When Kyle Prusso, DC, graduated from chiropractic college, he couldn’t afford to open a new practice, so he went to work at his father’s construction company.
He pulled up to a home one day to build an addition—not knowing it was the residence of the head athletic trainer for the Oakland Raiders football team.
Prusso got to know the trainer’s wife, and she convinced her husband to meet with Prusso. When he talked to him the trainer liked what he heard. Shortly thereafter he invited Prusso to work with the team. Since 2005, he’s been the team’s head chiropractor.
Admittedly, not everyone will have this kind of right-place, right-time luck. Most people have to put in time and effort before treating professional athletes. Most veteran DCs who work with the pros began adjusting for local, nonprofessional teams—some- times on a volunteer basis—and worked their way up through name recognition and connections.
Everybody dreams of treating NFL, MLB, and Olympic athletes, but without paying your dues you aren’t likely to reach that level. There are a few extraordinarily fortunate DCs who landed an internship and got a position treating major league players with another doctor, but for most, it’s the result of extended preparation.
The best time to start getting involved with professional teams is when you are in still in chiropractic college.
Gaining an internship with a doctor who works with pro teams will give you the opportunity to get your foot in the door and test the waters to see if it’s the right career path for you.
If you are already practicing, start small. You can visit the activity directors and coaches at local high schools. There may be physicians already conducting sports physicals, byt consider handing out flyers to coaches that detail your expertise with musculoskeletal health and rehab.
Some chiropractors who’ve gone this route have seen their practices grow as parents begin bringing their young athletes to them for sports-related injuries. Alan Sokoloff, DC, of the Yalich Clinic Performance and Rehabilitation Center, began his sports work with his alma mater, the University of Maryland.
He moved on to working with the National Aerobic Championships, and in 1997 he did an internship at the Olympic Training Center. After his Olympic training, he was able to work at the Goodwill Games, Pan American Games, and the Olympics.
At the end of 1999, he treated a Baltimore Ravens player and eventually became the team’s chiropractor. He has also worked with the Washington Nationals and the Bowie Baysox, the Baltimore Orioles’s AA team.
Although both chiropractors have worked with pro teams for decades, they continue to have strong ties in their communities. Sokoloff works with local youth, coaches, and parents through a nearby parks and recreation department.
Be apprised that it is unlikely pro athletes will be your only patients. You almost always have to keep a traditional client base to make ends meet.
Your community will largely be paying your bills; professional sports are generally seasonal. Working with athletes from your local triathlon clubs is going to build your practice faster than working with a pro team will.
Building a business model
When Spencer Baron, DC, president of NeuroSport Elite, PC, began working with the Miami Dolphins, he found out the DC before him was adjusting the team free of charge. After a couple of months, he knew he was going to have to be paid for his services.
He arranged a meeting with the trainer and told him he couldn’t continue performing the work gratis. Without blinking, the trainer asked if he would like to get paid by the club or through players’ insurance.
“I am convinced when you are treating high-profile athletes, your credentials and reputation are on the line, so you better get paid well,” Baron says.
Be leery of volunteering your professional services. The work you do is specialized and giving it away lessens the value of the care you provide. A sense of entitlement can exist with some players, and they might consider the prestige of treating them to be sufficient compensation in itself. But our experts are adamant that you should be firm in requesting payment.
And how you work this kind of treatment into your business model is going to vary greatly depending on your agreement with a team and how they prefer to pay. Every team has a different system. It’s important to be flexible, but our experts are adamant that you must make sure you are paid.
You might begin by adjusting players individually as they come into your practice. Others work on a contract with a team—going in for a few hours a couple of days a week. Sometimes you will work with visiting teams and treat them at the field or at their hotels. You may be asked to cover games (home or away) or just practices.
And billing is different for every team as well. Some work through the players’ insurance, which tends to be generous. Other DCs bill the team directly, and others prefer to work on retainer.
The rates vary widely, but you can probably expect to get paid $200 to $300 for an adjustment session with a professional athlete.
There are a couple of caveats to the “always-get-paid” rule. When you are first starting out, you might have to volunteer for a short period to prove your worth. Some DCs volunteer at local extreme sporting events and they wouldn’t have gained a foothold with professional organizations had they not done so. When a group sees you can add value, then getting paid becomes far more possible.
