How to Become a Sports Physical Therapist?

How to Become a Sports Physical Therapist

If you are passionate about helping people, enjoy working physically, and appreciate the mechanics of the human body, then pursuing a career in Sports Physical Therapy is something you should consider. 

To practice as a Sports Physical Therapist, you will first need to complete your bachelor’s degree, complete and obtain your DPT degree (Doctor of Physical Therapy) and then pass the National Physical Therapy Examination to receive your practicing license. The process for achieving this is outlined below.

Steps to become a Sports Physical Therapist

  • Ensure that you are a Citizen or Legal Resident of the United States.
  • Complete your bachelor’s degree with majors in one or more of the following:
    • Physical Therapy
    • Kinesiology
    • Physics
    • Chemistry
    • Biology

Note – You must complete the required coursework covering physics, chemistry, mathematics, physiology, and human anatomy and gain the necessary laboratory credits.

  • Take the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) subject test(s). You must have taken these tests within the last 5 years. These test results must be submitted to the institution of your choice by using the corresponding codes for each university.
  • Collect and submit all transcripts, recommendation letters, and certifications for submission.
  • Complete your DPT through a university program recognized by the CAPTE (Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education).
  • Complete all clinical hours required by your chosen program.
  • Complete and pass the state licensure exam.
  • Continue your education as required to maintain your license.

Educational Requirements for Becoming a Sports Physical Therapist

The CAPTE outlines all universities which offer accredited DPT and Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) programs. To attain your DPT, you must first complete your bachelor’s degree in Science or an equivalent Pre-Health qualification. However, if you are already a qualified PTA, several recognized bridging programs will allow you to convert your degree into a DPT on completion.

Another method of qualifying to study for and attain your DPT degree is by first completing your MSc in sports therapy, with majors in sports science or sports and exercise sciences. You would then be able to complete your DPT degree as long as you have completed all the required coursework.

If you are going into the field straight after high school, to qualify to register for your DPT program, you must satisfy the following prerequisites:

  • Obtain your bachelor’s degree with a minimum GPA across the degree of 3.0 and a minimum Science GPA of 3.0.
  • Ensure the following necessary coursework and laboratory credits have been completed during your bachelor’s degree:

These requirements are those dictated by one of the top 3 private universities who’s DPT course is most sought after.

  • Biology I and II (with labs) – 8 semester hours
  • Physics I and II (with labs) – 8 semester hours
  • Chemistry I and II OR Biochemistry I and II (with labs) – 8 semester hours
  • Psychology (two relevant courses) – 6 semester hours
  • Statistics and Mathematics (with lab) – 3 semester hours
    • If you completed your mathematics credits within your Physics or Chemistry electives, this might be accepted.
  • Human Anatomy (with lab) – 4 semester hours *
  • Physiology (with lab) – 4 semester hours *

(*If you completed Anatomy and Physiology as a combined dual course, with labs, it would also fill the above requirement – 8 semester hours total)

These requirements are those that are laid out by one of the top 3 public universities who’s DPT course is most sought after.

  • Biology I and II (with labs, cell-based, Exercise Physiology will not be accepted as an adequate replacement course) – 8 semester hours
  • Physics I and II (with labs, mechanics and electricity must be included) – 8 semester hours
  • General Chemistry I and II (with labs) – 8 semester hours
  • Psychology (Abnormal Psychology must be included, Developmental or Lifespan Psychology will not be accepted as an adequate replacement course) – 8 semester hours
  • Statistics (ANOVA and regression analysis are suggested) – 4 semester hours
  • Calculus (Pre-Calculus will not be accepted as an adequate replacement course) – 4 semester hours
  • Medical Terminology (acknowledged on a pass/fail basis) – 4 semester hours
  • Human Anatomy (with lab) – 4 semester hours *
  • Human Physiology (with lab) – 4 semester hours *

(*If you completed Anatomy and Physiology as A&P I and II, with labs, it would also fill the above requirement – 8 semester hours total)

Note: These requirements are laid out by the most sought-after universities, with the most prestigious DPT programs available. The requisite semester course and hours may vary slightly, depending on which university and which program you elect to study. 

Some universities also offer a fast-track Bachelor of Sciences / Biology program, which allows students to complete their undergraduate degree in three years instead of four. This means that the workload will also be increased to cover the same amount of content in a shorter time period.

