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Massage Today
February, 2011, Vol. 11, Issue 02

Time for Change

By Ralph Stephens, BS, LMT, NCBTMB

A new year can bring so many changes. Just so you know, my column will only appear four times this year. So many great authors out there, I'm sharing the ink. I have also decided that 2011 will be my "Farewell Teaching Tour" and I will significantly cut back on travels after 2011.

So, come study with me when I am near your town as this could be the last time.

I'll still be around; I have lots left to share and do. But after 20 years on the road as an instructor and 13 as a musician, the road has lost most of its charm.

Change is the only constant, so watch for the changes and join in when and where you can. As always, I will be posting regular editorials on my blog:, and others.

Speaking of change, a major change must occur in our profession and soon. That brings me to the feature topic of this column.

The biggest problem with massage is that almost anybody can do it with minimal training to some degree. Friends and lovers can learn to give a very enjoyable massage by reading a short article or watching a video. It takes very little to train someone to give a relaxation massage that feels reasonably good to consumers who have minimal expectations and even less awareness of the true potential of massage as therapy. I am not discounting the benefits of the parasympathetic response. My point here is that turning out thousands of massage school graduates who struggle to pass a very basic licensing exam and can hardly give a decent non-specific massage, then "placing" them in low-pay, high-turnover jobs is not going to gain us acceptance by other healthcare professions and may create a backlash against us by consumers, especially at rates of more than $100/hr.

girl studying - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark In the short run, this is a cash cow for schools and associations but it is no way to build a profession.

So, how did we get to this place? Well, to ponder this, we have to go back into the past.

I love this quote: "When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness." Alexis de Tocqueville

Education Then

During the last century, when massage was having its renaissance in the 1970s and 1980s, the vast majority of people entering the profession were in their 30's, had college degrees and/or significant business and life experience. They had discovered alternative health and had a passion to learn how to better help themselves as well as to help others. Most were seeking a more desirable way to earn a living, "outside the box" where they were in control, in a much healthier environment and lower stress situation. It was rare that anyone came to massage school right out of high school, but those who did had a burning passion to learn the profession and to help people.

There were only 50 or so schools in the entire U.S. in the mid-1980s. Massage schools of that time were started by experienced, successful, professional therapists who had a passion for what they did, a knack for teaching and either wanted to share their knowledge and skills with other like-minded individuals or needed to train people to help them in their clinics. This worked rather well, because the instructors were accomplished professionals and the student base was highly motivated, self-funded (for the most part) and possessed the life experience and skills to create an alternative healthcare practice in whatever situation they chose.

These individuals could be turned into massage therapists with six months to a year of training (500 - 1,000 classroom hours) very easily and effectively. They were also acutely aware their school education was insufficient and invested in advanced continuing education at every opportunity. Because they could make a good living doing massage, they could afford this investment in advanced training, which brought huge returns in increased business as they learned how to help more people and conditions.

Education Today

Today, we have a very different group of people entering the profession. Students are being recruited from the lower income, lower academic strata of high schools with promises of easy work, high pay, and guaranteed loans. These students may or may not have a passion for massage or health, for that matter.

I recently asked a student why she was in massage school. She said her guidance counselor told her she better go to massage school because it was easier than cosmetology - so she did. That is a sad perspective of massage: "It's the easiest school you can go to." The 500-650 hours of education might turn a 30-year-old, degreed professional into a massage therapist, but it will not turn the majority of today's 18-year-old, high school graduates into one.

Times have changed and we must too.

What We Must Do

The time has come to raise educational standards. Hours must increase to include more comprehensive life skills and much better massage skills. Hours in and of themselves are not the answer; curriculum and outcomes must be changed to turn out a healthcare professional that is literate in the language and techniques of the profession. It is time that we not only increase the scope of our training programs, but set significant competency standards for who can teach massage. The "if you can't do it, you can always teach it" philosophy must be abolished. Further, a good therapist does not necessarily make a good teacher, especially to today's students.

I know both these proposals are threats to the cash flow of our current school system, especially in the short run. However, for-profit schools using Title IV funding are coming under increased government pressure to increase placement and lower loan defaults.

A better-trained graduate would help with both those issues, and the only way to do that is to have better trained instructors who actually know how to teach. Most other professions have teacher training/competency standards. It is time we do too. Why? For the primary reason we should do anything: to provide better massage therapy to the public.

Of course, this will have to be a ramp up, not a jump up. Such a change will require the cooperation of all the major "stakeholders" in the profession. A proposal to create standards for instructors has been placed on the table by the Alliance for Massage Therapy Education. It deserves serious consideration and support of all. You can view the proposal at

We have to start somewhere and the best place to improve education and, thus, the profession is improving the quality and abilities of the instructors teaching the work.

Keep warm. Be Well. See you this spring!

Click here for more information about Ralph Stephens, BS, LMT, NCBTMB.


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