Physical therapists play an important role in today’s society. Therapists have different specialities and work in many different settings, from helping people rehabilitate after devastating injuries like spinal cord injuries, encouraging healthy lifestyles to helping athletes perform at the highest levels of sport.

Although I’ve already picked my path in the profession, working specifically with athletes, I believe that physical therapist working in all settings share some common characteristics.

In this post I will share my thoughts on what I believe are the most important principles of any successful physical therapist and how I myself have approached them. I absolutely believe in periodically checking in on them to ensure that I’m on the right path to successfully help athletes perform at the highest possible level.

Question yourself

Strength and conditioning, sports performance and sports rehabilitation are all fairly new fields in the research and literature.

The amount of information available on these subjects is vast and constantly changing.

As a result, being fixated on just one philosophy is for me, a therapist working in these fields, very dangerous to say the least. Using subpart treatment and concepts will result in subpar outcomes. Questioning myself before, during and after treatment has always been one of my core principles. Asking questions, looking for the best available answers and then implementing them in real practice leads to the best outcomes.

Optimize manual skills

Physical therapy evaluations, assessments and treatments all revolve around the ability of the therapist to use his/her hands properly. My ability to sense what is underneath my hands provides me with the information I need during all aspects of treatment. Far too often therapists forget the importance of manual skills, especially as they relate to manual therapy treatment. The hands are a powerful tool especially in sports performance, as they are able to influence multiple systems in athletes, such as the musculoskeletal, immune and psychological systems. They also therefore influence recovery after injury, and before and after an intense activity like a basketball game.

Think outside the box

As I mentioned above, the field of sports and sports performance physical therapy is in a constant process of change. No one type of treatment modality in the field or evidence of a best practice leads to good outcomes. It’s a combination of thoughts, evidence seeking and application that leads to the best outcome. The need for creativity is huge. As I see it, physical therapy is a form of art, an art that makes you think outside the box and engage with other like minded people not only in the fields of medicine and sports but also in other professions. For example, I can learn more about teaching and coaching from observing how a musician applies different concepts of learning in his/her teaching and then apply these lessons to my work as a physical therapist.

Communicate 

The ability to communicate, coach and lead by example is very underrated. As a therapist and coach you are engaged with an athlete throughout treatment. Being able to educate him/her on the specific condition, coach certain movements, or apply certain physical modalities in your treatment depends on your ability to communicate this information to the athlete. This leads to a more trusting relationship with the athlete,  which will help you be better able to understand their condition and help them in the best way possible.

Walk the walk

It is absolutely essential for the therapist to understand what athletes go through both in-season and off-season. Personally speaking, I have had the opportunity to work in the strength and conditioning world at several universities, which I believe has made me well rounded therapist as it relates to sports.

A therapist that engages in a healthy lifestyle and engages in training just like an athlete will be able to gain more trust from the athlete to ultimately lead to better outcomes. In addition, experiencing the return to sport process as an athlete myself, returning to sport after each of my four knee injuries, has also helped me to relate better to an injured athlete, motivate them to return to sport and treat them with this understanding in mind.

Compassion and empathy

Athletes are human beings who come from a variety of cultures, religions, ethnicities and backgrounds. Respecting the differences between myself and others is a necessity to build trust.

That being said, elite athletes’ jobs depend on their ability to perform in their sport — an injured elite athlete can experience a real risk to his/her job security. Imagining being in the position of losing my job as a coach and a therapist is devastating. Psychologically, the pain and suffering is only intensified after a sports injury. My role as a therapist here is to encourage a gradual return to sport and in order to do so I have to be compassionate and emphasize with the athlete to be trustworthy. This will lead to less suffering, less pain and most importantly a faster and safer return to sport under my guidance.

I am by no means the best physical therapist out there. I do my best to honor all of my core principles with every client I met and treat, and this gets me one step closer to being the best physical therapist I can be.