How to specialize in sports massage therapy as a career.
Specialties in therapeutic massage present a wide range of career opportunities for licensed massage therapists. There is a growing demand for specialties such as neuromuscular, or trigger point therapy, clinical rehabilitative massage therapy and even fertility and pre-natal massage therapy. According to the American Massage Therapy Association, sports conditioning represented a top reason for consumers to receive a massage, making sports massage a highly in-demand specialty in the field.
Sports massage therapists can be found everywhere, from small clinical settings for addressing the injuries of individual amateur athletes, to giant sports stadiums for working with professional teams to enhance performance.
A Rewarding Career in Sports Massage Therapy.
The demand for these specialists is reflected in their paychecks, with the average annual salary for sports massage therapists exceeding $90,000 in 2023 and going well over $100,000 in some locations (according to Salary.com).
To find out what one needs to learn to become a sports massage therapist, we spoke to Nicole Miller, an assistant professor at Northeast College of Health Sciences and the director of its Massage Therapy certificate program. You can read an edited version of the interview below or hear all her comments in the audio clip below.
What exactly is sports massage therapy?
Nicole Miller: I've worked with semi-pro and competitive athletes, personally as well as in the classroom. When it comes to sports massage, I divide it into two areas.
First, there's sports massage for performance. That means using sports massage methods to maintain conditioning between events with the aim of bettering your performance overall. To give you an example, one of my clients came to me wanting to better her miles per hour average in the marathon. So, after working together during her training and right up to the event, this runner in her forties was able to shave off a minute per mile — which is a huge, “Wow!” change. She reduced her time by 26 minutes at an age when people usually typically start to see a decline. So that's one category or division of sports massage.
Then there's sports massage for rehab and recovery. Obviously, people who engage in sports are prone to injuries and often those injuries are quite traumatic biologically. As a therapist, you must be skilled at understanding those types of injuries and how to help the athletes recover.
This can be a little bit tricky because you need to use different methods and techniques depending on how close athletes are to their upcoming competition, as well as the type of injury they’re trying to recover from. This requires sharp critical reasoning and thinking skills as a provider, which means you need a good scientific background as well as clinical experience.
That, in a nutshell, identifies the realm of sports massage, divided into those two categories: maintenance and improvement of performance, or recovery and rehab from injury.
So, do sports massage therapists operate as individual practitioners, or within sporting organizations…or can they also be part of larger teams in an integrative healthcare model?
Nicole Miller: All of the above. I gave you the example of the client I worked with in my private practice. She had achieved such a great outcome that all of a sudden, members of her running group were contacting me. My practice was full!
There's a lot that occurs privately in the sports realm because athletes have their own culture and communities. If you become talented at working within one population, whether it's cyclists or weightlifters or runners or what have you, you will quite quickly develop a private practice based on that group.
But now we're seeing more and more massage therapists working within sports environments, or on sports teams, because athletic trainers are really busy. If they [athletic trainers] work with multiple teams or they're on the road, they don't always have time for the manipulative therapies that we can offer.
A good example is a friend of mine who has a multi-person massage therapy practice. He and his practice are the preferred providers for Syracuse men’s basketball. They’ll be in the team rooms, in the therapy rooms, on campus, as well as seeing some of the athletes in their private practice settings. And this is a type of practice I expect to see grow.
What are the factors driving that growth? Is it mostly demographic changes?
Nicole Miller: Yes. There are two groups in particular.
In the last several years it's been the youthful group that I’ve noticed the biggest change in. For instance, when you look at the Syracuse area, we have the Upstate Medical University, which is a large provider for orthopedic research and services, including programs dedicated to youth athletics. They want to avoid surgery when possible, so they started to send young patients over to one of the schools that I was working with, as well as to me in private practice.
We can offer manual therapies that provide an alternative to surgery for these young athletes, which is really attractive to that population. With the rise in youth athletics and increased participation in club sports there is, inevitably, a greater volume of injuries, which is driving this first area of growth.
The second group is older athletes, over 40, over 50. As people live longer, they’re still able to function well as runners or recreational athletes, if you will. So, we're seeing a growth in that area, too, because many of them are realizing that massage can help maintain their activity level.
Is anyone specializing in pickleball players yet?
Nicole Miller: Pickleball is becoming huge. I’ve worked with a couple of clients who didn't have a recent history in athletics or recreation, but they all of a sudden went full force into pickleball — and developed a couple shoulder problems. So, I think that area will continue to grow, and we're just glad to see it happening, glad to see more people getting involved and getting exercise.
What’s your advice to students who come to Northeast College and want to pursue sports massage as a specialty?
Nicole Miller: I would advise them to focus on specific areas and methods. Obviously, all our students will be taking anatomy and physiology, kinesiology, pathology and so forth. But for those interested in a sports massage career, they should focus on the bioscience component of massage therapy, as well as understanding orthopedic massage.
One of the exciting features of our program will be special training in using massage therapy on scar tissue by a leading scar tissue massage therapist in the U.S. It’s a critical area to develop because of the incidence of scar tissue injuries among athletics.
Another area we are going to focus on is myofascial and connective tissue methods and techniques. It’s all part of how, in this program, we'll give you some exposure to most everything, but we're really going to focus on what will help you start off at a higher level of care right out of the gate.
Well, thank you very much for your time and insights. This has been a discussion with Nicole Miller, assistant professor at Northeast College of Health Sciences and director of its Massage Therapy certificate program.