I Want to Be a Physical Therapist for a Professional Team
Think back to your undergraduate days about your aspiring physical therapy friends and peers who wanted to work with pro athletes when they grew up. I bet there were still plenty of classmates in your PT program? Maybe, this was you?
Unfortunately, many who had this dream didn’t make it. In truth, only a very small percentage of PT’s actually get a chance to work with pro teams (there are 144 major professional U.S. teams and over 216,000 PT’s in the US).
In this article, we asked some of the more well-known PT’s in the industry to share their opinions and advice to aspiring physical therapists and students.
We asked the same three questions to every PT and each provided outstanding insights. We hope you enjoy!
- Could any PT have done/can do your job? If no, what additional training or education do you feel is essential to be successful with pro athletes?
- So many young PT’s want to work with pro athletes, but a rare few do. Outside of the limited number of positions available, why do you think most of these PT’s will never get the opportunity?
- Any additional advice you’d like to share with young PT’s who are pursuing this goal?
Robert Panariello, MS, PT, ATC, CSCS
Professional Physical Therapy
Founding Partner, CCO
1. That depends of the expectation/description of the job in question. If the job responsibility is specifically limited to orthopedics and sports medicine then generally speaking, an experienced PT with a strong clinical background, organizational and social skills, as well as the demonstrated ability to perform manual techniques on very large individuals in this specialization of practice could likely perform the job duties appropriately. In my specific situation(s) there was an additional requirement for a strong background in the field of Strength and Conditioning (S&C) as well. Therefore, in job circumstances such as mine additional training/experience and skills in the field of S&C would also be required.
2. In my opinion one main reason is what you exactly describe, too few positions for so many PT’s eager for these positions. There are those who also expect a direct road to these types of opportunities when in reality much ground work, patience, and sweat are required to position oneself for such an opportunity. There is also the factor of establishing a relationship with administration, coaches, rehab staff, etc. at the professional level for the opportunity for consideration for one of these eventual PT positions. As in any profession establishing relationships usually helps.
3. Place yourself in a position to become the best rehabilitation specialist while developing relationships early in your career. Although finances are important, initially in a PT professional’s career, unless burdened with excessive financial responsibilities, money should not be the driving factor for the initial job(s)/position taken. Early occupational opportunities should provide high levels of education as well as the development of the clinical skills and relationships that will assist to achieve the individual PT’s future professional goals.
Rob has more than 30 years of experience in the related fields of Sports Physical Therapy, Athletic Training, and the Performance Training of Athletes. His experience includes the study of the Science of Strength and Conditioning of weightlifters and various sport athletes in Bulgaria, the former Soviet Union, and former East Germany. He previously held the positions of Head Strength & Conditioning Coach at St. John’s University of New York (1986-1995), the World League of American Football NY/NJ Knights (1991), and the WUSA NY POWER Women’s Professional Soccer League (2001-2002). He continues to rehabilitate, athletic performance train, as well as serve as a consultant to many NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, Collegiate and University teams, coaches, and players.
Timothy DiFrancesco, PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS
TD Athletes Edge
Former Head Strength and Conditioning Coach – Los Angeles Lakers
1. Physical therapists who thrive at the pro level are those that see their PT background and skill set as a tool in their overall toolbox. The alternative is when a PT sees their PT knowledge and skill set as the secret weapon by itself. This can become an issue. A PT looking to thrive while working with pro athletes should have a deep understanding and some level of certification surrounding the fundamentals of strength and conditioning. Ideally, they see their PT background as something that enhances their ability to help athletes get stronger, more durable, more robust. Lastly, they need a mindset that’s far different than the clinic mindset and approach. There’s not going to be a set schedule all of the time like in a clinic. The ability to go with the flow, understand that they’re surrounded by other experts in other important areas, and help that environment keep moving forward is key.
2. I think more and more will get the opportunity. I see more PT’s coming out of school with a better understanding of how to apply a traditional PT background to exercise, strength, and enhancing high performance. One reason a PT will have a hard time getting a pro sport opportunity is that they fail to gain exposure to working with athletes. They spend their curriculum and early professional years as immersed in rehab of general population patients. They would be best suited to actively seek work with athletes at any levels during this period. This gives them a reputation of understanding how to work with athletes. It’s important to find opportunities that pull them out of the rehab comfort zone.
3. PT’s often have a hard time considering a low paying position at the minor league level after the grueling, expensive PT school experience. This is often a great foot in the door but many PT’s see themselves as above that type of a position. If the pros are in your sights then you may significantly benefit from this route. Be prepared to take a step back financially or on the food chain to move forward in your career from time to time.
