Become a Sports Physical Therapist: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a sports physical therapist. Research the education requirements, licensure information and experience required for starting a career in sports physical therapy.

Should I Become a Sports Physical Therapist?

Sports physical therapists help rehabilitate athletes who have sustained physical injuries. They diagnose problems and evaluate patient progress throughout a treatment plan. Work can be physically demanding; physical therapists often stand for long periods and assist patients within the process of therapy.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Doctoral degree
Degree Field Physical therapy
Licensure and Certification All physical therapists must be licensed through their state; this is typically accomplished by passing a state examination or the National Physical Therapy Examination; optional specialty certifications are available
Experience Physical therapists may be required to complete a residency program, which can last anywhere from 9 months to 3 years
Key Skills Compassion, communication and problem-solving skills
Salary (2014) $82,390 (median for all physical therapists)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Related bachelor's degree programs for undergraduates include pre-physical therapy, athletic training, biology or health science. As an undergraduate, students take courses that fulfill requirements to enroll in physical therapy graduate school, such as biology, chemistry, physics and physiology. A degree program in physical therapist assisting can also prepare students for a graduate degree program. Some colleges offer accelerated dual-degree programs, such as a 6-year program composed of three years at the undergraduate level and three years in a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program.

Success Tip:

  • Consider your career goals. Individuals who ultimately want to work as sports physical therapists are required to have a graduate degree. Therefore, a combination program may be the best option to get a career started as soon as possible.

Step 2: Gain Basic Training

Many physical therapy graduate degree programs require applicants to volunteer or work before admission. A minimum amount of hours working in the field may be recommended, while other programs require a specific amount of time spent in various settings. Potential physical therapists can typically find this kind of work in hospitals, nursing homes and clinics.

Success Tip:

  • Gain specialization. Students can gain hands-on physical therapy training, as well as a concentration on sports physical therapy, by completing internships, volunteer experiences or work experiences in a sports therapy clinic.

Step 3: Attain a Graduate Degree

A DPT is the most commonly awarded degree for physical therapy programs. The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) is the accrediting body of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) and is also the only accreditation agency that is recognized by the United States Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education. Prior to graduation, students are required to complete a residency under the guidance of an experienced supervisor.

Step 4: Become Licensed

All states in the U.S. require physical therapists to be licensed. While licensure requirements vary, they generally include a degree from a CAPTE-accredited program and a passing grade on the National Physical Therapy Examination. Some states mandate continuing education courses to maintain licensure.

Success Tip:

  • Do your research. Individuals should contact their state to find out about licensure requirements. Sports physical therapists must also be aware of when to renew a license and what is required for it.

Step 5: Earn Specialty Certification

Voluntary certification in the area of sports physical therapy is available through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. Qualifications include the completion of an accredited post-doctoral residency program or a minimum of 2,000 hours of patient care experience in this specialty area. Applicants must also earn passing scores on an exam.

Step 6: Consider Joining the American Physical Therapy Association

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) offers membership to anyone who has graduated from an accredited physical therapy program. Membership is maintained for 12 months and gives members more exposure to potential employers. Continuing education courses are also available through the APTA, which can be used towards license renewal.

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