Breaking into Sports PT

How does a student PT get into sports PT?

Recently, I wrote a blog that gave advice to PT’s who are in pro sports that got a ton of positive responses and feedback. Well, I recently returned from the Combined Sections Meeting of the APTA in Anaheim, CA where I served on a panel, “The Many Faces of Sports Physical Therapy.”  Basically, it was a Q&A for people, mostly students, who wanted to break into sports physical therapy.  They got to hear from lots of different PT’s in various settings.  Furthermore, I was asked after a few talks and a few social gatherings through the Sports Physical Therapy Section the same question: “as a student, what is the best way to get into sports PT?”  I have had the opportunity to intern in Major League Baseball, do some work at the Olympic Training Center, currently work with various colleges and teams as a rehab consultant, and I formerly was an assistant athletic trainer/physical therapist for the Kansas City Chiefs.  Now, I’m an owner of a successful sports PT practice.  My professional experiences have given me a unique perspective on sports PT and I have some insights to share for student PT’s.

Talk to the faculty!  Inevitably, faculty members may be able to help you make a connection in the athletic department either at your school or another.   Ask them to help you.  Don’t get too greedy, just ask to observe for a few hours and see how it plays out.  Were you a college athlete?  Call and talk to your former athletic trainer and ask their advice.

Show up. Shake hands, kiss babies. Repeat.   CSM and conferences like it, have a sea of people, especially students.  It’s hard to stand out.  Most of the time though, the faces change every year.   However, showing up to sports PT meetings like CSM and the Team Concept Conference are a great way to interact, network, and learn from the leaders in the field.  Like any industry, the more people you know, the better.   Familiarize yourself with the top sports medicine places in the U.S and go to their annual meetings.  Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to speakers or leaders in the group.  All of us have been in your shoes at one time or another and are happy to “pay it forward.”

Reach out to leaders in the field.  Read a great research article by someone?  See an article about a PT in your city that works in college or pro sports?  Send them an email.  Give them a call.  Be specific though.  Don’t just say, “Hi, I’m John and I want to be able to do your job someday.”  Mention that you are a student, what you are currently doing to improve yourself, and specific things they might help you with – “can you give me some direction on how to break into football?  Lastly, by networking like I said above, you may be able to “name drop” too which never hurts.  Just make sure the name you drop said it was okay!  If someone spends some time with you, follow up with a hand-written thank you note (no, not a text or a Facebook message.  That’s easy. Writing takes effort and time).

“I’m not an athletic trainer. Will that hurt me?”  Certainly, being a Certified Athletic Trainer (ATC) would help, especially if you aspire to be in pro sports.  That is not a deal-breaker however.  There are PT’s in various levels of sports physical therapy that are not also ATC’s.  You might not be able to travel with the teams like a dual-credentialed person will, but you can still play an integral part of the rehab.  The Sports PT Section has a “Sports Clinical Specialist” certification that you can take after some professional practice.  That will help for sure.  It wouldn’t hurt to take an emergency responder course too so you can help with on-field assessments.

Consider a residency or fellowship (R/F).  The APTA has a ton of credentialed R/F programs.  Take advantage!  There are a few caveats though.  Lots of people apply for those.  That’s why networking is so important – when there are tons of applicants for 1-2 spots, being able to “put a name with a face” will help for sure.  That way, you’re not just a resume/CV on someone’s desk.   Plus, if you want to do a R/F, make sure it’s the right time in life because you want to make sure you can completely immerse yourself in it.  Seriously, no 8-hour workdays if you want to squeeze every ounce of knowledge out of your residency/fellowship.  That’s tough to do though if you have children or have a spouse/significant other that has a job and isn’t mobile.  Just something to think about.  Lastly, the consistent question that also gets asked is “Should I do a R/F right away or wait a few years then do one?”  My personal take is a little biased because I practiced for 3 years prior to doing the fellowship.  As a new grad, you are learning to treat everything on your own for the first time.  If you practice a few years, you’ll be comfortable with some things and have a good knowledge base and history treating patients.  That way, you can use the R/F to “fine tune” your treatments/assessments and answer all those questions that built up over a couple of years.  One of my mentors suggested this to me too and I’m glad I heeded his advice.  Only my opinion though.  I’ll also add this – given how competitive those programs are, if you practice at least a year, you may give yourself an advantage over other applicants that are right out of school because you’ll have some experience and will be more “seasoned.”   You’ll have more specific things you will be looking for to get out of the R/F instead of “just being a better PT” or “being more marketable.”

