How To Become a Sports Physical Therapist (Including Licensing and Certification)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated July 23, 2021 | Published March 8, 2021

Updated July 23, 2021

Published March 8, 2021

If you have an interest in sports and desire a career choice other than competing as an athlete, you might consider becoming a sports physical therapist. Experienced sports physical therapists have a high earning potential as licensed medical professionals who work with athletes to evaluate and treat physical injuries. This career involves extensive education and training along with practical experience in sports rehabilitation facilities. In this article, we explain the job of a sports physical therapist, how this role differs from general physical therapy and share the steps you can take to become a sports physical therapist.

What does a sports physical therapist do?

A sports physical therapist is a highly trained and licensed medical practitioner who cares for patients after a sports-related injury. These professionals rehabilitate athletes by providing treatment and evaluation as patients complete healing exercises or therapies designed to increase mobility and strengthen injured areas of the body.

A sports physical therapist may complete any of the following tasks in their daily work:

  • Evaluate patients to determine the severity of an athletic injury.

  • Identify physical limitations in a patient's range of motion, balance and coordination.

  • Plan the best course of treatment to help an athlete recover as quickly and safely as possible after an athletic-related injury.

  • Lead patients through exercises to increase coordination, agility and strength.

  • Use treatment products and medical rehabilitation tools like a goniometer which measures joint angles to complete patient rehabilitation.

  • Complete therapeutic treatments such as electrical stimulation or massage on affected areas.

  • Encourage and coach athletes to work toward healing by relearning certain processes and activities.

Related: 9 Physical Therapist Certifications for Specialization

Physical therapist vs. sports physical therapist

The difference between a physical therapist and a sports physical therapist is the level of specialized training sports therapists complete. A sports physical therapist must first train and earn a license as a physical therapist. After earning a graduate degree and a license as a physical therapist, a sports physical therapist must complete additional certifications and work in the field of sports medicine before earning the right to practice sports physical therapy on their own.

Although both physical and sports therapists work to rehabilitate patients after an injury, a sports physical therapist focuses on helping an athlete regain the ability to play and compete. Sports physical therapists address the swelling of joints, muscle strength and range of motion as they relate to a patient's athletic talents.

Salary for sports physical therapists

The national average salary for physical therapist is $81,963 per year. Salaries often vary based on location, experience and employer. Some therapists can earn over $100,000 a year in high-paying metropolitan areas and facilities. Texas, New York and California are among the states with the highest reported salaries for physical therapists.

Read more: Jobs in Physical Therapy: Description and Salary

Job outlook for sports physical therapists

The United States Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) predicts a higher that average growth in the general profession of physical therapy from 2019 to 2029. The BLS estimates 18% growth in physical therapist positions compared to the national average job growth of 4%. With such a high predicted job growth rate, sports physical therapy is a career choice that can provide many opportunities for employment once you complete the necessary education and certification to practice as a sports physical therapist.

Skills for a sports physical therapist

A sports physical therapist needs both specialized medical knowledge and the interpersonal qualities necessary for patient care. Here are the top skills a sports physical therapist utilizes to succeed in their work:

  • Critical thinking: Since sports physical therapists evaluate patient injuries to decide on the best course of rehabilitation, they need strong analytical skills to perform diagnostic screenings and choose a treatment plan.

  • Empathy: Medical professionals practice empathy by showing concern and understanding as a patient undergoes rehabilitation therapies and exercises. Sports physical therapists pay attention to verbal and non-verbal cues that show frustration or discouragement so they can encourage a patient through the physical therapy process.

  • Anatomy and physiology training: A sports physical therapist uses in-depth knowledge of the human body to plan and perform therapeutic treatments for patients who have sustained athletic-related injuries.

  • Emergency medical training: Sports physical therapists must be able to perform emergency medical care like CPR in the event that a patient suddenly experiences life-threatening symptoms during treatment.

  • Physical strength and stamina: Physical therapy professionals spend long hours working with clients, often physically administering care through rehabilitation exercises, massage therapy and guided training for sports activities.

  • Mentoring and coaching: As athletes regain strength and agility, a therapist works to restore the same level of athletic ability and skill for a patient. Patients who are professional athletes may need encouragement and specific drills to get in shape for a new season

How to become a sports physical therapist

The career path to becoming a physical therapist who specializes in rehabilitating patients with sports-related injuries and helping them regain their ability to play either recreationally or professionally requires rigorous training and certifications. Explore the steps below to see how you can work toward practicing as a licensed sports physical therapist:

1. Complete your undergraduate degree

To begin your career as a physical therapist, you'll need to earn a bachelor's degree in a relevant field such as biology, exercise science or athletic training. Look for ways to enhance your coursework through internships in sports medical facilities. Consider volunteering for college athletic programs or in physical therapy centers.

Read more: The Best Undergraduate Majors for Physical Therapy

2. Earn your graduate degree in physical therapy

To practice as a physical therapist, you'll need to earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. You can enter into a DPT program directly after earning a bachelor's degree, however, some programs may require specific undergraduate prerequisites. Your DPT program should be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. These programs last about three years and focus on both physical therapy instruction and clinical practice.

Related: Q&A: Is Becoming a Physical Therapist Worth It?

3. Obtain a license as a physical therapist

Upon graduation from a Doctor of Physical Therapy program, you can take the licensing exam in the state where you plan to practice. After you pass the National Physical Therapy Exam, you can begin working as a licensed physical therapist in order to gain the experience necessary to train in a specialized area like sports.

4. Gain experience in sports medicine

The next step to begin a career as a sports physical therapist is to work in the field of sports therapy. You'll need to earn at least 2,000 hours of work experience caring for patients in a sports therapy facility or complete a recognized residency program in a similar medical center. Look for resources and career placement services through your Doctor of Physical Therapy program.

5. Get certified in emergency medical care and CPR

To qualify for the exam that certifies you to practice sports physical therapy, you'll need to take courses in CPR and emergency care. You can earn a CPR certification by enrolling in a training program from the American Red Cross or the American Heart Association.

Emergency medical training is a more complex process. You can earn a certification in emergency medical care in the following ways:

  • By prior training as a certified EMT or Paramedic

  • Through a Red Cross training program

  • As a Certified Athletic Trainer licensed by the National Athletic Trainers Association

6. Take the certification exam for sports physical therapy

Once you have all the prerequisite training and experience, you can test for the sports specialization exam offered by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS). Before you take the assessment, it may be helpful to join the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). As a member of the APTA, you can take the test at a discounted rate. The ABPTS provides guidelines on test preparation and registration along with suggestions on how to prepare for the examination.

Jobs similar to a sports physical therapist

For those interested in a sports-related job that helps others, there are a variety of career options to consider. Here are 10 jobs related to sports physical therapists:

1. Physical therapy aide

2. Performance specialist

3. Occupational therapist

4. Athletic trainer

5. Outpatient therapist

6. Recreational therapist

7. Strength and conditioning specialist

8. Rehabilitation counselor

9. Respiratory therapist

10. Exercise physiologist

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