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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

Sports massage qualifications

9 minute read

If you are looking for a new direction for your career and are contemplating sports massage as a viable option, then it’s essential that you know the hard facts about what you need to become a sports massage therapist.

In this article, we’ll explore the range of different qualifications available, some of which we actually don’t deliver, and which qualifications you’ll need for different purposes.

It’s worth starting out by saying that there are a diverse range of sports massage qualifications on the market and there are also as many continuing professional development (CPD) courses also. You really do need to know the difference between the two if you are looking to get qualified. A qualification will be backed by a reputable awarding organisation like YMCA Awards, Active IQ or City and Guilds, and will be regulated by Ofqual.

It will have a qualification number and you will be able to find this qualification listed on the Register of Regulated Qualifications. If a course does not lead to a regulated qualification then it is really only suitable for CPD purposes, and will probably result in challenges for you later on when trying to find work and insurance to practice.

Starting out at Level 3

Level 3 is the entry-level sports massage qualification (e.g. Level 3 Diploma in Sports Massage) and as such is the minimal standard to practice as a sports massage therapist. While there is no legal requirement for sports massage therapists to hold a first aid qualification, it is certainly considered to be best practice. Also, many professional bodies (discussed in detail later) require evidence of a current first aid qualification in order to maintain membership of and affiliation with that body.

Students completing their sports massage course

The level 3 sports massage qualification has no pre-requisites and is open to anyone who has a keen interest in manual therapy. The course covers a range of subjects related to sports massage therapy, including anatomy and physiology, common sports injuries, professional practice requirements, how to conduct client assessments and consultations, how to maintain a safe working environment and effective record keeping skills. The bulk of the course however teaches practically a range of sports massage techniques that can be used with athletes and exercisers alike. Students on the level 3 programme are taught which techniques can be applied pre-event, between events and post-event, to reduce inflammation, recover from low-level injuries and to maintain an optimal musculoskeletal system.

Stepping up to Level 4

Whilst the Level 3 Diploma provides a great foundation level of knowledge and understanding, there will be times when a higher level of knowledge, skill and qualification will be required. First of all, many employers have a policy that all their massage therapists hold a recognised level 4 sports massage qualification, such as the Level 4 Certificate in Sports Massage, particularly if they are working in more premium areas like spas and sports medicine clinics.

A few of the professional bodies and affiliate organisations discussed below will also only allow massage therapists to join them when they hold a level 4 qualification and they can demonstrate a minimum number of hours training. This is why doing short courses, especially if they are delivered entirely online, is probably not the best route to take. A level 4 qualification may also be required before you will be allowed to undertake more specialist training, as may be the case with CPD programmes like dry needling and gait analysis.

Sports massage therapists are able to perform gait analysis

As you might expect, the level 4 sports massage qualification builds on the foundational knowledge and skills presented at level 3, allowing students to develop a much deeper understanding and skill set around sports massage, its uses and application methods. There is typically a much greater focus also on the science and practice of manual therapy, linking to this more advanced anatomy and physiology.

A differentiator between the level 3 courses is that the level 4 programme teaches students a broader range of techniques to assess posture, recognise muscle imbalances and improve joint alignment. There are also more advanced therapy techniques to support injury management and rehabilitation, including cryotherapy, heat therapy, myofascial release and post-isometric relaxation.

The level 4 qualification will certainly better equip you to work more effectively with clients who have injuries and dysfunction, which would be especially useful if you were planning on working with groups of exercise participants or athletes.

Getting clinical about sports massage therapy

In order to gain employment to work as a sports massage therapist, there is no legal or professional reason why you would need a qualification beyond level 4. You could certainly look to develop more knowledge, skills and expertise by adding to your qualification CPD that is of interest to you and of value to your clients.

That said, if you really did want to take your sports massage studies and qualifications to the next level then there are a number of level 5 sports massage courses and/or sports therapy degree programmes on the market. These programmes are more often delivered by academic institutes like colleges and universities and will take anywhere between 1-3 years to complete (maybe longer if studying part-time).

There is a distinction between sports massage and sports therapy and so it is important to be aware of this when you are looking at which sports massage courses and qualifications are best for you. Broadly speaking, sports massage is just one component of sports therapy and as such, sports therapy involves a wider range of approaches, assessments, treatments and analysis methods in order to provide a more comprehensive and holistic form of training and treatment. It is certainly more of a clinical discipline.

A sports massage therapist working in a clinical setting

Most level 5 qualifications will extend beyond the subjects taught at level 4 and will often include a more detailed exploration of sports injury mechanisms, posture, spinal and pelvic alignment, assessment and analysis of clients, like muscle length, firing patterns, neuro-spinal assessment, gait analysis and much more! There will also be a broader range of soft tissue treatment techniques taught and certainly if the programme is taught in the context of a degree, then it’s also likely that research methods and statistical analysis will also be taught.

Much of the content taught in level 5 sports massage qualifications will overlap with that taught in a level 4 programme, especially within the first year and sometimes even the second.

Degree-level programmes usually support the development of knowledge and skills for clinical practice and work in more specialist rehabilitation settings. They will often include other complementary modules to enable a more holistic way of working approach, including nutrition, sport psychology, exercise and health, exercise prescription, fitness testing and conditioning techniques. This does not necessarily imply that graduates are able to work in these disciplines also, but rather, it provides them with a more well-rounded level of knowledge and understanding so that they can work alongside professionals in these areas also (or refer to them).

A universal feature of all degree-level programmes is a research project, which is usually completed in the final year of study and presented as a dissertation (a detailed and comprehensive essay). The research project is designed to demonstrate that the student has the knowledge and skills to apply what they have learned in the field.

CPD opportunities for sports massage therapists

The following professional development opportunities are segmented across level 3 and level 4 in order to demonstrate which group of sports massage professionals they are best suited to.

Professional development and training for level 3 qualified sports massage therapists include:

• Taping is perhaps one of the most popular CPD activities, especially for massage therapists working with athletes and sportspeople that want to return to training and participation as soon as possible. Learning how to tape safely to effectively support the joints certainly facilitates this. Taping is a highly practical skill and so any training programme should include lots of practical opportunities to learn and develop the skills needed. If you are looking for a sports taping course, you’ll do well to consider this fact.

Qualified sports massage therapists can upskill to use kinesiotape

• Myofascial release is another soft-tissue approach that complements sports massage therapy. It uses specific techniques to release pain and restrictions in the myofascial (muscle and connective tissues) to improve mobility and function within that area. The technique can also significantly help to reduce pain in some situations. Again, any myofascial release course should have lots of opportunities to learn practically as this is quite a specialised skill which requires lots of practice.

• Oncology massage is another route available to those qualified at level 3. This programme moves away from sport and exercise and instead explores when, and which massage techniques can be modified and adapted so that they are suitable for those who have, or who are recovering from cancer.

More advanced CPD activities for those massage therapists that hold a recognised level 4 qualification include:

• Dry needling explores the use of a range of needling techniques and acupuncture points to provide release from pain. Choosing this study path would certainly require a strong understanding of anatomy, physiology and pathology, and students will also need excellent palpation skills. Typically, dry needling courses include subjects like trigger points, contraindications, ethics, science and theories of needling, practical opportunities to practice using the different techniques and most importantly, under direct supervision of an expert tutor.

• Injury rehabilitation will often deepen understanding of injury mechanisms and psychological factors that might also contribute to an injury. There will also usually be an opportunity to deepen understanding and further develop skills to assess a client’s mobility, flexibility and practice specific functional tests to identify and correct specific imbalances. The overarching goal of all of these interventions will be to reduce injury risks and improve athletic performance.

Sports massage bodies

The specific sports massage qualifications you will need to complete will really depend on what you want to do with the qualification now and in the future, who you want to work with and which organisation or professional body you wish to be affiliated or associated with. Each professional body will have their own requirements around qualifications, number of hours of study and even the study method.

Sports massage awarding bodies including the Sports Therapy Association and The Association for Soft Tissue Therapists

Most professional bodies favour face-to-face training over home-study and online training because sports massage is a highly tactile and practical skill that can really only be learned effectively with high-quality training and direct supervision. This is why many massage bodies will also dictate how many hours of supervised practice a therapist must have before they can join.

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