author

George Kousaleos, LMT, founded the CORE Institute, served on the Florida Board of Massage Therapy, chaired the first National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork, co-directed the 2004 Athens Olympics International Sports Massage Team, and developed the XPE CORE Sports Bodywork Program. He was inducted into the first Massage Therapy Hall of Fame. He teaches around the world while maintaining a limited private practice serving NFL, MMA and Olympic athletes.