Peggy Poland hadn’t planned to specialize in sports massage, but when the 1996 Olympic Games came to Atlanta, Georgia, where she lived, she knew the opportunity was one she should pursue.

“I was fortunate. I’d been out of school about a year, so my practice wasn’t huge to begin with, and I thought I could use the volunteering as a marketing tool,” Poland recalls. “My practice suffered in the short run because I wasn’t looking as much toward marketing my practice, but looking long term I knew people would see I had experience working with U.S. Olympic athletes.”

Poland graduated from the Atlanta School of Massage in 1994, and she soon found herself volunteering at a variety of area sporting events—the Olympics, the Georgia Games, an NCAA swimming event, the U.S. Track & Field trial and others—alongside three fellow Atlanta School graduates, Don Myers, Louann Naninni and Brian Blotzbach.

The four new therapists decided to open a business together, and today Body Mechanics Massage Therapy is one of the area’s most successful sports-massage providers. The practice counts among its clients the Atlanta Falcons National Football League team and the Atlanta Hawks National Basketball Association team. Weekend warriors and other amateur and professional athletes round out the practice’s clientele.

Poland says even today, when sports massage is seen as a valuable component of athletic performance much more than it was 15 years ago, volunteering is key to launching a successful sports-massage practice, for the experience and contacts it provides. Her work with the Falcons was originally on a volunteer basis; today the practice’s massage therapists are paid, and new graduates are recruited to help provide massage to the players.

The time to observe athletes is one type of experience volunteering allows for, she says. Standing just 5 feet 2 inches tall and 95 pounds as an adult, Poland says, growing up, she was always the last kid picked for the basketball team. Her athletic experience was confined to gymnastics and ballet, so to learn more about the movements involved in team sports, she learned to observe—and she utilized the sporting events she volunteered at as her sports-massage classroom.

“It’s important to know exactly what the athlete does—not just the fact that it’s a football player, but understanding the position and the motions they go through,” she explains.

For example, Poland admits she “didn’t know the first thing” about basketball in the early ’90s, but volunteering for the Georgia Tech basketball team got her over that hurdle.

“I would go to practice and watch them,” she says. “I was watching their footwork—not whether they made the shot or not, [but] watching how they compensated and that kind of thing.”

Another key to success as a sports-massage therapist is understanding the difference between therapist and fan—and any massage therapist who wants to work with athletes should remove the stardust from his or her eyes, Poland says.

“The players have told me that they recognize hangers-on and people who are only interested in them because they’re a football player, not because they’re a person,” she says. “It’s important to remember you’re treating a human being on the table.”

Sports-massage therapists must keep confidentiality paramount in order to win athletes’ trust, she adds, and treat everyone—from benchwarmer to first-stringer—exactly the same when they’re on the massage table.

“Say you need five more minutes [for a session with a lower-level athlete] and then a first-string comes in,” Poland explains. “You say, ‘Give me five more minutes, I’ll make it up to you at the end of your session.’ People remember things like that. You build up trust.”

—Karen Menehan