Clinical Hours

You must complete between 100 – 150 hours of paid or volunteer clinical hours in a physical therapy setting. These can be completed at many different institutions but must be carefully recorded and acknowledged by each workplace. Observation hours at research laboratories are often not considered and will not count toward your clinical hours. This is because they are not seen as taking place in a clinical PT environment under the scrutiny of a qualified DPT. Remember, these programs and universities are highly sought after. To be a more competitive candidate, you would do well to exceed the minimum requirement of clinical hours. It is also seen as more favorable to have completed these hours across diverse sites. Some universities have waived the need for clinical hours for the 2020-2021 admissions period due to interruptions and limited opportunities for observation hours caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

GRE Test Scores

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a graduate admissions test that you must sit, to be considered for admission at a graduate or professional school. This test measures a candidate’s verbal reasoning, quantitative aptitude, critical thinking, and analytical writing skills. This test can be taken more than once, and candidates can select their best score set to send to universities and professional schools, rather than a combination of all score sets. The scores are used in addition to academic transcripts to assist admissions boards. For admission to certain professional programs, you must take the Physics, Chemistry, and Biology subject-specific tests. For other institutions, the general test is sufficient. Ensure that you submit the correct test scores with corresponding university program codes with your application. Your GRE scores should be sent to the university of your choice to enter a DPT program. However, these are no longer a requirement for the 2021 intake at many universities due to the COVID – 19 pandemic.

Recommendation Letters and Transcripts

Once you have completed your degree, you must send your academic transcripts to the PTCAS (Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service) for verification and approval before they can be sent on to the institution of your choice.

The PTCAS process is rigorous and can take up to 5 weeks after receiving your transcripts. 

Another requisite of PTCAS approval is the submission of three letters of recommendation. These letters must be completed by the following:

  • A registered physical therapist (PT) who supervised you during your clinical hours.
  • A professor or lecturer who taught you in a class during your bachelor’s degree.
  • A person of your choice who was another PT supervisor, an academic supervisor, or anyone else who is qualified to speak of your academic, personal, or professional attributes.

Some universities are more flexible regarding the number of recommendation letters required, as well as who may write them. Due to interruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, many universities are waiving the need for a recommendation letter from a registered PT and allowing a letter written by anyone able to comment on your professional and personal character to count in its stead.

Another important requisite to note when applying to the PTCAS is whether you have completed your courses online or on a correspondence basis. Most universities require you to fill out a form detailing your online studies and the institution you completed your program(s). This is so that they can verify that sufficient content has been covered to meet their requisites. It can also allow for incomplete labs to be caught up or abandoned before you are accepted into the DPT program.

What do Sports Physical Therapists do?

Sports Physical Therapists use their extensive skills to provide treatment after patients/clients experience physical trauma, such as injury or surgery. The focus is often on assisting patients with mobility rather than other medical means of promoting recovery. Sports Physical Therapists often work with athletes to prevent injury, maintain optimal physical well-being, and create treatment plans to manage chronic issues.

Sports physical therapists can work at hospitals, private practices, or other traditional health care venues. Some can be contracted to work with specific sports teams, care for their athletes, and work to prevent injuries and assist in their recovery. They may also create strength programs to optimize functionality within their sport. A further set of sports physical therapists works within schools to assist in coaching and work closely with teachers and occupational therapists to promote health and wellness on campus.

How much money do Sports Physical Therapists make?

According to Zippia, Sports Physical Therapists make an average of $43,278 per annum. The physical therapy employment bracket is expected to grow in demand by 22% in the next few years, making this a highly lucrative career path. Payscale places the salary of Physical Therapists in a higher bracket, with a starting salary of  $67,085 and an average salary of $71,767, not including any benefits or commission. Within physical therapy, there is room for growth and promotion based on individual specialization and years of experience in the field.

How long does it take to qualify as a Sports Physical Therapist?

Depending on the educational path you choose, the time it takes to qualify as a Sports Physical therapist will vary. Studying part-time will obviously increase how long it takes to complete all the necessary academic coursework and the many practical clinical hours and labs. If you choose to become a Sports Physical Therapist after already qualifying as a PTA, the time to completion is longer overall.

The time taken to become a qualified Sports Physical Therapist can be broken down as follows:

  • Obtain a bachelor’s degree in science or biology  (4 years)
  • Prepare for and pass the GRE general test/subject tests  (3 – 6 months)
  • Complete DPT graduate degree  (3 years)
  • Prepare for and pass the National Physical Therapy exam  (3 – 6 months)

Overall, this indicates that qualifying as a Sports Physical Therapist will take at least 8 years to qualify and practice as a Sports Physical Therapist. Any specialization courses and fellowships or internships will extend this length of time. Depending on the state requirements for your licensure, you may also have to continue your education in the field to maintain your ability to practice as a PT.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the difference between a (sports) physical therapist and a physical therapist assistant?

A physical therapist is focused on diagnosing a patient or client’s problem and then develops a treatment plan accordingly. They also design strength programs and classes for specific groups of athletes and work closely with medical doctors to create in-patient programs to promote recovery. Sports physical therapists complete the above set of duties within the sporting field and often work closely with athletes and children in sports programs. A physical therapy assistant (PTA) attends to the tasks of getting patients and clients ready for analysis by a physical therapist and then assists in performing the physical therapy that is part of the physical therapist’s designated program. PTAs can work for sports teams under the supervision of a qualified sports physical therapist. They do not diagnose the athletes or evaluate them initially, but they are often responsible for carrying out the designated patient care or recovery program.

