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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.

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Do I Want to Be a Sports Physical Therapist?

Sports physical therapists help to rehabilitate athletes who have sustained physical injuries. They diagnose problems and evaluate the progress throughout the treatment plan. Work can be physically demanding, with standing for long periods and often assisting patients within the process of therapy.

Job Requirements

These therapists are required to follow the same education path as any other physical therapist, which includes earning a graduate degree from an accredited college or university and state licensure. Additional certifications are optional. The following table contains the main qualifications and requirements needed to become a sports physical therapist listed from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Common Requirements
Degree Level Master's or doctoral degree
Degree Field Physical therapy
Licensure and Certification All physical therapists must be licensed through their state; this is typically accomplished through passing a state examination or the National Physical Therapy Examination (certification is optional)
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, problem-solving

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 the requirements to enroll in physical therapy graduate school, such as biology, chemistry, physics and physiology. A degree program in physical therapist assisting will also prepare students for a graduate degree program. Some colleges may offer accelerated, combination 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 may 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. Master's degree programs are also available, but are somewhat rare. 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: Join 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 for potential employers. The APTA also offers certification which, although not required by all employers, can be beneficial for sports physical therapists. Continuing education courses are also available through the APTA, which can be used towards license renewal.

Success Tip:

  • Use the APTA to help advance your career. The American Physical Therapy Association offers career development opportunities, which can help sports physical therapists advance in their careers. These opportunities include residencies or fellowship programs.
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Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics