Becoming a Sports Physical Therapist: Salary & Job Description

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A sports physical therapist's mean annual salary is around $84,000. Is it worth the education and training requirements? See real job descriptions and get the truth about career prospects to find out if becoming a sports physical therapist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Sports Physical Therapy Career

Physical therapists (PTs) support the rehabilitation of patients with injuries or chronic conditions, and in the sports specialty, PTs concentrate on providing therapeutic services to those with athletics-related injuries or conditions. Keep reading to learn more about the pros and cons of pursuing a sports physical therapy career.

Pros of a Sports Physical Therapist Career
High salary (2014 mean annual wage for PTs was about $84,000)*
Good job prospects for physical therapists (36% job growth for 2012-2022)*
Multiple employment options (medical facilities, schools, sports/athletic facilities, self-employment)**
High rate of job satisfaction (about 78% of PTs reported being very satisfied with their careers in 2007)***

Cons of a Sports Physical Therapist Career
Extensive education/training (6-7 years of schooling plus optional sports PT residency)*
Could be difficult to land a job working only with athletes****
Some states require PTs to participate in continuing education to maintain licensure*
Requires physical stamina and ability to work with difficult patients*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **American Physical Therapy Association, ***National Opinion Research Center, ****Sports Physical Therapy Section of the American Physical Therapy Association.

Essential Career Information

Job Description

When people have injuries or conditions that affect their ability to move, walk or otherwise function physically, they often turn to PTs for treatment. PTs use exercises, special equipment and hands-on therapies like massage to help patients find relief. The goal is to reduce pain while increasing physical ability. A sports PT focuses on using these methods to treat athletes and other individuals who are physically active. In addition to treating patients, sports PTs help them prevent injuries - an important job considering athletes' need to stay active in their sport. These specialists also assess performance so that a suitable training program can be developed.

The job of a sports physical therapist can be rewarding, but it comes with challenges as well. You'll be responsible for moving injured patients and administering hands-on therapies, both of which can be physically taxing. From time to time, you'll also have to work with individuals who are in pain or frustrated with their condition.

Salary and Career Prospects

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the mean annual wage for PTs in May 2014 was around $84,000, which was about $37,000 higher than the mean annual earnings across all occupations. Physical therapy also offers excellent job prospects, with a projected 36% increase in the number of positions available between 2012 and 2022. Opportunities are expected to be good across all specialties, including sports physical therapy. That said, it can be difficult to land a job working solely with athletes. According to the Sports Physical Therapy Section (SPTS) of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), the typical sports PT specialist only spends about 40% of his or her time working with patients who have sports-related injuries.

Training and Other Requirements

Training and Licensure

The first step toward becoming a licensed sports physical therapist is to complete either a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) or Master of Physical Therapy (MPT) program, with the former being more common. These programs usually take 2-3 years to complete, and the entrance requirements are generally a bachelor's degree with substantial coursework in science. In addition to coursework, your degree program will likely include supervised rotations through various clinical practice areas.

Licensure for PTs is required in all states. Though each licensing body has its own regulations, a standard requirement is passing the National Physical Therapy Examination administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. The exam covers all aspects of practice, including patient evaluation, therapeutic methods, interventions, patient examinations, safety/professional roles and foundational sciences. Continuing education is a typical requirement for maintaining the state license.

Additional Skills and Qualities

Outside of the extensive education and training requirements, PTs need the following attributes and skills to do well in this field:

  • Empathy and patience (for interactions with patients and their families)
  • Attention to detail (for following strict practice protocols and evaluating patients' conditions)
  • Good communication skills (particularly for educating/advising patients, their families, coaches and other healthcare professionals)

What Real Employers Look For

Some employers prefer to hire candidates with experience and dedication to the sports physical therapy specialty. To give you an idea of what employers are seeking, here are some real postings for jobs that were available in May 2012:

  • A private orthopedic practice in Washington was looking for a licensed physical therapist. Candidates needed 2 years of sports physical therapy experience working in an outpatient environment. The employer was willing to consider hiring new PT graduates with an interest in sports therapy for this full-time position.
  • An Oregon physical therapy practice needed a full-time sports PT with at least 2 years of experience. The employer sought someone with a passion for helping athletes and a willingness to build relationships within the community.
  • A sports/orthopedic physical therapy practice in New York City sought a licensed PT for a full-time position. New grads were welcomed to apply, but candidates with 2-5 years' experience and exposure to an outpatient/sports rehabilitation environment were preferred.