Another exception is in working with Olympic athletes. The United States Olympic Committee requires chiropractors and other providers to go through unpaid training and then volunteer for a rotation at one of three training centers in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in Chula Vista, California, and at Lake Placid, New York. Travel to the training centers is unpaid, but housing and meals are supplied while volunteering.
Though working with Olympic athletes presents a significant and unpaid time commitment away from home, Sokoloff recommends it. These patients are highly motivated and you are immersed in your practice during your rotation.
“It is a great experience because you eat and live amongst the athletes the whole time you are there,” he says.
If you get the chance to meet with a college or professional coach, the first thing they will ask you is, “What can you do for me?” Sokoloff says. You have to communicate what qualifies you to work with these elite athletes. The answer, of course, is your adjustment skills.
“You increase the odds of working with a pro team if you are a good diagnostician and a tenth-degree black belt in your ability to adjust the spine and extremities, because that’s what they want,” he says.
Other things like nutrition and active release techniques can be performed by an athletic trainer, and your specialty is performing adjustments. So you need to be able to perform them with the precision of spinal surgery, Sokoloff says. Depending on the type of athletes you are treating, you may need to hone certain skills. To that end, you will probably need to put a lot of time and energy into understanding and treating sports and extremities injuries. And if you are working in football, competitive cheerleading, or other sports where head injuries are common, your knowledge and application of treating concussions should be better than anyone else you know.
Next, you need to leave your ego at the door and become part of the team. You’ll also need to answer to and take direction from a trainer.
“If you are hired to work on a team, those athletes are not your patients,” Sokoloff says. “You have someone you have to report to and are accountable to. Chiropractors in general have a hard time answering to someone who isn’t a ‘doctor’ even if they have more field experience.”
Finally, along with being a team player, your social and communication skills need to be exceptional.
“Athletes want to feel secure and be inspired to matter how bad the injury is,” Baron says. “A chiropractor educates and inspires, and if you aren’t doing that, you are in the wrong place.”
Certification considerations To work with the USOC, you have to have been in practice for at least three years and have an active CCSP or DACBSP credential. Beyond that, there generally aren’t additional certification requirements for working with professional athletes.
The American Chiropractic Association’s Sports Council definitely recommends getting some kind of advanced certification. These programs give you clout by showing you took the time and energy to complete a credential.
Getting a CCSP used to involve a considerable amount of hands-on training, but Sokoloff says the program now entails about 70 percent of work online and 30 percent in class. If you are going to obtain one, he recommends getting as much face- to-face training as possible.
“You can’t treat athletes online. If you do get a certification, choose one that has the most contact hours,” he recommends.
But the reality is that most people who work with professional athletes don’t have a certificate or diplomate. Baron, formerly on the board of the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs, says about 5,000 chiropractors went through certification during his six years there and only about half ended up keeping their membership active.
He estimates that only about 5 to 10 percent of chiropractors working in professional sports have any kind of certificate or diplomate. But many, he says, do have certifications in other areas like the Graston or active release technique.
“No one is asking for these certifications,” Baron says. “They are valuable, though, and will teach you more about biomechanics. And you’ll have camaraderie among other trainers nationwide.”
Challenges to conquer
Working with professional athletes isn’t all about autographs and prestige. The job can be time consuming, particularly if you travel with the team.
At one point in Baron’s career, he was working on-site with the Miami Dolphins from 6:30 a.m. to noon.
After that, he went back to his office to treat his other patients for the afternoon and then spent the rest of the day working with the Florida Marlins.
Working with the pros may not pay off your mortgage or put your kids through college, but for people who love athletics, it can be highly rewarding. You might get team swag or season tickets, or just enjoy the prestige and excitement of working with the pros. And it also gives you the chance to work with people who are in peak physical condition.
“The situations can be more challenging; you might be on the sidelines with 30 seconds available to assess someone along with the rest of the team,” Sokoloff says. “But these people have a vested interest in wanting to get better, and that’s why I enjoy working with them. You never have to bug them about doing exercises or using ice.”
Tammy Worth, a freelance writer based in Kansas City, Missouri, specializes in business and healthcare subjects. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.