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sports therapists

Professional sports therapists: Mark Alexander charts his particular professional path to the sporting occasion of his dreams

Any sports therapist just starting out on their career will have a rich and possibly confusing choice of pathways ahead of them. But if you have as one of your goals the ambition to attend a future Olympics as part of a national sporting body’s support team, then read on. My pathway is of course just one way of doing it and not a blueprint, but it may help strengthen your resolve and focus your own aspirations.

I am the physiotherapist for the Australian Olympic triathlon team travelling to Athens in a few weeks’ time. I have been the team’s physiotherapist for three years, attending the previous three world championships and the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester.

I started out at Queensland University with a one-year course in human movement studies followed by a bachelor of physiotherapy, graduating in 1995. While I was doing the degree, I completed sports massage, sports taping and first aid courses so that I could volunteer as a sports trainer for the university teams doing my favourite sports. I also sought out the top sports physios in Brisbane and worked for them as a volunteer for two to three hours a month, to watch them assessing and treating patients. This was both excellent learning and an ideal chance to network.

In my final degree year I was extremely lucky to be able to do my elective placement at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra. This exposed me to the cutting edge of sports medicine and sports physiotherapy in Australia and allowed me to practise my skills and gain confidence working with elite athletes. The main benefit of working as a student at the AIS was the network of health professionals whom I met and liaised with daily. They were to be invaluable in helping me get work later on with various national teams.

After graduating I worked for 18 months in a major teaching hospital in Brisbane, rotating through all the mainstream departments and developing a wide range of knowledge and skills in all areas of physiotherapy. While there is nothing remotely glamourous about working on the wards, I thoroughly recommend the experience to all young physios. Numerous times on tour on the eve of major competitions, my rusty chest physiotherapy skills have been called upon to clear productive chests. Beyond that, teaching hospitals can offer learning opportunities to new graduates that are at the least difficult, if not impossible, to replicate in the private sector, such as:

  • working with senior physiotherapists in an ideal non-intimidating social learning environment
  • attending orthopaedic surgery to extend anatomical, diagnostic and prognostic knowledge
  • working in intensive care units and emergency departments, which prepares you for future on-field sporting emergencies
  • gaining exposure to a variety of weird and wonderful conditions that you may rarely come across in private practice, including neurology (eg multiple sclerosis, motor neurone disease); rheumatology (eg ankylosing spondylitis); orthopaedics (eg multi-traumas, joint replacements and severe osteoarthritis); cardiothoracics (eg pneumonia, cystic fibrosis, cardiac patients; paediatrics (eg juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, minimal cerebral palsy; oncology (eg bone tumours); and women’s health (eg post-partum issues).

During those 18 months in the hospital I worked part-time two nights a week and Saturday mornings in a leading sports physio private practice that I had previously attended as a volunteer. This work exposed me to acute on-field injuries and their management, week in, week out. It also opened up opportunities to travel with local and state sporting teams to national meets.

After that first two years’ work, every subsequent job opportunity I had was a result of my earlier networking – and a bit of luck, being in the right place at the right time. I initially set goals to work first with elite rugby teams and then with the Australian Olympic triathlon team, because these were the two sports that I had participated in and enjoyed the most throughout my life. There is no substitute for having competed yourself in the sports that you want to service as a therapist, if you are to understand the biomechanics, physiology, injury risks and profiles (and the lingo) of that sport. It helps you to gain the trust of elite sportspeople and the management staff.

If, however, as a young physio you attain a similar role in your own sport of passion, beware the trap of idolising the sporting heroes you will then meet and be working with. They may be elite, high-profile athletes but they are all normal people (albeit with a larger pay packet than the physio) and they will want you to treat them as equals.

Once on the employment ladder, it is crucial to build your knowledge and skills through continuing education and professional development courses. For many national professional associations, continued professional development is a statutory requirement anyway. In Australia it is mandatory to be a specialist sports physiotherapist to work at future Olympic and Commonwealth Games. And to achieve this special-ism, you have to have a masters degree in sports physiotherapy and have passed high-level exams.

In summary, if you are aiming to work at the Olympics and other top sporting events with national teams, you will need:

  • an inherent love of and prior participation in specific sports
  • motivation, sacrifice and drive
  • willingness to volunteer time to learn from more experienced therapists
  • specialist education in the relevant sports therapy areas
  • to develop networks within the relevant community of your sport of interest
  • the ability to communicate and work effectively within a team environment.

It has always been a dream of mine to be involved at an Olympic games and I know it will be extremely rewarding both professionally and as a life experience. But elite sport is not the pinnacle for everyone, nor the definitive sign of a good sports therapist. Many kinds of sports health professionals work with elite teams and some great sports therapists work at an amateur level.

The main thing is that you achieve your goals, maximise your skills and derive personal satisfaction from your chosen path.

Mark Alexander

sports therapists