Athlete getting a massage
Athlete getting a massage

The Role of Massage in Professional Sports

By Massage Today, Editorial Staff
January 11, 2024

The Role of Massage in Professional Sports

By Massage Today, Editorial Staff
January 11, 2024

If you trace most professional sports back far enough, you will come across their humble beginnings rooted in peach baskets (basketball), moonshine running (NASCAR), and wagon wheel spokes (baseball). Today, however, is a different story. Sports leagues are multi-billion dollar affairs with multi-million dollar athletes.

With that much money on the line, keeping the athletes in tip-top shape is of the utmost importance. Most professional sports teams have spared no expense on their training and recovery facilities and offerings to keep their athletes performing at their best.

Included as part of these offerings for just about every pro sports team are massage therapists. Most organizations have massage therapists on staff to aid in the athletes’ preparation and recovery.

But just how important is massage therapy for a professional athlete, and, for massage therapists, how does working on professional athletes differ from their traditional, everyday clients?

Read on to find out.


Though many of us may like to think that had one or two things in our lives gone differently we would be playing in the NFL, NBA, or MLB right now, in reality that isn’t the case. One of the biggest differences between a professional athlete and a traditional massage client is body type. “The biggest difference is size and muscle mass,” says Cicily Cannady, a massage therapist who has worked with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars since 2017. “The players that have a lot of muscle mass take a lot more care and time warming up the tissues and manipulating the muscle to promote circulation and flexibility.”

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However, Cannady notes that just because someone may have a lot more muscle mass than someone else, there are still similarities with how they carry tension. The shoulders and lower back, the hips, and the glutes are tight on just about everyone.

Another difference between working with professional athletes vs traditional clients is in the work environment itself. “One of the major differences is the working environment,” says Julia Brimley, a massage therapist who has been working with the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets since 2020 and the NFL’s New York Jets since 2022. “I typically do home visits for my everyday clients. The environment is usually private. Whereas in sports they have one big room for treatment which can include massage therapists, physical therapists, athletic trainers, and chiropractors.” This means that while massaging one athlete on one table, another athlete in the same room could be receiving compression treatment or chiropractic adjustments.

“Each environment is unique to each team,” Brimley notes. Jessica Satti, a massage therapist with the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun, makes note of one more difference she has noticed between professional athletes and traditional clients: they need less prodding to do work on their own. As professional athletes, they are always looking to achieve their best performance so they don’t tend to skip their recovery work. “Clients do not necessarily listen to post massage recovery like drinking more water, icing, foaming, or stretching,” Satti says.


An athlete’s requirements before a game and after a game are vastly different. “There is a significant difference between pregame massage sessions and postgame massage sessions,” says Brimley. “Pregame massage sessions are designed to warm-up muscles before a game. A postgame massage session is usually an assessment massage to determine if any damage to the tissue occurred.” This means pregame massages are generally shorter with increased vigor, while postgame massages are done with deeper pressure.

“I work primarily during pregame for the Connecticut Sun,” says Satti. “The techniques I use are myofascial release, quick tapotement, pin and stretch, and some active release.” The goal is to do movements that will get the blood flowing to any tight areas to aid in injury prevention.

Many techniques, such as cupping, stretching, effleurage, and petrissage are used both pregame and postgame with slight differences depending on the issues at hand. “My main techniques for pregame massage are effleurage, petrissage, and tapotement,” says Brimley. “Postgame techniques include effleurage, petrissage, and deep tissue depending on what’s happening with the athletes’ body.”

Something else that massage therapists need to consider for some sports in order to provide the best treatment is what position the athlete plays. This is especially true for football.

“It really helps to know what position the player is. Are they a quarterback? Wide receiver? Linebacker?” says Cannady. Linebackers do a lot of hitting and tackling. Wide receivers do lots of sprinting that can make their calves and hamstrings more susceptible to injury.

Quarterbacks need to make sure their necks and shoulders stay loose and healthy so they can see the field properly and throw the ball accurately.

As you would expect, different sports also require different approaches. Jim Anderson, soigneur (French for “caretaker”) and massage therapist for Alpecin-Deceuninck World Tour Professional Cycling Team, typically avoids massage work on race days and, instead, does the sessions the night before. Sessions usually occur before dinner and last approximately 45 minutes.

“Pre-race sessions are typically full body Swedish massage that includes medium to deeper pressure throughout. It might include some focused trigger point techniques, cupping, light massage work, or some assisted stretches,” Anderson says. “Typically, on the race day we do not do any massage work before the race. Sometimes we do some light effleurage massage to apply warming creams, oils, or ointments if needed for the rider.”

And, as always, proper communication with the athlete throughout the massage is crucial in pinpointing how to proceed with massage.


Even if there are no injuries to work on, each position may need different techniques just due to the requirements of their respective positions. This means massage therapists cannot work on an island. “I work hand-in-hand with the athletic trainer,” says Satti. “She will give me a recap of what is going on with each player before they are on my table. I will always watch their away games to help me see things that have happened on the court.”

Similarly, Brimley makes note of the importance of both relying on the experts around her for help, as well as informing them of her own findings.

“I make sure the experts around me are informed about my assessments and observations. This can be accomplished with submitting daily S.O.A.P notes. There are certain situations that will need immediate attention or clarification. In these instances I utilize my resources, which include physical therapists, athletic trainers, chiropractors, etc.” says Brinley.

“Additionally, I participate in team meetings to share and receive updates on the athletes’ physical conditions.” Anderson notes that there is an osteopath with the cycling team at each event. Riders will often discuss with Anderson during a massage session about scheduling time with the osteopath after the massage. “This is especially important if the rider has been involved in a crash during the race,” says Anderson.


The professional sports world is a fast-paced environment. The teams are constantly practicing, training, and traveling. “I have a white board where I can write down the times that are available for massage,” says Brimley. “A typical massage can be as long as one hour or as short as 30 minutes. I usually create a schedule based on 40-minute sessions.” Brimley determines her available times by looking at the daily schedule provided by the team. Athletes can also reach out to schedule a massage because they know how vital it is to include massage therapy in their routine.

The massage process itself is pretty typical. The massage therapist will have a brief conversation with the athlete about their current physical condition and past complications with their bodies.

The massage is then based on this conversation. “Post massage I will retest range of motion and posture and end with a brief conversation. I encourage athletes to schedule home visits because it affords them a controlled environment and consistency,” says Brimley.

Brimley, who has also worked with players in Major League Soccer (MLS), remembers one particular game that she thinks emphasizes the importance of massage for professional athletes.

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On a hot summer day, a player came off the field at halftime complaining of cramps in both of his legs. Brimley had the player lay on the table in the prone position. She used gentle massage and reciprocal inhibition as her two main techniques to help reduce the spasms and relax the muscles. He was able to go out after halftime and finish the game.

During a race, Anderson was treating a rider with focused pain in and around the patella. With some focused work and good communication, Anderson was able to help reduce the rider’s pain and mild inflammation that was local to the area after about three treatments.

“The treatment area was focused on the anterior knee and helped to reduce the mild pain associated in the area.

It could have been caused from some of the climbs they were doing at the time,” Anderson says. “There are many times during a race that you can quickly treat the area and reduce inflammation associated with the pain.”

The role of the massage therapist has become integral in helping athletes perform at their absolute best.