What it’s really like to be an Olympic sports physio – by Shane Hayes

Please note that this post was written before AHPRA specified what is meant by an “APA Sports Physiotherapist.” My Health Career does not imply that Shanes Hayes has this title. He is a physiotherapist who works with sporting teams, which has been abbreviated to “sports physio” or “sports physiotherapist” in this post.

Shane Hayes is an Australian physiotherapist who has worked over the world with elite sports teams. He is currently working for China’s Olympic Committee in Beijing, and is Head Physiotherapist with their team preparing for Sochi Winter Olympics next year. He also regularly consults with teams in professional sports leagues and Olympic athletes in neighboring Asian countries. He has been overseas since late 2009, working as physiotherapist with teams internationally including spending time in Singapore, Japan, Korea, Sri Lanka and even in Africa. As a result has been privileged to travel world with teams, go to Olympics & World Championships, and work with many of the world’s best athletes. His blog: International Sports Physiotherapist, Asian Expat & World Traveler details some of these unique experiences; although he warns he is often too busy to update it.

“What does a typical month as a sports physio on tour involve?

‘Every day I rub shoulders with the best athletes in the world, get high salary, attend fancy parties, and watch great sporting events from the side-line.’

I think this is the biggest misconception about elite sports physiotherapy is it’s all glamorous. Sports physio’s day is long and the pay is usually less than you would get working 9-5 in a private physiotherapy clinic. During the sports events (and those parties) you will be doing physiotherapy in the change room or hotel, often with no chance to see any of the game. When travelling with teams, I can expect to work 7 days/week, and very long hours often from 7am to 11pm, and even later if during sports competitions. With requirement to be present during training sessions, and then other times of the day will involve doing strength training, and having appointments for assessment, treatment and rehabilitation of injuries, and implementing injury prevention programs.

The job varies considerably, based on the sport, and the funds of the team. In team sports like football, rugby or basketball, the majority of my time is assessing, managing and preventing injuries. However in “athletic ability’ based sports the role is more on improving techniques/movements, efficiency and performance. For example in swimming will observe their swimmers techniques whilst discussing with coach, examine the swimmers movements and motor control, and correcting these with different means, or organizing conditioning and trunk stability training.

Some teams travel with other sports science staff like strength & conditioning coaches, sports physicians, massage therapists, nutritionists etc.. If that is the case then we collaborate.  However often the sports physiotherapist is the only support staff traveling with the team. This is where I will have to assist in anyways necessary outside of my job scope. Such as organize diets, recovery, prepare and organize strength and conditioning sessions, become a water-boy and I know physiotherapists don’t like this but even sometimes may have to give recovery massages. When we have competitions in undeveloped nations (with lack of quality medical services), I also have to take on the medical role and deal with things like flu and diarrhea cases.

When on tour, the team may have a competition in a different country every week, and subsequently a lot of travel is required. And even more when I am consulting with different teams. I have had the privilege to travel with teams to over 40 countries in the world.  To many young people probably reading this, all the travel also sounds great. It is exciting to see the world; especially I enjoy meeting people from different cultures.  However after awhile it becomes hard on your personal life.

In the little spare time i get, I use this to go find a cafe and Skype my partner. Cafe’s become a little comfort away from home for me, when on the road.

What is the greatest part of your job?
From a kid my dream was to be an Olympic athlete, but I did not have the best athletic talent. This job has allowed me to go one better and help ‘many’ others achieve that dream. That moment you help an athlete achieve their life-long dream, or you are there in the excitement as a team wins. That reward, even if only words of “thanks” from an athlete, make’s the long hours, and months away from home all worth it.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Difficulties on relationships:  You will see job advertisements for sports physiotherapists that say ‘expected to work unsocial-able hours’ and they don’t lie.

Almost any ‘funded’ national sports team has 3-10 months of competitions & training overseas each year. Domestic professional sports leagues are thus, a little less impact on relationships and family life, but still require irregular work hours and weekends away. That said it takes a very dedicated and faithful partner to stand by us.

Image – Shane Hayes

Did your university degree prepare you for your profession?
I studied my initial undergrad at University of Sydney. It is a good program for giving the basic sciences, ability to assess patients, and clinical reasoning.  But if you think an undergrad program will prepare you for any health profession; you are wrong. Undergraduate only gives you ideas in relation to the ‘average patient’. Most patient are not average, and thus do not follow this so called ‘ideal’ management published in research papers or text-books; and the scientific research is rarely done with elite athletes. Every patient needs individual and specific treatments. For clinical reasoning abilities, it will take years to develop after seeing many different presentations of the same injury. Sports physiotherapy in Australia is a specialist profession and for these reason’s it is recommended to go back to university for a postgraduate degree in sports physiotherapy, after a few years of experience.

The sports medical profession is very new profession in comparison to other medical areas. This means the scientific research and understanding of management is rapidly changing. The way I treated or assessed any of my athletes (even with the same injury) will change every year. It is imperative that you undertake continued learning every year, including reading latest research journals and attending sports medical conferences.

How have you moved up the elite sports ladder and what advice can you give others?
I think the age-old rule in any industry very much applies here. It’s “Knowing the right people” and “Being in the right place, at the right time”.  No one here has ever seen a job advertised for the Wallabies, because they are not, they already know enough physiotherapists to pick from. I’m not saying turn up to a VIP event and hand your card to the Wallabies coach. But what I am saying is start out getting experience with your local sports club. If you do a good job, from here the network and experience may get your further work and move you up into more elite level.

You also don’t need to wait until you graduate either. In your undergraduate years you could be an athletic coach, first-aider, a sports trainer, tape at the local rugby club, or be a fitness coach for a team.  In my final two years of university I worked around 20 hours / week with various sports clubs and state sports teams in roles from athletic coach, fitness coach and sports trainer. And subsequently when I graduated that network of connections combined with the generic knowledge of the sports helped me get physiotherapy positions in sports teams.

However that said, you can’t expect to walk straight into elite sports team, and definitely not full-time. You will start out at a low level, and with very low pay. Eventually your will know the right people, and your early work would have developed the necessary skills, and experience required.  This is how a lot of my overseas work has come.

I would also recommend that you look for elite sports job in any sport and not just wait for your favorite sports. The skills gained working with elite athletes, and traveling with elite sports teams carries across to all sports. I’ve worked in many different sports in my career, and they have all given me some experiences useful for another sport. For example before early this year I had never worked with any winter athlete. Yet my experience with summer Olympic athletes and team sports helped me get this job.

Where do you see the elite sports physiotherapy profession heading in the future?
Our profession is also in an exciting time of change. I think new grad’s now probably have the best time to enter the profession. They say sports, is the modern ‘arms race’. In the last decade many nations have substantially increased funding in sports, formed national institutes of sports (similar to AIS), and started seeing sports medical and sports science as important. For that matter I never thought China’s Olympic program would look to getting sports physiotherapists and sports scientists. A reputation in the past of repetitive high load “no pain, no gain” training. But even they now they are starting to realize sports physiotherapy importance. Australia’s sports physiotherapists, sports medical & sports science profession is developed and often regarded as one of the best in the world. With approaches and models that other nations have since replicated.  As such Australian sports physiotherapists are highly sought after around the world. And if you enter the profession and work hard to move up the ladder, I think great opportunities will definitely be there in the future.

Final Advice
Sports physiotherapist in international sports involves long hours, months away from home, difficulties on relationships, extensive continued education, and the pay normally doesn’t match the amount of work. Those passionate in sports performance however should pursue it with the rewards of knowing that they genuinely help elite athletes to achieve their goals.”

 

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Comments

  1. Jake Harry says:

    For sports persons sports physio is very much important to maintain fitness of their body.

  2. Jake Harry says:

    Sports is very much necessary in daily life to keep you fit and healthy.
    Sports physiotherapy

  3. Madalyn Button says:

    I’m extremely glad I stumbled upon this article, as a 3rd year exercise scientist looking to
    go into physiotherapy it was very helpful. I’m currently working for an AFL team that I previously volunteered for, the 4 hour commute has been tough the last two years but reading your past experience helps me stay determined. Thanks for the great advice!

    • Cheers Madalyn,

      And i remember your experiences too well. I remember the commutes, and the minimal pay, struggling through my university degree and thinking if it was worth it. Or would it not just be easier to work for a hospital or a clinic, and i know it would definitely have been. But eventually the hard work paid off. So keep it up. Good Luck.

  4. Delores Lyon says:

    I love hearing stories like this about people who are in a career they love. It is also cool to see how someone like an Olympic physiotherapist works. You can’t get this type of insight by just going to school! Hopefully Shane can continue to enjoy his career for a very long time!

  5. Josie says:

    WOW your so inspiring, when I finish high school and then my degree in Physiotherapy, I would love to work with an Olympic team as a Physiotherapist, it would be a dream come true! So, Shane how did you actually get into working within the Olympic as a physiotherapist?

    • Physio Shane says:

      Hi Josie,

      To get into working in the Olympics; there is a few ways:
      1) Be part of the Host Nations Games medical team, is the easier way. Once qualified, and obtained the appropriate experience, then just go through volunteer process (same as any volunteer) and become a Games volunteer. However this often requires you to have working rights in the host nation, and be a registered physiotherapist in that nation.
      2) Work full-time within national sport setups. For example work your way into a national sports team, or national institute of sport setting, and then go with the team that your been working with full-time. Some of what i wrote states this, eg. start in youth programs, get experience in all kinds of sport ect.. and eventually move onto senior & Olympic Team with that team.
      3) Be volunteer for the Olympic Team, part of the headquaters medical core; for Australia this requires varies experiences with elite sports, and further qualifications (such as Masters in Sports Physiotherapy).

      Now out of those options, the 2nd is the only one that most likely would be working full-time within elite sports. The other two options are usually physiotherapists working in private practices with general population as their main clientele, and just working few weeks or month of the games. However if you just want be part of the Games, the other two are good options, but if you want work full-time with Olympic athletes then 2nd option would be better choice. Now this however all varies based on the country, with different countries having different approaches.

  6. Ryan says:

    Stumbled upon your writing after finishing my exams and it’s such an interesting read. As a undergraduate physio student, I really appreciate you taking your time to enlighten us. Just out of curiosity, are you still with the Chinese Olympic Committee and if you are aware of the physio job prospects in China? I am from China initially and it would be great to go back and make a contribution in my home country.

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