Sports Massage

10 Winning Concepts

By Rebecca Jones
[Ten for Today]

1. Sports massage starts before the event
That’s true whether the client is a professional athlete, a serious amateur, or a casual exerciser. “The pre-event sessions are designed for getting the body ready and primed,” says Steve Earles, a certified sports massage therapist who frequently consults with Sombra, a product line that includes massage cream and lotion, and warm and cool pain-relieving gel therapy. “Specific areas are addressed depending on which muscles and joints will be impacted. For example, a runner may need more range of motion and flexibility with the hamstrings and calf areas. A baseball or softball player may be concerned about the rotator cuff and arm. Maximum muscle use and joint mobilization is the goal.”

2. Know the sport
“If you know the biomechanics and issues of the activity, it is much easier to relate to your clients and they will feel at ease knowing they’re in good hands,” says triathlete Ellyn Vandenberg, an instructor with, an education group that specializes in advanced myofascial techniques. “You’ll also know what’s appropriate to do for them and with them.”

3. Know the biomechanics of movement
What looks like a simple sore joint may have its origins in a different part of the body. “Say your client has started a recreational running program, and starts having anterior knee pain, a common ailment,” says Whitney Lowe, director of OMERI based in Sisters, Oregon. “Someone skilled in orthopedic massage won’t say ‘Let’s massage your knee because it hurts.’ They’ll look at the mechanics of it. It might be your footwear or postural problems. Analyzing the nature of what the client is doing is key.”

4. It’s all about connections
“The anatomy we learned in school isn’t all that easy to apply in a holistic way,” says Tom Myers, creator of Anatomy Trains, a unique map of “the anatomy of connection.” “Someone with fallen arches may actually be tied up in the groin,” Myers says. “If they keep pointing to their feet, and you keep working on their arches, it will be an exercise in frustration for everybody.”

5. A slow slog or a fast romp
Garry Vitti, head athletic trainer with the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, and a consultant with Biomechanic Systems, prefers the latter. Biomechanic Systems makes a percussive massager that is intended to perform myofascial release more quickly and with far less stress on the therapist. “With this type of device, instead of treating six to eight people per day, you could treat 35 with very little, if any, physical fatigue,” Vitti says.
Using a hand-held device doesn’t mean you’ll never use your hands again, Vitti says. “You always begin and end with your hands on the person. But instead of doing all the work with your hands, you use the machine to create the release, then go back with your hands.” He estimates using a percussive massage cuts treatment time by about a third.

6. Extend your work with kinesiology taping
Drew Freedman, owner and founder of The Boston Bodyworker, says using tape is like “allowing the therapist’s hands to leave with the patient.” Specialty training is crucial for those interested in using this product. Whenever using the tape, the key is to avoid the temptation to pull it taut, Freedman says. Rather, there should be no tension on the tape at all. “It should just lift the skin where there’s inflammation, to allow the lymphatic fluid to clear,” he says. “Lifting the skin just 10 microns is enough to allow fluid to flow in the direction it needs to.” There are a number of different brands of kinesiology tape on the market, but Freedman sees little difference in them. “It’s really the application of the tape that’s important,” he says.

7. Check your state regulations
The tools and techniques you can use for sports massage—or any type of massage—vary from state to state. For example, kinesiology taping is not permitted in some states. Whenever you decide to add something new to your practice, first confirm it’s within your state’s scope of practice regulations. 

8. Ask the right questions
“When people are struggling, it may mean you’re doing great work, but in the wrong place,” says Douglas Nelson, founder of Precision Neuromuscular Therapy in Illinois. Evaluation and assessment are just as important as great therapy, he says. “Strength of muscle is one thing to consider. So is postural evaluation. But it’s never all about any one of those things. All these evaluations are helpful, but none are to be trusted completely. Structure is important, but if you think every issue has a structural underpinning, you’re wrong.”

9. Consider take-home tools
“By the time an athlete gets up from a massage, drives away, and carries on with the rest of their day, their problem muscles are tight again,” says Tom Turner, developer of Massage Blocks, a popular trigger-point self-therapy tool. When used for support, these rubber blocks are soft enough for comfort, but hard enough to dig into knotted muscles. “In addition to prescribed stretching and mobility work, we find hitting trouble spots first thing in the morning and two to three times throughout the day is invaluable. Then, just before bed, taking time for a long, targeted session allows trigger points to remain loose and circulate metabolic by-products all night. This overnight effect is surprisingly powerful,” Turner says.

10. Locate it, then treat it
That’s where something like Books of Discovery’s Trail Guide to the Body can prove invaluable. “In the therapeutic massage world, sometimes therapists can get away with not being specific with their palpation skills because they’re not dealing with people who know their body very well. But in the athletic training world, you’re dealing with people who know exactly what their quadriceps is and where it attaches,” says Rhoni Hirst, director of sales for Books of Discovery. If a client comes in with a sports-related injury you don’t see very often, it’s crucial to be able to access a resource like this to see exactly where a given muscle attaches.

Rebecca Jones is a tenured Massage & Bodywork freelance writer. She lives and writes in Denver, Colorado. Contact her at