Male therapist massaging knee of athlete patient - sport physical therapy concept Sep 12th, 2019

What is sports therapy and how does it work?

Sports therapy is an aspect of healthcare specifically aimed at treating musculoskeletal disorders through hands-on treatment, rehabilitation, and patient education. This is generally done through muscle strengthening exercises and stretching both before and after workouts, with the aim of restoring and maximising body movement, relieving pain, and improving a patient’s quality of life.

Though generally compared to physiotherapy, sports therapists are better suited to sporting environments, helping to prevent injuries through their own strengthening programs. They work with both professional athletes and anyone who wants and needs support during training, regardless of their experience or level. Sports therapists are generally consulted when a player intends to return to their game following a break or accident, to assess whether they will be fit enough to maintain the required fitness level to compete again. However, some confusion remains over what sports therapists actually do, how their work differs from physiotherapy, and how to know when sports therapy is needed.

What does a sports therapist do?

Both amateur and professional athletes rely on sports therapists to keep them at the top of their game through regular fitness tests, muscle strengthening exercises, and effective warm-up and cool-down routines. Sports therapists work closely with each client in order to understand and track their fitness level.

There are a few key duties involved, including:

  • Prevention: Optimise performance and prevent injury using sports and exercise principles.
  • Evaluation and assessment: Respond to sports injuries immediately, whether during training or in a competitive environment.
  • Management, treatment, and referral: Assess and treat any injuries with a personalised rehabilitation plan, working with specialists where appropriate.
  • Rehabilitation: Provide sports massages by manipulating soft tissue and muscles to prevent and/or recover from any injuries.
  • Tracking: Track progress during training, and the rehabilitation of injured clients.

Sports Therapist Fixing Knee Braces On Man's Leg In Hospital

Where do sports therapists work?

Depending on their career choices, sports therapists can actually work in a range of places. They could support a professional sports team or athlete, work in health centres and gyms, in independent specialist sports injury clinics, or even on a freelance/consultancy basis. Therapists who choose to work directly with a particular team or athlete may be required to travel both domestically and internationally according to their client’s schedule.

When working with a sports therapist, we recommend sticking to one professional. Working with the same therapist means a client’s performance can be accurately tracked, providing a clear outline of how their body works.

What treatments can sports therapists give?

Licensed sports therapists have the skills and knowledge to complete a number of treatment modalities, including but not limited to:

  • Soft tissue manipulation
  • Mobilisations
  • HVT
  • Biomechanical assessments
  • Gait analysis
  • Medical acupuncture
  • Ultrasound therapy
  • Laser therapy

Sports massage

A sports massage is very different from a massage treatment at a spa. These focus on a single area and are generally quite painful, as the therapist manipulates the soft tissue in order to alleviate pain, elevate the muscle, and prevent injury. They can be used to treat tight calves suffered by runners, tense shoulders from weight lifting, or even sprains.

Therapists work within their client’s pain threshold in order to manipulate the muscles, offering breathing guidance to help manage any discomfort. A technique called myofascial release is used in order to stretch the fascia, which is the fibrous connective tissue made up of elastin and collagen found right beneath the skin. This network surrounds the organs, bones, muscles, and tendons, and acts like fabric holding our bodies together. A healthy fascia is flexible and supple, while unhealthy fascia is sticky, tight, and lumpy—and is linked to cellulite. This can result from both over- and underworking the muscles, so when completing a hardcore training programme, myofascial release can maintain a healthy fascia.

Sports therapist massaging male patient with injured shoulder blade muscle. Sports injury treatment.

Gait analysis

Gait analysis uses 2D recordings to assess someone’s walk and run, as well as highlight any conditions that may unwittingly be causing injury. This could include things like imbalance, posture, and movement, and these findings can help when planning an effective training regime. During a session, the client will be asked to run on a treadmill for around 10 minutes while being recorded from behind and the side. Therapists use a slow-motion feature on these recordings to identify any abnormalities, advising on how best to get back on track without causing an injury.

Athletic taping

Taping, or strapping, is the specific process of bandaging to relieve and treat pain in areas such as ankles, wrists, and shoulders. Compression bandages may be used to limit the amount of swelling following an injury. Taping provides support to an injured area by physically holding the muscles and bones in place, which can boost recovery.

First Aid and trauma care

Sports therapists need First Aid training in case injuries have been sustained during training or competition. This ranges from life-saving techniques to sports injury and trauma assessment. This type of First Aid training is intended to be delivered pitchside, so the process is intense, in order to prepare therapists for making quick decisions.

Strength and conditioning

Regardless of the sport, strength and conditioning exercises are vital to promoting flexibility, speed, power, metabolic capacity, and endurance. These training sessions focus on working the same muscle groups that are used during matches or games, increasing power without the risk of injury during practice. Sports therapists will plan and develop a personalised training schedule in order to target these core muscle groups effectively, making necessary adjustments or adaptations in accordance with the programme.


For any soft tissue injuries, a sports therapist may recommend electrotherapy, which uses electricity as treatment. The most popular option is TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation), which provides pain relief by stimulating the pain nerve fibres that become irritated by damaged tissue. Interferential therapy is also a form of TENS, using two alternating medium frequency currents.

Sports therapists could also turn to ultrasound therapy, which uses ultrasonic waves, known as high-frequency sound waves—which are not audible to human ears—to produce a mechanical vibration. The machine is passed over the skin so the soundwaves can massage the tissue. Shock wave therapy is a similar process, except these waves are powered by electricity and are short but intense—faster than the speed of sound.

Closeup of sports therapist's hand positioning electrodes on patient's knee

Sports nutrition

In some cases, sports therapists will offer nutritional advice and design customised meal plan. Therapists will also be able to advise on macro and micro-nutrients and will have a deeper understanding of what each body needs to function alongside a workout schedule.

Is sports therapy the same as physiotherapy?

While both physiotherapists and sports therapists are trained in similar areas, there are key differences in their approach. Both disciplines cover musculoskeletal conditions, pre-and-post-operative care and a wide range of injuries sustained from exercise or day-to-daylife. The key difference lies in rehabilitation approach.

What are the differences between sports therapy and physiotherapy?

Physiotherapy attempts to rehabilitate patients to allow them to cope with their day-to-day life, while sports therapy focuses more on whether the patient can return to a sporting activity, or maintain and build upon the physical level required for this activity.

Sports therapy combines methods from various different rehabilitation approaches. For instance, sports therapists may use massage as a sports massage therapist would, but may also use joint mobilisation as a physiotherapist would. Rather than being bound to specific medical guidelines, sports therapists draw upon their experience to use the best techniques for each individual to get them the best possible result.

Should I visit a GP or physio/sports therapist for my injury?

If you’ve suffered an injury, you may feel like you need to first visit your GP for a diagnosis. However, physiotherapists and sports therapists are also considered “first contact” practitioners who don’t necessarily need a doctor’s referral to examine, diagnose and treat your injury. They are also able to onwardly refer you to another specialist if they believe that’s the best course of action.

If you’ve sustained an injury as a direct result of exercise, you may be able to skip the long wait for a doctor’s appointment and see a sports therapist instead, who would be your first contact for musculoskeletal issues. If the accident occurred at a gym, there should be a sports therapist on hand to check your injury and offer a diagnosis. If the injury is particularly severe, like a broken or fractured bone, they may recommend visiting your GP for a more in-depth examination. Similarly, if a doctor decides that a physiotherapist or sports therapist can deal with the injury, they may suggest booking an appointment with either.

It’s important to remember that neither physiotherapists or sports therapists are able to administer prescriptions. If you need medication for your injury, you will need to see a GP.

Is sports therapy right for me?

With all the crossovers and generalisations, it can be difficult to decide which type of therapist is right for you. Many physiotherapists specialise in sports rehabilitation, while sports therapists use techniques and approaches that physiotherapists use. We recommend choosing your therapist by finding somebody with individual skills and expertise relevant to your particular injury or condition.

At Club 51, we offer specialist sports therapy that helps clients to recover from injuries, return to normal day-to-day life, maintain physical health and reach optimum performance in their chosen sporting activity.
We help our clients consistently reach new goals through hands-on treatment, muscle strengthening exercises, patient education and rehabilitation. In the event of an injury we can also be a first point of contact, providing examination, diagnosis and treatment. Get in touch today and let us know how we can help you.

Share now