What Does It Take to Make It? Sports Massage

The World of Elite Sports Massage

By Brandon Twyford

As massage therapy continues to gain wider acceptance among professional sports teams and elite athletes, more massage therapists are considering sports massage as a career option. After all, having massage therapists on staff is now more the norm than the exception for professional sports teams. As in any profession, with greater popularity comes greater competition, along with a host of pertinent questions: How can massage therapists interested in entering this field get a leg up on the competition? What advice do therapists who currently work with professional athletes have for other therapists considering this career? What does it take to make it in the world of elite sports massage?

To answer those questions, we reached out to massage therapists who work with professional sports teams or other elite athletes to share their experiences—how they got there and how other therapists can get there too. The answers aren’t surprising, but keen MTs will find helpful pearls of wisdom within the basic elements of the stories—common threads that can help shape a path to the career goal they desire.

Out of these stories, three overarching themes become clear: gaining knowledge of anatomy and kinesiology, networking with and learning from as many people as possible, and practicing what you preach in order to stay in tune with your own body.

Education in Anatomy and Kinesiology

High-level athletic endeavors require an exceptional level of support for performance and recovery. Depending on a therapist’s background and individual aptitude for sports massage, a standard massage education may not be sufficient to meet the needs of a body that is put through the intense physical demands of an elite athlete. In fact, many sports massage therapists find it necessary to continue pursuing additional training and education even after they’ve obtained their career goals to keep them abreast of the constant advances in the science of athletic performance.       

In contrast to many other therapists’ educational paths, Kenneth Pitts’s massage education came in reverse order, in a sense. Pitts, a former sports performance coach for the Boston Bruins professional hockey team, was already working as an NFL strength and conditioning coach when he realized the impact massage therapy could have on the work he was doing. “In 2007, we did not have a massage therapist on staff,” Pitts says. “Because of this, the strength and conditioning staff performed all soft-tissue therapy with the use of foam rollers, massage sticks, tennis balls, etc. As I worked with these tools, I realized that it might be beneficial to become licensed as a massage therapist for those hard-to-reach areas and for a deeper understanding of what was occurring physiologically.”

Pitts didn’t stop there. Like many other sports massage therapists, he’s made it a rule to continue learning about the body and movement. After he became an LMT, he earned a graduate degree in rehabilitation science, and he’s currently pursuing a degree as a physical therapist assistant. 

This focus on anatomy and movement education is not to say it’s impossible for a massage therapist without formal training or education in kinesiology to join a sports team. For some hiring managers, as in any other job, direct experience in a specific area is less important than an open, positive attitude and a strong work ethic. Rachel Voyles, a massage therapist who works with professional cyclists, says, “I knew absolutely nothing about cycling or that world, and I was surprised that they kept asking me back and eventually hired me full time. I was told that everything I didn’t know was teachable, but what was more important was my ability to get along with everyone and my strong work ethic and desire to give my all in my work (things that aren’t teachable), plus the array of knowledge I had in both massage and rehab.”

Mike Valcy, massage therapist for the Florida Panthers professional hockey team, had a similar experience. He had a background in business (he has an MBA) and little to no experience as a professional massage therapist when he was hired by the Panthers just two months after earning his massage license. “My interview with the Florida Panthers consisted of eight hands-on interviews,” he says. “Thinking back on everything I learned in school, all of those skills were applied, but it was also my willingness to learn new techniques that would become highly valuable in my development.”

Still, obtaining ongoing education in anatomy and kinesiology is one piece of advice successful sports massage therapists are unanimous about. “Further your education in the areas of kinesiology, strength training, biomechanics, and human movement,” Pitts says. “Study in these disciplines will help with identification of the common injury sites for each sport and how to address these areas.”

Kim Hope, massage therapist for the Seattle Storm WNBA team (who recently won their third national championship), says, “One hundred percent most important thing—know your anatomy and kinesiology. Know the location of the muscles and how they layer, and confidently know the muscle actions so you can stretch or contract them at a moment’s notice.”

“Even take courses outside of bodywork,” Voyles says. “Marketing, psychology, nutrition ... whatever interests you that could give you a niche. Learn about essential oils and how an inflamed gut can cause pain and how nurturing your parasympathetic nervous system can reduce muscle tension, help with digestion and sleep, and reduce anxiety.”

