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HFE sports massage tutor leads a hand-on session with students
HFE sports massage tutor leads a hand-on session with students

Become a sports massage therapist

7 minute read

A perfect CPD opportunity for personal trainers, Pilates instructors and yoga teachers looking to widen their client base

If you are thinking about becoming a sports massage therapist then this essential career guide will equip you with all of the necessary knowledge and information you will need to know, including what the role entails, what skills you’ll require, which qualifications you’ll need and what you can actually do with those qualifications.

Sports massage is a form of physical therapy which involves manipulating the soft tissues of the body (skin, fascia, muscles, tendons and ligaments) in order to promote recovery, reduce inflammation, limit the future risk of injury, and/or to restore normal tissue function and form following an injury.

Sports massage is used to promote balance within these soft tissues so that they can function optimally. It is also often used alongside exercise, which can also be therapy when applied correctly, in order to achieve this goal. The body’s soft tissues can become dysfunctional for a variety of reasons, including injury, trauma, strenuous exercise and/or overly repetitive movements. Sports massage therapists use a variety of techniques, including pressure and friction, release and soften stiff and knotted muscles, so that the body can start the natural process of healing.

The role of a sports massage therapist

The role of a sports massage therapist is multifaceted and so the nature of the work you will undertake will largely depend on where you are employed, what qualifications you hold, who your clients are, and what specialist skills you possess. Broadly speaking, you will be working with clients to either help them alleviate symptoms of pain, inflammation and dysfunction, or to prevent these symptoms from occurring in the first place.

Qualified sports massage therapist working with a client

You’ll be required to treat people of all ages and backgrounds and you will be using a variety of therapeutic techniques. These may not always involve massage, so being flexible and adaptive to each patient’s individual circumstances and needs is a must.

While sports massage is perhaps still most often associated rehabilitation, the work also focuses as equally on injury prevention strategies and enhancing performance. Massage in this context is used to maintain optimum tissue quality and this approach is often referred to as prehabilitation (improving function before injury).

In addition to treating the physical effects of an injury, you may also find yourself dealing with a client’s emotional state. Many people suffer from depression, low self-esteem, anxiety and reduced mood and confidence when they are in pain and injured. Being able to provide an all-round level of care and support is of paramount importance.

Skills you’ll need

In order to perform the role effectively, you’ll need a variety of skills and qualities, including:

• Person-centred – you’ll be working very closely with people, mostly on an individual level and as such you will have to enjoy this type of work and be genuinely interested in helping them.

• Sensitivity and maturity – you will literally have hands on with your client’s body and will often be working in or near to bodily areas that are particularly sensitive.

• Empathy and understanding – many clients will be frustrated and down about the effects on their injuries and as such you will need to listen carefully, be patient and empathetic with them. You’ll also need to present a positive outlook on their future prospect of recovery.

• A strong communicator – at times you’ll need to be able to explain to your clients quite complex subjects (especially those related to injury and movement mechanics). You’ll need to be able to do this in such a way that is easy for them to understand.

Sports massage training and qualifications

Sports massage therapists can complete their training and qualifications in a vocational environment with a training provider like HFE, or an academic setting, like a technical college or university.

Students taking part in a sports massage course

The academic route is normally completed in the context of a degree and over a number of years, usually three. These qualifications will normally place more emphasis on rehabilitation and other sports science-related subjects like biomechanics, physiology and research methods. Degree-level therapy qualifications are typically tailored more towards those wanting to work in a clinical setting or in elite sports, and will usually have a much broader scope and title (e.g. sports therapy).

Outside of a degree, the two most widely recognised sports massage courses include:

• Level 3 Diploma in Sports Massage Therapy
• Level 4 Certificate in Sports Massage Therapy

The Level 3 Diploma in Sports Massage Therapy is the entry-level qualification to sports massage and as such the minimum level of qualification required to practice as a therapist. The level 3 programme covers a range of topics related to sports massage and soft tissue therapy, including: anatomy and physiology for sports massage; soft tissue dysfunction; common sports injuries; effects of different massage techniques; planning and evaluating treatments, consultation skills; and clinical and professional practice.

The Level 4 Certificate in Sports Massage Therapy acts as a progression from the level 3 qualification and as such, it is a requirement on entry that students already hold the level 3 diploma. Covering a broader and deeper range of subjects, the level 4 certificate looks at more advanced sports massage-related content, including: advanced therapy techniques; sports-related injuries and treatment modalities; injury management techniques and strategies; movement impairment and dysfunction; and assessment and screening tools for injury.

It is important to note that with both of these massage qualifications graduates will only be qualified to work with clients who have already been diagnosed with their injury. It would be considered beyond the scope and professional practice of a sports massage therapist to diagnose any injury or condition themselves.

Sports massage opportunities

Sports massage is no longer a treatment reserved for elite athletes and so its appeal and application go far beyond the exercise, fitness and sporting sectors. There are now so many interesting and exciting opportunities available for skilled massage therapists.

Qualified sports massage therapists can work in various clinics

Some of the more common places where massage therapists will be able to secure work include:

• Exercise and fitness clubs – participation in exercise is currently at a record high and so there are more people than ever who are looking for treatments, either to keep injuries at bay, or to treat them with the goal of removing the symptoms. If these people are already in a health club, it makes sense that they can access the treatment in the same environment.

• Sports clubs – many amateur and semi-professional sports clubs (e.g. cricket, football, hockey, netball etc) have a team or club massage therapist who players can turn to when injury strikes, or they feel the onset of a niggle.

• Physiotherapy clinics – chartered physiotherapists will often provide advanced diagnoses and treatments for people who are injured, some of which may include the application of sports massage techniques. However, it is common to also find a dedicated sports massage therapist in a physio clinic, providing treatments to clients who have simpler soft tissue injuries.

• Sporting events – many sporting events, like half marathons, full marathons, triathlons, duathlons, cycling races, and Ironman allow sports massage therapists to attend, providing pre and post-event massages to participants on demand.

Sports massage therapists can work at sporting events

• Mass participation events – the rise of events like Tough Mudder, Born Survivor and Outlaw to name a few has been exponential in recent years. These events are often packed with groups of people coming together to complete a team challenge. Pre and post-event massages are again commonplace.

• Client’s home – the demand for mobile sports massage services are high. Even those people who are largely inactive will often want to use the services of a sports masseur in order to help them cope with the effects of an overly-sedentary lifestyle. The prevalence of neck, shoulder, back and wrist pain, as well as tennis elbow, is at an all-time high, especially amongst office workers and sports massage is often the first port of call for people suffering from such injuries.

Pay and salary

Sports massage therapists can usually expect to earn between £18,000-£26,000 per annum depending on the number of hours they work, location, and level of qualification. It is important to note however that it does usually take a little time to build up to this salary range while establishing the business and client base.

Most massage therapists work on an hour-by-hour basis and will charge between £25.00-£50.00 per hour. This again will depend on experience, qualifications and location.

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