Tim DiFrancesco is the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and founder of TD Athletes Edge. He is nationally renowned for his evidence-based and scientific approach to fitness, training, nutrition, and recovery for athletes and fitness enthusiasts.
For training and nutrition advice, follow Tim on:
Physical Performance Lead and Head Strength and Conditioning Coach – Canadian Men’s Basketball Team
1. By definition, yes, a PT could do my job. I don’t know that just any PT would be able, willing, or even want to do the job the same way I would go about it as everyone has different values and behaviors. Rehabbing pro athletes is no different in terms of peripheral problem solving. Often the solutions for professional athletes extend well beyond what the PT may think of as physical therapy. Training and education in intelligent fitness, load management, sleep, nutrition, and psychology are seem to be beyond the traditional training of most PTs.
2. Athletes are typically so catered and pandered to that even basic intelligent strategies are out of their comfort zone and get rejected. Trying to push great strategies are often rejected, and many PTs won’t get another chance.
In situations where working for others in organized settings, these intelligent strategies may put off superiors by exposing their weak and pandering mediocre techniques, thus the new PT is shown the door quickly.
3. I would never sway a random person from pursuing what they may want to do, but working in professional sports is simply very rarely ever what it appears. It breeds mediocrity, and what is seen from the outside is rarely ever logical or appealing when viewed from the inside.
Charlie is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, a Certified Athletic Trainer, and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He is currently a Physical Therapist and Strength & Conditioning Coach at Drive 495 in Manhattan, NY and Fit For Life in Marlboro, NJ. He also is a member of the Nike Executive Performance Council and serves as the Physical Performance Lead and Head Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Canadian Men’s National Basketball Team. Prior to returning to his home of NJ, he was the Director of Physical Performance and Resiliency and Lead Physical Therapist for the United States Marines Corps Special Operations Command in Camp Lejeune, NC.
For more details on Charlie and a list of his great educational products, check out his site: http://charlieweingroff.com/
Former Head Athletic Trainer and Physical Therapist – Boston Red Sox
Owner of Champion Physical Therapy and Performance
1. To answer the question, “could any PT have done your job,” I’m not sure I would say yes. To work within professional sports, you need to have a very thorough understanding of that sport. For me, that was baseball. Athletes has unique demands, adaptations, and injury patterns that occur from their sport. If you aren’t intimately familiar with these details, I’m not sure you could perform your job well. So, I would say if you want to work with a specific sport, you need to master that sport.
2. I think the numbers alone do explain this, there are so few jobs, but it comes down to being in the right place at the right time. That doesn’t mean it’s all luck, you need to put yourself in the best position to succeed. You need to sacrifice your time and energy, surround yourself with experts in your field, and work your tail off.
3. I always recommend you seek out the best in the sport you want to work with and go train with them, learn from them, and hopefully become one of them.
Mike is a physical therapist, strength and conditioning coach, performance enhancement specialist. After working for many years with such prestigious organizations such as The Boston Red Sox, The American Sports Medicine Institute, and Massachusetts General Hospital, he founded Champion Physical Therapy and Performance in Boston, MA. At Champion, they help people feel better, move better, and perform better with an integrated approach to physical therapy, fitness, and sports performance. Champion also features an acclaimed baseball performance program in our amazing baseball training facility.
For more details on Mike and his great educational resources, head over to his site: https://mikereinold.com. Also, it’s definitely worth your time to check out his podcast: https://mikereinold.com/askmikereinold/
Team Physical Therapist – Minnesota Lynx
1. Athletic teams would likely consider PT’s who have sufficient experience and who have proven proficiency in treating sports injuries. To accomplish this, a sports residency and acquiring the Board Certified Clinical Specialist in Sports Physical Therapy (SCS) would be invaluable. Additionally, training including extensive shadowing of sports medicine providers, sufficient knowledge of strength and conditioning principles to bridge the gap in rehabilitation and return to sport, gaining knowledge of sports progressions, and pursuing continuing education that enhances sports performance, regenerative medicine techniques and sound rehabilitation progressions post operatively and for athletes with nonoperative sports injuries.
2. Not only are there limited professional team PT positions, but opportunities are also scarce because PT’s who secure a role tend to stay in their positions for extended periods of time. There is less turnover, as the majority of PT’s love their roles working with teams. Initially it is challenging for PT’s to obtain the role due to the dedication and time necessary to gain the right level of expertise and to build trust and connections with medical staff involved. It requires a lot of hard work, planning, forming relationships and communication.
3. If it’s your passion, go for it! Prepare for hard work, pressure, early mornings, late nights, stress when outcomes are not favorable, and joy when outcomes are favorable. Be strong and positive with players and staff, regardless of successes and failures. As long as you do what is best for the athletes, you’re doing the right thing.
