Becoming a Sports Therapist: Job Description & Salary Info

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The median annual salary of sports therapists is around $82,000. Is it worth the education requirements and debt? Get the truth about the job duties and career prospects to decide if becoming a sports therapist is the right career for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Career in Sports Therapy

Sports therapists help people suffering from sports-related injuries to regain mobility and reduce pain, as well as help athletes increase their performance capabilities. Continue reading to learn more about the pros and cons of sports therapy so you can make an informed career decision.

Pros of a Sports Therapist Career
Higher than average employment growth (36% for all physical therapists from 2012-2022)*
Good salary (median 2014 salary of about $82,000 per year)*
Many opportunities for employment (hospitals, schools, fitness centers)***

Cons of a Sports Therapist Career
Requires about eight years of education beyond high school*
Job involves spending long hours on your feet*
Can be stressful*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), **American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties, ***American Physical Therapy Association

Essential Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Sports therapists are physical therapists who work specifically with athletes. According to the Sports Physical Therapy Section of the American Physical Therapy Association, sports therapists work with athletes to prevent injury and evaluate, treat and rehabilitate athletes who have become injured. Sports therapists also help athletes enhance their athletic performance.

Specific job duties might include developing a rehabilitation plan for your clients and working with them to help them regain strength using stretching exercises, hands-on therapy and neuromuscular education. You'll track their progress as they work with you and practice on their own. You could find jobs in hospitals, private homes, workplaces, health care facilities, schools, inpatient rehabilitation facilities and fitness centers.

Job Growth and Salary Info

According to the BLS, the projected employment growth between 2012 and 2022 for all physical therapists, including specialists who work with children, the elderly and athletes, is much higher than the average, at around 36%. The BLS reports that physical therapists earned a median salary of around $82,000 per year as of May 2014.

Education and Training Requirements

To become a sports therapist, you must have at least a graduate degree in physical therapy. Master's and doctoral degree programs are available, though the doctorate is more prevalent. Admission requirements include undergraduate credits in biology, chemistry, physics, human anatomy, exercise physiology, statistics and calculus, which you can acquire through a bachelor's degree in kinesiology or biology.

Through the 3-4-year doctoral degree program, you'll study the body's musculoskeletal and neuromuscular systems. Through both clinical and didactic work, you'll learn how to diagnose and apply therapeutic procedures to individuals from birth through old age. After earning a Doctor of Physical Therapy or Master of Physical Therapy degree, you must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination in order to become licensed.

Skills and Abilities for Sports Therapists

Sports therapists work with people, so the ability to listen and be compassionate is important. The work can be physically exhausting, so you need to keep yourself in good physical condition. Some of the important skills and qualities outlined by the BLS, APTA and job postings include:

  • Interpersonal skills
  • Compassion
  • Physical stamina
  • Ability to stay organized
  • Manual dexterity

Job Postings from Real Employers

The following job listings for sports therapists from April 2012 include information about the expected credentials and education requirements for sports therapists, their responsibilities and the required skills. All jobs require you to be licensed; some jobs specifically prefer sports credentials, while other postings request sports therapy skills within a wider physical therapist job description. The ability to work as part of a team and follow rehabilitation schedules is cited as important.

  • An outpatient clinic in Washington, DC, is seeking a licensed physical therapist in sports medicine to work weekdays, give patient evaluations and provide direct patient care. The employer requested someone who had a good work ethic, was organized, personable, motivated and had at least a graduate degree. New graduates with outpatient clinical experience will be considered.
  • An Ohio University is looking to hire a sports medicine rehab physical therapist for its medical center. The ideal candidate would have current licensure in physical therapy and credentials in athletic training and sports medicine. A minimum of one year of experience is required. Responsibilities include evaluating patient's condition and treating sports-related injuries.
  • A children's hospital in Wilmington, DE, is hiring a physical therapist in sports medicine to work in its outpatient clinic. The successful candidate will provide evaluation, consultation and treatment to patients under physician supervision. Two years of experience is preferred.
  • A clinic near Fairbanks, AK, is recruiting a physical therapist with sports medicine skills and at least three years of experience. This individual will work with a variety of patients on an outpatient basis.

How to Get an Edge in the Field

Because some jobs require experience, completing an internship through your school may help you stand out. Some school programs provide access to internships in sports therapy which you can complete while you're still in school. Some internships are even paid.

Get Certified

You can earn a specialist physical therapy certification in sports from the Sports Physical Therapy Section of the American Physical Therapy Association or the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) after earning your physical therapy license. Both organizations require CPR certification, an emergency care credential such as the EMT or Red Cross First Responder and evidence of 2,000 hours of direct patient care in your specialty area or an approved clinical residency. You must also pass a written exam.

Continuing Education

According to APTA, a physical therapy residency or fellowship can make you more marketable. Both are available in sports therapy and both are designed to provide you with in-depth clinical experience and didactic learning. A sports therapy residency can make you eligible for board certification through the ABPTS. A residency generally is completed before a fellowship; often you must already be certified or have completed a residency to be admitted into a fellowship program. Some residencies and fellowships provide a stipend or a salary and benefit package, while others charge tuition.

Alternative Career Paths

Physical Therapist Assistant

If you're interested in working with people who need rehabilitation following a sports injury, but the long years of schooling or the number of credentials are turning you off, you might consider becoming a physical therapist assistant. You'd work under a licensed physical therapist, helping patients with exercises and observing their progress. Physical therapist assistants must earn an associate's degree from an accredited physical therapist program and become licensed. The median annual salary was around $51,000 as of May 2011. Employment was expected to increase by 46% between 2010 and 2020, which is much faster than the average, according to the BLS.

Recreational Therapist

Another position which does not require a graduate degree is that of recreational therapist. Recreational therapists need a bachelor's degree and certification; a handful of states require licensure. These professionals work with people with disabilities or illnesses, planning events to improve the quality of life for their clients. They work with healthcare professionals to create treatment plans, help clients with social skills and plan recreational activities. The BLS predicted employment of recreational therapists to increase by 17% between 2010 and 2020. The median average salary was around $41,000 as of May 2011, according to the BLS.

Athletic Trainer

If the idea of working in more of a triage capacity, providing first aid and emergency care to athletes with recent injuries rather than assisting in long-term rehabilitation interests you, the job of athletic trainer might be more up your alley. In this position, you'd work under the supervision of a physician or other healthcare professional. You could work at a college, fitness center, elementary school or physician's office. For most jobs, you'll need a bachelor's degree in athletic training, though according to the BLS, master's degrees are common. Most states will require you to earn board certification and become licensed. The BLS reported a median annual salary for this position of $42,000 as of May 2011 and a 30% rate of job growth for the 2010-2020 decade.

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