While having a background in a specific sport isn’t critical, it can help you land a job, which underscores the importance of networking.

Network and Learn

A common element in these therapists’ stories is being in the right place at the right time, using a fortuitous networking connection to get a foot in the door of their desired career. In fact, networking can be the number-one factor in landing your dream job, even more than education and experience. Again, these connections don’t have to come from being part of a team or playing a sport. Volunteering at community events, races, and other sporting events can be a great way to get involved in your local athletic community and get exposure for your practice by working on athletes—who will then spread the word about your work.

“Be willing to volunteer,” Pitts says. “Find a local event (running, cycling, soccer, etc.) where you can offer your services. A few hours volunteering can open the door to many possibilities. Be creative in how you wish to expand and connect with others.”

Hope concurs: “Start massaging at events in your area—charity walks, marathons, bike rides, mud runs, tournaments, etc. You don’t have to work on professional athletes to call what you do sports massage; you just need to work on active people.” 

Voyles got her position doing massage for professional cyclists through someone she’d known from high school. “He was climbing the ranks in professional cycling, and recommended me as a day-hire for one of their races, Tour of the Gila,” Voyles says. “I actively try to connect with as many people as I can in my life—you never know when that connection or person may come in handy.”

Similarly, Hope was introduced by a friend to the person who would eventually hire her: “I got my job because my friend who plays soccer knew the person doing massage with the Storm WNBA team and she told him about me. So, effectively, I was recruited because my friend/athlete/client said I was awesome.” 

There’s another reason for the importance of networking and word-of-mouth referrals in the world of elite sports massage: with the culture of fame and celebrity inherent in professional sports, coaches and trainers must be highly selective with the team members they hire. It’s important to ensure the skills and education of the therapist fall in line with the demands of the job—and that the prospective therapist isn’t more interested in being a fan than a professional health-care provider. To accomplish this, the interview and hiring process for most professional sports teams is stringent, consisting of multiple hands-on interviews in addition to challenging sit-down discussions, in order to weed out the therapists who aren’t in it for the right reasons.

For her position with the Seattle Storm women’s basketball team, Hope says, “I was put through several hands-on interviews and quizzed by the team trainer, essentially trying to gauge my skills and personality, and to make sure I wasn’t a crazy fan or something—they’d had a problem with that before.”

Practice What You Preach

It makes sense that most massage therapists with a passion for sports massage have at least some athletic experience and continue to stay active so they can remain in touch with movement and the body. Hope says, “I have been an athlete my whole life and had friends who coached or played sports in college and professionally.” Voyles practiced gymnastics as a youth, and says, “I think my exercise background really drew me to the corrective side of massage and repatterning.”

Kenneth Pitts, an avid athlete in high school, had begun to lose touch with that side of his life after entering college to study architecture. “I realized that I greatly missed the strength-training sessions I had experienced during my high school years. I had made much progress over those four years and wished to regain what I lost during my first year of college. With newly found vigor, I began to read and learn more about strength and power training as well as question those around me who knew more than me. During this period of learning, I could not overlook the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed this ‘fitness stuff.’ ”

Hope remains active and says the athlete friends she associates with like massage “because it helps them play the sports they love without injury.”  

That said, it’s clearly less important to have direct experience playing the sport of the athletes you’ll be working on than it is to have a detailed and varied knowledge of anatomy and movement overall. This sort of knowledge will equip you to address imbalances or injuries in all athletes, whether they be baseball players, cyclists, or golfers.

Practicing what you preach also includes, naturally, receiving bodywork of your own and prioritizing self-care to keep your body healthy. “Take care of yourself first—you can’t help others if you can’t help yourself,” Voyles says. “I found that receiving work and working on my own imbalances helped me understand it better.”

The paths to a career in sports massage are as varied and numerous as the sports themselves, which makes learning from the experiences of those who have found success in the field invaluable for those pursuing it. The opportunities have never been greater for therapists interested in sports massage, and with the lessons of others to help guide the way, more therapists than ever before can find success in this field.

Brandon Twyford is editor, online and digital strategy for Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals.