How to Become a Sports Physical Therapist

April 30, 2014

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Contributed by Dr. Jon Herting

Within most professions there are all types of niches that we can find in order to work in environments that specifically fit our individual areas of interest.  Physical Therapy (PT) is no different. You can work in a hospital (acute care), nursing home or transitional facility (sub-acute), home health, or outpatient Physical Therapy setting. Within each setting there are many sub-specialties that practitioners may pursue. This may include wound care, sports, geriatrics, traumatic brain injury, or stroke. The list goes on and on.  In that respect physical therapy is a very fluid and accommodating profession in which you can find or even craft whatever niche you may be interested in.  Within the profession you can even shift between settings if your interests do change.

Going forward please keep in mind that I am going to speak based on my experience and what I have seen others do in order to work in sports medicine as a Physical Therapist.

If you are a high school student exploring college programs it is important to note that you can major in anything as an undergrad  if you are planning to apply to PT school just as long as you take the perquisites required by each PT school for admission. Generally these prerequisites are similar between programs with some variation between schools. It is recommended that you research each PT schools prerequisites. Generally PT schools require 2 biology courses, 2 chemistry courses, 2 physics courses, some psychology and math courses. Some schools may require an Anthropology or Philosophy course as well but this is where you will need to do the research to determine which PT schools require what. Pick the undergraduate program that can offer you each of these classes in a way that can best prepare you for application into a graduate PT program. Yes, PT schools do look at undergraduate academic rigor when you apply to make sure that you can meet their academic standards.

When thinking about applying you will need to make sure each of these prerequisites have been satisfied and also take the GRE’s. Some schools may also require an interview but they will let you know if you need this after you have submitted your application.

If you are interested in pursuing sports medicine I recommended majoring in one of the following majors in school; Exercise and Sport Science (ESS), Kinesiology, Biology, Athletic Training and Pre-med.  In my experience ESS, Athletic Training and Kinesiology provide students with a good science base and a good background in exercise, rehab, and exercise prescription. Being a Biology or Pre-med major will teach you the much needed study skills that PT school will require. They will also give you a solid base in the sciences but lack the background in exercise prescription and client management. If your goal is to work with a professional team they often look to hire professionals who are both ATC’s and PT’s. This means that they have a degree in Athletic Training and they have taken the licensure exam in order to earn the designation of Athletic Trainer Certified. If this is your goal then you should major in athletic training.

physical therapy assistant aide

There are undergraduate degrees that offer 3+3 programs where you are admitted into the graduate PT program out of high school as long as you maintain certain standards in the first 3 years of your undergraduate education. If you maintain these standards then you will be able to begin your graduate PT program during your senior undergrad year. This saves both a year of schooling and a significant amount of money.

While in undergrad you should also seek out internships in strength and conditioning and sports performance settings in order to further your knowledge in the field. This is only help you to excel in PT school and provide good connections and mentors that will serve you further down the road.

Once you have been able to make it into PT school I would recommend finding a great PT specific mentor that has similar interests and who has been able to craft a career path similar to the one you want to follow. Most programs will have a sports and orthopedic minded professor and it will be your job to seek them out.

I also recommend reading everything that you can in the fields of strength and conditioning, sports performance, orthopedics, sports medicine, and sports psychology, etc. You may find that finding the time to read outside of your daily required readings will be difficult but this will better help to guide your PT practice and give you a leg up when entering the work force.

When it comes to clinical affiliations, an integral part of all PT programs, you should seek out affiliations similar to the setting in which you want to work. You will be required to work in settings that you may not be interested in, but it is all part of the educational experience and you will be able to take clinical pearls from each experience that you will be able to apply when you finally land your dream job.

Finally it is important to note that being a sports medicine focused PT is a profession of passion. You may work long or odd hours and you must be committed to the profession and dedicated to helping athletes succeed at all levels.  You must be committed to always learning and reading. PT as a science is ever evolving and sports medicine is always looking for the quickest and most successful ways to return athletes to the playing field while preventing future injury. This is why you must always be on top of your game and working to better yourself so that you can improve your athletes performance.

Hopefully this helps to guide you in your quest to find your way in the world of Sports Medicine and PT please contact me with any questions that I may be able to answer.

Jon Herting –

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