  • How much do physical therapists make for sports teams? 

According to Zip Recruiter, the average annual income for sports physical therapists working for professional sports teams is $76,266. Top earners are recorded as making up to $110 000 per year. According to EcityWorks, the base salary for sports physical therapists working with the NBA and specific teams is up to $95 000, excluding health benefits and other incentives packages. While working with professional sports teams can be exciting, it does often mean that you have to travel with the team you are contracted to and often work long hours and many weekends.

  • What are the best schools to attend to become a sports physical therapist?

According to Zippia, the two best universities to attend to achieve your DPT degree and qualify as a sports physical therapist are the University of Southern California and Northwestern University at their Feinberg School of Medicine in Illinois. This status is based on their rate of students admitted to the course, how many remain in the course till completion, the average income of alumni, and alumni employment figures. However, it is important to note that these two universities are difficult to get into, particularly for the DPT degree due to the high SAT scores of applicants and the low admissions rates. Both universities are also private, and therefore tuition is more expensive. Two other, well-ranked (Top 5) but state-owned campuses are San Diego State University and the University of Minnesota. Both have lower average SAT scores among applicants, and tuition costs are also more affordable. 

  • What are the most important skills for a sports physical therapist?

There are many skills of sports physical therapists that are in high demand. The following are ranked as some of the most valuable – these are gained through study:

  • Sports injury care and rehabilitation
  • A patient care, evaluations, and ongoing treatment plans
  • Injury prevention in athletes and junior athletes/children.
  • Orthopedics
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurological support

Several skills that are considered important for a sports physical therapist are not gained explicitly during your education. The following skills are honed through experience:

  • Pleasant bedside manner
  • Specialized treatment plans that assist with psychological treatment
  • Health and wellness promotion skills
  • Personalized rehabilitation programs
  • What qualifications do you need to become a sports physical therapist?

To become a sports physical therapist, you need to have the following basic qualifications:

  • A relevant bachelor’s degree or BSc in Science, Biology, Kinesiology, etc.
  • A GPA of at least 3.0 across all courses in your bachelor’s degree, as well as a 3.0 GPA in your Science component.
  • A DPT degree obtained from a CAPTE recognized program and university. 
  • A license to practice after completing the National Physical Therapy exam or the corresponding state licensure exam.

Any further specialization or fellowships and internships are optional but beneficial. Some states also require license holders to continue their education to maintain licensure regularly.

  • Is it hard to become a sports physical therapist?

It can be difficult to qualify as a practicing sports physical therapist. However, the qualifications are not just based on academic studies and research. The courses include many hours of the practical application of your skills. The journey to becoming qualified is rigorous and taxing, but it is not impossible. This career can be incredibly rewarding. The role of a sports physical therapist is a practical one where you undertake an active role in the health, wellness, and/or recovery of your clients and patients. You need to be able to retain and apply all the knowledge and skills that you will gain during your studies and undertake to continue your education in this sphere.

  • How much does it cost to become a sports physical therapist? 

Becoming a sports physical therapist can be costly. Financial aid is available through charitable institutions, scholarship programs, and federal grants. Check out Federal Student Aid and Fastweb to see if you are eligible for any financial assistance.

The many educational steps you must take to become a fully qualified sports physical therapist can be broken down as follows:

  • A bachelor’s degree in science or biology costs between $25,588 and $62,644**  (3 – 4 years)
  • GRE general test/subject tests cost $150 per test you take. The test preparation materials are free to download.
  • DPT graduate degree costs between $18,390 and $37,014**  (4 + years)
  • National Physical Therapy exam costs  $485 per time you take the test. The test to become a Physical Therapist’s Assistant is also $485.

**The above costs are based on the national average costs. The first value is the average cost at a state university per year. The second value is the average cost at a private university per year—data obtained from Campus Explorer‘s cost calculator.

Becoming a Sports Physical Therapist

You should now have a good idea of the background requirements you need to work as a sports physical therapist. Often, sports physical therapists have a strong educational background in science and health care through a bachelor’s degree, preferably with majors in science or health. Then, you must attend graduate school and complete a doctorate of physical therapy program at a recognized institution. Once you have completed the necessary post-graduate qualification, you must pass the state licensure exam or the national physical therapy exam. This will grant you a license to practice as a sports physical therapist. If you don’t have a bachelor of science degree, you may still be able to become a sports physical therapist by completing the necessary coursework, depending on the institution that you apply to complete your studies at. 

Please leave any general questions or comments in the section provided below.

Also read How Long Does It Take to Become A Physical Therapist

How to Become a Sports Physical Therapist?

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