Careers in Sports Rehabilitation: Job Options and Requirements

Sep 30, 2019

Athletic trainers and physical therapists are instrumental in helping athletes prevent, treat, and recover from injuries. A master's degree is recommended for prospective athletic trainers, while physical therapists now must earn a doctoral degree. Both careers call for meeting certification and licensing requirements.

Essential Information

Careers in sports rehabilitation will require at least a bachelor's degree as well as licensure or certification, which can vary by state. Areas of specialization include athletic training and physical therapy. Prerequisite knowledge that can be useful for this degree path includes high school courses in anatomy, physiology, and physics.

Career Athletic Trainer Physical Therapist
Education Requirements Bachelor's degree Doctoral degree
Other Requirements Licensure or certification (varies by state) Professional licensure
Median Annual Salary (May 2018)* $47,510 $87,930
Projected Job Growth 2018-2028)* 19% 22%

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Career Options

Individuals seeking a career in sports rehabilitation may pursue licensure as an athletic trainer or obtain an advanced degree and licensure to become a physical therapist.

Athletic Trainer

Athletic trainers are a group of allied medical professionals who work closely with sports-related injuries, typically muscle or bone injuries. Often they are the first to assess a sports-related injury, and they work with the injured athlete daily to help him or her regain full use of the injured area.

Job Options for Athletic Trainers

Athletic trainers (ATs) are typically employed by school systems, most often at the high school level, as well as at the collegiate and professional levels. An athletic trainer's goal is to prevent, diagnose, treat and rehabilitate sports-related injuries by attending school or team sporting events and working closely with athletes, coaches and, in some cases, the physicians who are treating injured athletes.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected a faster than average employment growth of 19% for athletic trainers from 2018-2028 ( Data from the BLS shows most athletic trainers worked for colleges, universities and professional schools in 2018. Recreational sports and fitness centers may also provide jobs for athletic trainers. According to the BLS, increased training and licensing requirements and professional regulation is making it possible for more trainers to receive insurance reimbursement for their work, which is another factor in job growth.

Requirements for Athletic Trainers

According to the BLS, the minimum educational requirement for athletic trainers is a bachelor's degree in sports medicine or a related health or science field The BLS reported, however, that most ATs hold a master's degree or higher, especially at the collegiate and professional levels. The Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education (CAATE) has accredited 360 educational programs for entry-level athletic trainers ( CAATE is sponsored by a number of professional organizations, including the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM) and the National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA).

The BLS noted that almost every U.S. state mandates the licensing or registration of athletic trainers, which in turn requires Board of Certification (BOC) certification. To earn BOC certification a candidate must successfully complete a CAATE-accredited athletic training program and pass the BOC certification exam ( Once certified, ATs must remain current through professional development courses and practice athletic training within the BOC guidelines. Failure to comply on either condition could result in the revocation of the certification.

Physical Therapist

Although physical therapists (PTs) also treat injuries that aren't related to sports, PTs in sports-specific work environments can primarily work with injured athletes. Once clients have undergone an evaluation, PTs create injury-specific treatment plans to promote movement, reduce pain, restore the function to injured areas and prevent disability.

Job Options for Physical Therapists

Physical therapists can potentially work in a variety of healthcare settings. According to the BLS, about 60% of these professionals are employed by hospitals or doctor's offices. However, in order to deal primarily with sports rehabilitation cases, PTs may choose to work for a clinic that specializes in sports-related injuries. PTs are also employed in schools, nursing homes and rehabilitation centers. They may also set up their own private practices, or work as independent contractors.

Similar to athletic trainers, physical therapists should enjoy excellent job prospects over the next decade. The BLS has projected a 22% increase in job growth from 2018-2028, which is a much faster anticipated growth rate than other occupations during the same period. A PT's chances of getting a job are expected to be much greater in rural areas, as many PTs tend to practice in large urban or suburban areas. PTs who work with orthopedic care or with the growing elderly demographic should also be in demand, noted the BLS.

Requirements for Physical Therapists

Licensure requirements for PTs are state regulated, but all states now require that entry-level PTs hold at least a doctoral degree from a physical therapy program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), which is the accrediting arm of the American Physical Therapy Association (

Along with a graduate degree in physical therapy, PTs must also receive a passing score on the National Physical Therapy Examination, offered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy ( In addition, some states may require the passage of a state-issued PT exam and a continuing education program.

Job prospects are excellent for both athletic trainers and physical therapists over the next decade. Athletic trainers work specifically with sports teams and athletes, but physical therapists can focus on sports or other areas of health and rehabilitation, such as orthopedics. A master's degree will prepare you for certification as an athletic trainer, while a physical therapist needs a doctorate.

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