You gotta make an effort and put yourself out there.   Your best bet is to try and meet an athletic trainer or even a strength coach at a local high school or small college and offer some help.  They always need extra hands.  Understand they’re likely to be resistant initially, but put yourself in their shoes – some strange person who you don’t know says they’re a PT and they want to help.  It takes time to build trust and earn confidence.  Starting with a major university or pro team might be setting your sights too high as well.  Keep in mind though, it’s likely to be unpaid.  Certainly I understand that your time is valuable.  Understand though you are the one showing up asking for something that they really have nothing posted for.   You may get shot down.  They may ignore you.  Several times.  It may take several months.  But, they may say yes one day.  Worst that ever happens is that the strength coach or head athletic trainer says “no.”  Even if they aren’t very warm to you initially, try again a month or so later.  Bring an article or two in for the person.  “Just thought you may have some interest in this.  Have a nice day!”  Then leave.  Circle back around.  You never know where this leads.  Believe me, it may lead to nowhere sometimes, but sometimes, it may not.  Bottom line is the “squeaky wheel gets the grease.”  Be consistent, but not annoying.  Have an engaging yet humble way about you.  Ask questions, offer to help where you can.  Have some humility and do the “dirty jobs” – offer to clean tubs, wipe the training room tables, re-stack weights off the bar, etc.  You’ll earn the respect of them.  Oh, do all that with a smile too.  One other point – try not to go in and “show off” what you know.  Let it happen.  I get it, you want to prove that you are competent and you know what you are talking about.  Resist that urge.  You’re on someone else’s turf.  It can be threatening, and well, condescending.  Goes back to that humility thing.  Let it happen as your relationship builds.  Keep your opinions to yourself too about what you see happening.  You’ll be shown the door quickly.

Be that expert locally.  Any chance you get, offer to do a talk (yes, maybe for nothing!) on a relevant topic or topic of interest.  It’ll get your name out there as a reliable source.  Have business cards handy and get yourself a classy business card holder.   Churches, PTO’s, coaches, and sports clubs all may be willing to let you have 10-15 minutes to talk about injury prevention or similar topics.  Offer help at men’s leagues and more “low hanging fruit” organizations that are small and might not have resources to help them.  Is there a local curling club? Pickleball league?  Visit them, offer your time.  Don’t necessarily shoot for the soccer metropolis right away – you probably can’t afford it for them to give you the time of day. Not always to be sure, but hey, it’s reality.

Read incessantly.  Only way to get really good at this and to make yourself marketable is to be current with the most evidence-based treatment and interventions.  The more information you can arm yourself with from legitimate sources, the better.   Being a member of the Sports Section gets you a subscription to three Index Medicus journals.  Pretty good deal!  Subscribe to the “e-Table of Contents” for sports medicine journals.  At a minimum, read the abstracts.  See something interesting? Reach out to one of the authors in a brief email.  Title it “Read your article in AJSM, loved it, have a question.”  People love talking about themselves and their research.  Never know where that could lead.  Plus, you may be asked about these things in a R/F interview anyway.   Best to arm yourself with info!

The bottom line is on this though is “how bad do you want it?”  You’ll have doors slammed in your face.  You’ll have phone calls, lots of them, never returned.  Emails too.  Be kind, be professional, be persistent but not annoying.  Humble yourself.  When that door opens, regardless of how small it is, run through that sucker and see where it takes you.   You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Hope this helps!   Thanks for reading.  Good luck!

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