Beyer works closely with a number of the most respected team orthopedic surgeons, sports medicine physicians, sports physical therapists, and athletic trainers in the area to provide care to local high school, college and professional athletes. She works as the lead for the running performance program and is a specialist in the anterior cruciate ligament and return to sport programs at Mayo Clinic Square Sports Medicine Center in Minneapolis. She is collaborating locally and nationally on research regarding hip femoroacetabular impingement, hamstring, and anterior cruciate ligament injuries and has published on patellofemoral pain syndrome.
Physical Therapist / Assistant Athletic Trainer – Houston Astros
1. Not just any PT could do my job. I serve as the Physical Therapist as well as one of the Assistant Athletic Trainers for the team. To be more marketable in the professional sports realm it is important to have some sort of additional specialization. Those can include being a Certified Athletic Trainer, Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach, or becoming a Board Certified Sports Physical Therapist through the specialty board. As far as continuing education that is important, it is important to be well versed in a multitude of techniques. The more tools you have in your toolbox the better you will be able to assess and treat the mix of injuries and conditions that occur in professional sports. I would recommend things such as SFMA, FMS, PRI, functional dry needling, and a mobilization class to help get things going. The important dynamic to remember with professional athletes is we just don’t treat their injuries, we are trying to help them be on the field for every game and also perform at the highest level possible. This requires us to assess their limitations and create programs that will correct these limitations.
2. I think one of the main reasons is that it takes time to get into the positions of working with professional athletes because it takes time to build the trust. Athletes and organizations can be particular about who works with them. The most knowledgeable PT in the world may not be the most qualified to work with professional athletes if they can’t apply their knowledge. Also, once people get into these positions many stay for several years.
3. I would encourage students to try and find a rotation while in school to work with professional or college athletes to make sure that is what they want to do. Often times the travel, long hours, etc. that come with the position can only be seen from having the day in day out experience with a team. Also. I would strongly encourage young professionals to continuously work on applying their knowledge. Many times the brightest PT, best resume, most continuing education, etc. don’t make the best PT in the sports world if they can’t apply their knowledge. Athletes want the most efficient and best care they can possibly receive because at the end of the day, what we prescribe will determine how fast they will be able to return to play. Finally. I would encourage young professionals to interact with other professionals and see what they can learn from them. In the sports professions, it’s all about working as a team to provide the optimum care.
Daniel Roberts was named an assistant athletic trainer and physical therapist for the Astros in December of 2016. He previously spent five seasons (2011-2015) as the Astros minor league rehab coordinator, running the organization’s minor league rehab programs and assisting with Major League rehab out of the Astros Spring Training facility.
Dan Lorenz, PT, DPT, LAT, CSCS
Former Physical Therapist and Assistant Athletic Trainer – Kansas City Chiefs
Specialists in Sports and Orthopedic Rehabilitation
1. No, I don’t think “any PT” can. It’s a lot of hard work, long hours. Not everyone is cut out for “the grind” so to speak. I think being an ATC really helped – to know how a training room works, the politics, etc. helped me understand what a different “animal” it is. If ATC not possible, definitely an internship of some kind. I don’t think it hurts to have done a residency or fellowship, but having a good understanding of how ATC’s work as well as how a weight room does too is good. Manual skills help, but also helps to know what the “trends” are in alternative treatments because pro athletes are always searching for the next best thing, evidence or not.
2. Many potential reasons. Usually first opportunity is internships and many pro teams don’t have PT’s do those. Some head ATC’s see the value of PT’s but many don’t want anything to do with PT’s. There’s still some interprofessional battles going on between PTs and AT’s and both parties are responsible for this. From talking to numerous head athletic trainers in different pro sports, there’s some PT’s that “don’t get it” when it comes to pro sports or come in and try and show off what they know rather than doing what’s asked of them. Some just don’t want to put the time in either – like i said, long hours, long days, long seasons. “all hands have to be on deck” so to speak and i think some PT’s struggle with that if they haven’t spent a lot of time in a training room. The training room is truly a unique environment and PT school really doesn’t prepare you for that.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for opportunities and don’t get discouraged when doors slam. Sometimes, the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” and persistence will pay off. Network as much as you can, and offer on your own dime to volunteer if that crack in the door opens. If you get that chance, ask questions, don’t show off, do what’s asked of you and offer to do the jobs no one wants to do. You have to show you know how to work and are willing to do whatever it takes. You’ll have to have the ability to be quiet too because you’ll probably see stuff you disagree with or have a hard time seeing. It’s part of the “game” so to speak so know what battles to fight.
Dan completed the Duke University Sports Physical Therapy Fellowship from 2004-2005 where he focused on orthopedic and sports injuries, particularly of the knee and shoulder. Following the fellowship at Duke, he was hired by the Kansas City Chiefs as an assistant athletic trainer and physical therapist in 2005, a position he held until after the 2006-2007 campaign. Prior to the Duke fellowship, he was an athletic trainer and physical therapist at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in 2004 in the weeks leading up to the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Greece. Dan has been a consultant for both MLB and NFL organizations on rehabilitation and strength/conditioning practices.
Follow Dan on:
Justin Hahn, PT, DPT, SCS, CSCS
Minor League Rehab Coordinator – Kansas City Royals
The best advice I could give a young physical therapist interested in working in professional sports is to pursue the educational growth and career networking opportunities afforded by residency and fellowship training. The clinical skill development, sports medicine exposure, networking, and observation opportunities are really second to none. During PT school, I knew I wanted to pursue any opportunity to work in professional baseball, and I considered a sports residency and a baseball fellowship to be the next logical steps.
Although cliché, I believe in the saying, “Luck is preparation meeting opportunity.” Getting the chance to work in a professional sports setting requires some degree of luck. It might be meeting the right person at the right time, or having the availability and flexibility to accept a position when it opens up. This is where the preparation comes in – putting in the work ahead of time to be prepared and ready when an opportunity arises. In my specific situation, I met a PT student who was on a clinical rotation with an MLB organization. I asked for his clinical instructor’s contact information and passed that along to my PT school clinical coordinator. I worked with my PT school to secure an agreement with that MLB organization, and I was fortunate enough to spend my last clinical rotation there. From there I went to my sports residency in Minneapolis (Fairview) and then directly to the overhead athlete/professional baseball fellowship (ATI – formerly Proaxis Therapy). Through these opportunities, I developed a level of work experience and training that made me uniquely qualified to pursue a position with a major league team.
I think persistence, a willingness to make sacrifices, and having a specific plan are crucial to successfully pursuing a career in professional sports. From the day I interviewed for PT school I knew I wanted to work in Major League Baseball. I did everything in my power to secure an MLB clinical rotation by taking the initiative and making the connections necessary. I participated in a residency program that allowed me to tailor my learning experiences to be as baseball-specific as possible. I chose to continue my specialization and advance my training with a baseball fellowship and additional certifications. After 5 years of aligning every decision with the idea of becoming a PT within an MLB organization, I accepted my current position with the Royals.
Roland Ramirez, ATC, LAT, PT, SCS, CSCS
1. No, I do not think any PT can do my job. Training and education is extremely important of course and PTs must be diverse and well educated in many areas to be successful at the highest level of sports. This includes being well versed and competent in the evaluation and management of acute injuries. My role primarily involves rehabilitation of injuries, but I also manage acute injuries that are sustained in practices and games. In my opinion, a continuing education course covering emergency medicine does not qualify an individual to properly care for different types of acute sports-related injuries. Aside from this, I feel that a person in my position has to have the right personality to co-exist with different types of players and backgrounds, as well as be able to get along with numerous staff and coaches in the organization. This person also has to be willing to grind through a demanding work schedule and season with no days off and have the ability to handle several type of situations, including many that are uncontrollable. A person in my position must be able to stand his ground when working with players and trying to progress rehab, yet be able to compromise at certain times while keeping the main goal in sight. They have to be moldable and adaptable in all aspects, and continuously advance their skills and knowledge as the world of sports medicine evolves. They have to be able to withstand the rigors and pressure to perform and accept responsibility when an aggressive rehab approach occasionally backfires. A passive personality, one that is complacent, and one that desires a regular 40 hour work week will not last long in the NFL.
2. I feel that many young PTs care to work with pro athletes but many fail to accept the additional effort it takes to set yourself apart from others in the field and enter this unique domain. Many young PTs do not understand what it takes to work at this level. It is not just about what they see on Sundays and working with high profile athletes. There are countless duties and responsibilities behind the scenes and a significant time commitment that many are not aware of and when they do realize what it takes, many are not willing to meet these high demands.
I also believe that if a PT wishes to work with pro athletes on a team, then having an athletic training background will make this PT more marketable and better equipped to work in a team setting. In addition to an ATC credential, I feel that PTs need to continue to advance their skills consistently with continuing education courses and certifications to provide innovative and cutting-edge techniques that pro athletes desire.
Nevertheless, there are several great PTs with no ATC certification that do tremendous work with pro athletes both in a clinic and in a team setting. I am not implying that PTs cannot serve an important role with working with pro athletes; however, I feel that young PTs need to do everything they can to improve their chances of breaking into this industry by continuing to advance their skills, despite the cost and length of time it takes, in order to be successful at an elite level.
3. Be willing to grind and never get complacent!