Sophia Denison-Johnston: Teaching Athletes to Embrace Self-Care

Sophia Denison-Johnston, massage therapist and winner of ABMP's Massage is for EveryBody essay contest.

By Lisa Bakewell

Sophia Denison-Johnston was one of the winners of ABMP’s Massage is for EveryBody 2021 contest, and we wanted to share more of her story. Please join us in celebrating Sophia!

“I was taught to embrace pain as part of the process of getting stronger,” says Sophia Denison-Johnston, massage therapist at Deep Tissue Massage Center in Santa Barbara, California, where she is being mentored and learning more about orthopedic and deep-tissue massage.

“No pain, no gain” was the motto, and as a female collegiate athlete, Denison-Johnston says she was expected to have a peak performance every day. “My team trained 20+ hours a week, with no off-season, in addition to our full class schedule, leaving little time for sleep, let alone maintaining relationships and [practicing] self-care.”

According to Denison-Johnston, there was a complete glorification of pushing through injuries, and those who did so were regarded as heroes. Her team also had a one-size-fits-all training program, which meant the training may not have been optimal for her body. “Survival and success on my team depended on me not checking in with my needs,” she says. “I feared that if I did, I’d find there was something wrong, and I would lose my spot on my team.” For team-sport athletes, according to Denison-Johnston, being injured also means losing contact with your teammates, your support network, and your sense of identity.

Due to this philosophy, as well as discomfort being viewed as progress, Denison-Johnston had a “No Days Off” policy—especially since she felt she could easily be replaced if she succumbed to injury. “When I returned, I would have limited opportunities to ‘earn’ my spot back,” she says, “which is unlikely if I’ve taken time off of training to heal.

“I learned that some levels of discomfort are good—that stress can lead to growth, but I was not really taught to analyze what that discomfort was telling me. The method of how to get through the training block was: Assume pain is good and move on. This unwillingness to acknowledge discomfort as anything other than progress ultimately also meant that the warning signs for preventable injuries were ignored.”

When Denison-Johnston found massage, she was relieved and soon came to realize that the touch of a massage therapist was so healing—allowing feeling, healing, and acceptance without demand, judgment, or guilt. “For me, [a good massage therapy session] starts with having lots of communication, affirming what my client tells me they feel, and even sometimes explicitly saying ‘I believe you.’ Many of us are used to health-care professionals not doing a good job listening, so I try to make sure my clients feel heard and understood. I continue to keep this channel of communication open as I work, letting the client know the plan for the session, informing them when I am moving to a new area, and asking for consent before [addressing] sensitive areas.”

One objection to massage by athletes (and others) is the cost. “To those people I would urge them to make bodywork a priority in their budget,” Denison-Johnston says, “since it will save them money in the long run if it helps keep them healthy. You can pay for it now, or you can pay for it later, but either way, you’re going to pay for what you’re doing to your body. Why not invest now so you can make the most of your career and still have a functioning body when you’re ready to move on?”

Orthopedic and deep-tissue massage are generally what athletes look for in a bodywork session, so Denison-Johnston wants to hone those skills moving forward in her career. “I would love to—at some point—be on a care team for a female sports team, alongside doctors, physical therapists, and strength coaches to support some super-strong women achieving their dreams!”

Related content:

• Massage is for EveryBody is ABMP’s annual celebration of massage therapy and the philanthropic efforts of our members. Read more about the event, and the guiding principles that drive it, here: www.abmp.com/updates/blog-posts/massage-everybody-evolution-movement, and enter for your chance to win this year: www.abmp.com/massage-is-for-everybody-awards.

• To read the winning essays from 2021’s Massage is for EveryBody celebration, go to www.abmp.com/massage-week-awards.

• View the 2021 Massage is for EveryBody Week award winners' panel presentation shown during the 2021 ABMP CE Summit here.

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