Sports Physician Degree and Training Program Information

Oct 14, 2019

Specific degrees for sports physicians don't exist. However, students can follow the standard pre-med track enrolling in a 4-year bachelor's degree program and then pursuing a 4-year Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree, followed by a 3-7 year residency and fellowship in sports medicine.

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Essential Information

Medical school courses are generally more intensive than in an undergraduate curriculum, even when they cover similar topics. Prospective sports physicians can choose between a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree. Both degrees with take four years to complete. Osteopathic programs are more focused on integrative or holistic healthcare practices. After completing a residency and gaining licensure, physicians can pursue a one-year fellowship in sports medicine and seek specialty certification. Fellowship programs focus exclusively on athletic and fitness-related clinical procedures.

To be admitted into a medical program, a student must have a bachelor's degree with the required prerequisite courses. Students will also need to submit MCAT scores. After completing medical school and a residency program at an ACGME-accredited institution and passing the USMLE or COMLEX exams, students can apply for fellowship programs.


Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) Degree

This program usually takes approximately four years, and students interested in sports medicine may decide to declare their specialization during the second half of their training. Students also receive hands-on training, acquiring the fundamental skills needed to examine patients and take case histories. Medical schools generally provide minimum thresholds for acceptable scores on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) or Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). Most medical students spend the first half of their academic training taking courses in subjects such as the ones listed below. During the latter portion of their studies, students can accrue experience in a clinical setting, interacting with both doctors and patients.

  • Anatomy
  • Pathology
  • Biochemistry
  • Behavioral sciences
  • Pharmacology

Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) Degree

Doctors of osteopathic medicine are similar to medical doctors in that they receive four years of medical training, complete residencies and fellowships, achieve licensure through examinations and may be trained to perform surgery and prescribe medication. However, these individuals receive more specific training in the musculoskeletal system and learn how injuries can affect connected areas of the human body. Also, osteopathic medicine training concentrates on preventative and therapeutic care, and often promotes techniques intended to treat the whole person rather than just the symptoms of an illness or injury. Their main certifying body and accrediting agency for osteopathic medicine is the American Osteopathic Association (AOA).

Generally, doctors of osteopathic medicine undertake academic training similar to that of medical doctors, but their curriculum sometimes includes more clinical participation at an earlier stage. They may get more hands-on experience by training in community health centers or health clinics, working with varied sectors of the population. Coursework may include classes such as:

  • Gross anatomy
  • Radiology
  • Neuroanatomy
  • Foreign language
  • Life support

Sports Medicine Fellowships

After completing a residency program, prospective sports physicians can apply for a fellowship program specifically dedicated to either surgical or non-surgical sports medicine. Fellowships generally last for one year and are salaried positions that can also include paid vacations, medical and dental benefits and life insurance. Fellows will be caring for patients with sports, recreational activity or fitness injuries and may also work at live sporting events, research laboratories or at spine, hand and foot clinics. These programs are often highly competitive, sometimes accepting only one applicant per year. Coursework for fellowships may vary, but students can become involved in all aspects of sports medicine, including:

  • Ultrasound procedures
  • Strengthening techniques
  • Proprioceptive and neuromuscular control techniques
  • Application of diagnostic and therapeutic injections
  • Orthopedics
  • Sports psychology

Employment Outlook

According to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment for physicians and surgeons was expected to increase by 7% between 2018 and 2028, which is faster than average for all occupations. The BLS also reported that for 2018, the mean annual wage for 'all other' physicians and surgeons, which includes sports physicians, was approximately $203,880.

Continuing Education and Licensure Information

After completing medical school, students who wish to become sports physicians or osteopathic medicine can spend the next 3-7 years in a residency program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME). Residencies allow prospective doctors to gain experience and learn from senior physician educators. Residencies specifically designed for sports physicians don't exist, so students will have to declare a specialty such as family practice, internal medicine or orthopedic surgery. According to the American Medical Association, the length of the residency depends on the specialty: family practice or internal medicine can require three years of study, and general surgery may require five years. In addition, applicants may need to obtain residency permits prior to acceptance, so checking with specific schools and states is recommended.

In order to be certified osteopathic physicians, students must pass The Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX). This three-part exam evaluates a student's medical and clinical knowledge with regard to practicing osteopathic medicine. Organizations such as the AOA, the National Board of Osteopathic Medical Examiners and the Federation of State Medical Boards can provide further information.

Medical doctors who wish to practice in the United States must take and pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). This test is given in three steps: the first two steps are generally taken after the second year of medical school, and the final step must be taken after obtaining an M.D. or D.O. degree. Taking the USMLE in one state may not mean that licensure is granted in another, so students wishing to practice in other states may wish to check the reciprocity policies of the states in question.

Certification Information

Sports physicians may decide to obtain voluntary certification through the American Board of Family Medicine (ABFM). This certification, called the Certificate of Added Qualifications (CAQ) in Sports Medicine, is a comprehensive exam that covers the medical, musculoskeletal and clinical aspects of sports medicine. The exam is only open to board-certified doctors who have a current medical license and who have also completed a sports medicine fellowship. This intensive exam covers topics such as:

  • Ethics
  • Physician liability
  • Physiology and biomechanics
  • Drug testing and rehabilitation
  • Nutrition
  • Emergency care

Popular Careers

Sports physicians may be employed by professional sports organizations, but they can also work with injured members of the general population, including the elderly. They may be employed by:

  • Sports medicine divisions of hospitals
  • University sports teams
  • Community health clinics
  • Private practices
  • Chiropractic offices
  • Professional athletes

Students interesting in combining their love of medicine with the athletic world may pursue a career as a sports physician. The road to this position includes completing a pre-med undergraduate program, four years of medical school and a residency before getting sports-specific training in a sports medicine specific fellowship.

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