Career Scoop: Sports Physiotherapist

Career Scoop file, on what it's like to work as a Sports PhysiotherapistIn a nutshell, what do you do?

Day-to-day, I work with injury prevention, treatment and rehabilitation. Whilst I work as a full-time Sports Physiotherapist, my work is not all with those in competitive sport; about 80% is, the rest is helping people from everyday backgrounds get back to their normal lives.

Why did you decide to become a Sports Physiotherapist?

It found me. At University, whilst 90% of the students wanted to work in Sports Physio, I wasn’t one of them; I wanted to get into neurological Physiotherapy – working with people who’d had a stroke, or an acquired brain injury, teaching them to walk again… I’d grown up with an older population, got on really well with them, and thought that would be fulfilling.

Then I saw that in the public health system, you get about 20 – 30 minutes a day with patients, with acute injuries; In rehab, you get one session a day. That’s not enough time to get progress, and was frustrating. The reality in the public health system is that there’s limited money, too many patients and not enough beds.

My partner at the time was in a sports team, and they were looking for a Sports Physiotherapist. I realised that it ticked all my interests – travel, being outdoors and being involved in sports…

What path did you take into it?

I did a 4 year undergraduate degree at LaTrobe University, following by a full-time one year Masters in Sports Physiotherapy. There are lots of different options for postgrad study, but the two main areas are Sports Physiotherapy or Musculo-Skeletal (‘manips’).

What, in your opinion, is the best bit of being a Sports Physiotherapist?

Working with a really good team – you have to really like the people you work with (there are some coaches I haven’t, and I don’t work with them again). You end up being a bit of everything to the team; their dietitian, their sports scientist…

I love learning new stuff every day – new information, new conditions – and the little breakthrough moments, when your patient goes from 10% to 70% function. You get to know the key to your patient. And the accolades are great – I have worked with people getting gold and silver, and you get to live vicariously through your athletes!

Every job has its downsides. What do you think are the worst bits?

Long hours and hard, physical work. Your body is your income, and your body – and particularly your thumbs – get killed. I have a massage every 2 weeks, and that adds up, financially. You can make good money, but do too many hours and you’ll end up spending it all on repairing yourself! You are also on the go, around people all day, and you can easily become dehydrated and wind up with headaches.

There’s also a huge amount of admin, and the more you work with elite athletes, the more admin there is. When you’re working at a national level, there’s so much communication – the coaches, athletes, head governing body, they all want to be kept in the loop, so there’s a lot of phone-calls and e-mails.

Travel is also a big logistical challenge; I travel with 100 kg of equipment – braces, boots, crutches, a table, meds and all the letters for them. If you have a good team (and a good partner), you get help with that, otherwise you’re on your own.

The travel brings its own challenges; when you’re away, you may be sharing a room so you’re around people all the time. And the time away from home – and different time zones, which can be hard to adjust to – can be hard on your relationships.

Is it what you expected when you first started out – and what’s different?

From my own sporting experience, I already knew that working in elite sports wasn’t glamorous, but most of my peers had no idea and were pretty naïve about what was involved.

Personally, I didn’t realise how much influence I’d have; Doctors do listen, you work with your sports team every day, so they take your opinion seriously. I also didn’t appreciate how much of a counsellor / psychologist you end up being – it can get you to the point of utter exhaustion. I’ve had to take time off before, because of it, and you have to learn not to take other people’s problems home.

Finally, most people don’t realise how many different areas are involved in Sports Physiotherapy – vestibular, balance, neuro, cardio…

What do the public least understand – or mistake – about what you do?

They think I’m a massage therapist. People don’t realise that I’m a primary practitioner – in Australia, Sports Physiotherapists diagnose, we ask for MRIs… but lots of people come after having seen their Doctor (also a primary practitioner), and worry that they’re not in the right place…

People also think that a Sports Physiotherapist only deals with elite athletes, and not recreational sports, but ‘weekend warriors’ are our biggest market!

What kind of people tend to do well?

You need to be opinionated, when the time is right. You need to be able to read people well, and have intuition – to realise what you can and can’t say at a given time. You need to be a team player, as you’re not working by yourself; you have to deal with patients, coaches, support staff – people with very different personalities. Sometimes you have to pass on information, like someone not showing up for sessions…

Trust is so important – if you lose your patience with someone, you won’t be working in that sport much longer… And you can’t be a show-off, you need to go slowly and let the treatment shine – ego doesn’t win you any friends.

You need good organisational and time management skills, as team sports can be very regimented and you need to show up on time for meetings, training etc.

Overall, the type of sports you’re working in (i.e. working with teams versus working with one elite athlete) dictates what kind of person does well. You need a totally different personality to do well working with one person the whole time, where there may be more ego involved.

Finally, any advice you’d offer to people looking to get into this line of work? 

Get experience in private practice and see, for a day, what you’re in for; you need to see how physical it is. Women especially can end up broken and once you have kids, the work can be too draining. Working as an Allied Health Assistant would also give you a good idea of the work…

Also, limit your hours. If I did a 40 hour week, I’d spend my whole weekend recovering! You need to look after yourself, and your body, from the get-go, or you will burn out.

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