How to Stand Out

You can stand out in this field by getting relevant experience and certifications. For example, while you're still in school, the SPTS recommends completing an internship that allows you to work directly with a certified sports PT. Once you've graduated, board certification in sports physical therapy gives you an edge when applying for positions within this specialty. According to a 2007 survey from the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties, earning board certification helped PTs land new job opportunities and take on leadership roles in the field.

To be eligible for the specialist certification in sports, PTs must possess state licensure, CPR certification and an emergency medicine credential, such as a first responder, paramedic or EMT qualification. Candidates must also complete either 2,000 hours of general work experience within the sports specialty or an APTA-credentialed clinical sports physical therapy residency. Most physical therapists complete their residencies immediately after graduation, and these programs may last up to 3 years.

Other Careers to Consider

Occupational Therapist

If you don't want to spend quite so much time in school, you might consider a career as an occupational therapist. With a 2010-2020 job growth projection of 33% and mean earnings of about $75,000 in May 2011, occupational therapy is comparable to physical therapy in terms of job prospects and pay. However, you can earn your master's degree in occupational therapy in just 2 years, and there are some dual degree programs that allow you to complete both your bachelor's and master's degrees in just 5 years. As an occupational therapist, you'll still get to help people who are injured, but this job is not quite as physically demanding as physical therapy.

Physical Therapist Assistant

Another related career path with much lower educational requirements is physical therapy assisting. In most cases, you'll only need to earn an associate's degree to work in this field. You'll still get to work directly with patients, and the projected job growth in this field is even higher than that for physical therapists, at 46% from 2010-2020. However, you'll earn quite a bit less money - the mean salary for PT assistants was only $25,000 as of May 2011.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Georgetown University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Professional Studies in Sports Industry Management
      • Master of Professional Studies in Sports Industry Management
  • Online Programs Available
    2. University of Delaware

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Business Administration - Healthcare Concentration
      • Master of Business Administration - Healthcare Concentration
  • Online Programs Available
    3. Northcentral University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Ed.D. - Sports Management
      • PhD in Education - Sports Management
    Master's
      • MAT - Sport and Athletic Management
      • MEd - Athletic Coaching
      • MEd - Sports Management
      • MAT - Athletic Coaching
      • Master of Science in Organizational Leadership - Health Care Administration
    Certificate
      • Education Specialist - Sports Management
  • Online Programs Available
    4. Herzing University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MBA Dual Concentration: Healthcare Management and Public Safety Leadership
    Associate's
      • Associate of Science - Medical Assisting Services
    Certificate
      • Diploma: Medical Assisting
  • Online Programs Available
    5. Keiser University

    Program Options

    Associate's
      • Associate of Sciences - Medical Assistant
  • Online Programs Available
    6. The University of Scranton

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MBA - Healthcare Management
      • Master of Health Administration
      • Dual MBA-MHA
    Certificate
      • Executive Certificate in Health Administration
  • Online Programs Available
    7. American InterContinental University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Healthcare Management
      • Master of Business Admin: Healthcare Admin
    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor of Business Admin: Healthcare Management
      • Bachelor of Healthcare Management - HSA Mgt.
      • Bachelor of Healthcare Management
  • Campus and Online Programs
    8. Full Sail University

    Program Options

    Bachelor's
      • BS - Sportscasting (Campus)
      • BS - Sportscasting
      • B.S. - Sports Marketing and Media
  • Online Programs Available
    9. Saint Joseph's University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS - Health Admin
  • Online Programs Available
    10. Utica College

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Transitional Doctor of Physical Therapy
    Master's
      • MBA - Health Care Management
      • Masters in Health Care Administration
      • Online Master of Science in Health Care Administration - Acute Care
      • Online Master of Science in Health Care Administration - Long Term Care
      • Online Master of Science in Health Care Administration - Service Organization

Featured Schools

Georgetown University

  • Master of Professional Studies in Sports Industry Management

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University of Delaware

  • Master of Business Administration - Healthcare Concentration

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Northcentral University

  • Ed.D. - Sports Management
  • MAT - Sport and Athletic Management
  • Education Specialist - Sports Management

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Herzing University

  • MBA Dual Concentration: Healthcare Management and Public Safety Leadership
  • Associate of Science - Medical Assisting Services
  • Diploma: Medical Assisting

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Keiser University

  • Associate of Sciences - Medical Assistant

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The University of Scranton

  • MBA - Healthcare Management
  • Master of Health Administration
  • Executive Certificate in Health Administration

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American InterContinental University

  • Master of Healthcare Management
  • Master of Business Admin: Healthcare Admin
  • Bachelor of Business Admin: Healthcare Management
  • Bachelor of Healthcare Management - HSA Mgt.

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Full Sail University

  • BS - Sportscasting (Campus)
  • BS - Sportscasting
  • B.S. - Sports Marketing and Media

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