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Massage Today
July, 2011, Vol. 11, Issue 07 >> Sports / Exercise / Fitness

Team With Pro Athletes: A Win For Everyone

By Debbie Roberts, LMT

More than eight years ago, I started working with an up and coming baseball pitcher striving to make it to the major leagues. At 26, Scott Proctor was hungry, hard working and as determined as anyone I've ever met.

Proctor's first visit to my office was for a biomechanic assessment. During his session, we found some stability issues and I created a custom exercise program to address those issues and move Proctor from random "gym philosophy" workouts to a systemized exercise plan that met his body's specific functional needs.

His stability improved almost immediately and his game improved, too. But due to the stress of pitching, Proctor soon began experiencing a nagging anterior shoulder pain in his throwing arm that just wouldn't go away. After assessing his shoulder, I discovered that one of the culprits was the subscapularis.

As we know, subscapularis trigger points will fire to the anterior shoulder. So I began treating Proctor with a multi-disciplinary massage approach and within a couple of sessions, he was pain free.

From that point forward we began to work together as a team. During the off-season, Proctor trained with me and I used massage techniques to help him recover from the previous season. During the demanding baseball season, he trained with the team and I continued to treat him with massage therapy to help keep him at the top of his game.

pro athlete - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Within a year, Proctor's pro ball dreams became a reality when he was picked up by the Yankees. One of the biggest testaments to the work we did together came when Proctor reported for his very first Spring Training assessment and the coaches and trainers couldn't find a single flaw with his stability or mobility.

Once he made it to the big leagues, Proctor's determination and dedication to the game were stronger than ever. When I recently asked Proctor how he thought massage therapy contributed to his pro ball career he told me, "The biggest thing massage therapy has done for me is just allowed me to perform at a high level each and every day."

"As a pro-baseball player," Proctor added, "we don't have five or six days off like they do in football and other sports that only perform once a week. We play 162 games in a 180 days and it's a very, very rigorous schedule.

"When you're sore, your command or your execution might be down for a few days. But with massage therapy, if you're continually getting worked on and keeping your body at that peak level of flexibility, you're able to compete at a very high level for a number of days in a row."

This consistent high level of performance led to Proctor becoming one of the most used mid-relief pitchers in Yankee history.

Working with Proctor and other athletes has been hugely rewarding for me. If you would like the experience of working with pros in your practice, here are a few tips to help you score the right clients.

Practice Step #1: Assessment

When working with pro-athletes you should always follow the assessment, treatment and muscle stabilization protocol (ATM(TM) for short).

That means the first step in working with an elite athlete is to assess what's going on with their body. As a massage therapist, you need to know how to take a thorough evaluation of every joint, from the foot to the neck. In this assessment, you are evaluating his or her competency of movement patterns and looking at the mobility and the stability of each joint. 

Have you ever worked on someone who's floated off your table feeling so good that they seem to have completely forgotten their pain, only to call you the next day to complain that it's back? Well that's because on the table the client's muscles are not doing what muscles do when they oppose gravity.

One of the often-overlooked keys in assessing a client is that you can't just assess them on the table, you must take a functional assessment when they are opposing gravity.

The purpose of this evaluation is not to diagnose, but to analyze their needs. This is especially important with pro-athletes. Your athlete will need to perform at a high level of speed, agility, strength, endurance and quickness in their jobs. As a therapist, you must have the knowledge, skills and ability to evaluate all of muscles that will contribute to your athlete's performance.

Practice Step #2: Keep Learning, Keep Improving

The next thing you need to do to attract and work with pro-athletes in your practice is to keep learning and improving your skills. Pro-athletes are at the top of their game, and they want nothing less from their trainers, coaches and therapists. For this, one or two massage techniques are never enough.

When I asked Proctor what he would tell other pro-ball players looking for a massage therapist, here's what he had to say, "I think you really need to be selective in who you choose. Find somebody who has the knowledge, the certifications and the education to be able to work with an elite athlete. As athletes, our bodies need to be cared for a different way. You want to work with someone who you can trust. You want to know that what they are telling you is right.

"As a professional athlete, every day I'm striving to just take a step forward. If I find a massage therapist who is content with where they're at, I'm not going to work with them. To me, the biggest thing is finding a therapist who's hungry to get better in their profession." 

So, if you're a massage therapist who would like to work with pro-athletes in your practice, the most important piece of advice I can offer you is to follow my motto: "Become an education junky!"

Learn from everyone out there and don't skimp on your education or think that you can't afford it. The truth is, you can't afford NOT to improve your skills and your training if you want to stay at the top of your game.

Proctor agrees, "I would tell the massage therapist who wants to work on elite athletes to just stay hungry. Always strive to get better. You're really only limited by how far you want to go in your studies and what you want to learn."

Practice Step #3: Getting Into Their Rhythm

One of the challenges of working with pros is that they have very demanding training and travel schedules. That's why if you're working with pros you must have an understanding of their seasons and their schedules, and your treatment plan must be in rhythm with where they are in pre-season, post-season and especially during season.

This requires dedication and flexibility on the part of the therapist and the athlete. Working with Proctor has at times required late night sessions and long trips on my part. To a certain extent, I've had to bend and maneuver my schedule to work with him. But it's required his commitment as well.

Proctor told me in a recent conversation, "Massage is one of those things that I know I need to do, so I've got to work it in. It's just like working out or any other thing I need to do for my profession. It's a big piece of the puzzle and one I know I have to make time for."

The Final Score: Results, Results, Results

The bottom line when you're working with pro-athletes is that they are looking for results. At the end of the day, if you don't deliver measurable results in their performance, they're not going to continue to work with you.

Rigorous training schedules and the demands of the sport can take a serious toll on the body of elite athletes. Your role as a massage therapist is to relieve their pain and keep them as healthy as possible.

"Baseball isn't a natural motion and especially the overhand throwing. Combine that with the contact in the sport and injury is almost inevitable," Proctor admitted. "I definitely have to use my body throughout my career and I feel that massage therapy has kept me off the operating table for a very long time."

Since we all know injuries do occur in professional athletics, another important skill you need to possess if you're working with pros is injury and post-operative rehabilitation. This skill can have a real impact on your clients.

"At one point right before my Tommy John surgery," Proctor told me, "I was in just so much excruciating [medial elbow] pain that I was almost going tell the doctors to go ahead and cut me. After three or four days of intensive massage therapy I actually ended up finishing the season healthy.

"Eventually I did have to have the surgery, but massage therapy helped me to continue to perform at a high level even with that injury. After surgery, there isn't a real big percentage of guys who make it back and compete at the same level that they were at before.

"I would not have made it back to the major leagues if it wasn't for the massage therapy. The therapy broke up the scar tissue so I could get my range of motion back. Because of that, I actually have a better range of motion now than I did pre-surgery."

A Winning Team

Working with Proctor and other pro-athletes throughout my career has taught me the importance of teamwork and the need for dedication to your profession. Every day I go to work, I strive to bring these same traits into my own practice.

For me, there's nothing more rewarding than working with a client who understands, values and appreciates the quality of the work we do together. Every victory my clients achieve on the field, on the court or in the pool is a victory for me as well. Not only do I get to work with people I admire, respect and enjoy, but I get to form relationships with friends who inspire me to do more, be more and learn more.

This sentiment was echoed back to me recently when Proctor said, "In you Debbie, I've found a friend, along with a colleague and a massage therapist."

And I couldn't agree more.

Click here for more information about Debbie Roberts, LMT.


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