So You Want to Work in Professional Sports?

Author: James Kurtz, DC/Friday, January 08, 2016/Categories: September 2015

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By James T. Kurtz, DC

I AM OFTEN ASKED HOW I GOT STARTED working in professional sports, or more specifically how I came to be a team chiropractor for the Seattle Seahawks. It all started innocently, with a strong interest in sports and hearing a few speakers talk about working with athletes while I was in college. When I graduated from the University of Western States in 1990, I went looking for some opportunities to work in a sports setting. The only one I could find at the time, open to a young, inexperienced doctor of chiropractic (DC), was the Wrangler Sports Chiropractic program, so I joined. I worked rodeos for several years and learned from some great doctors such as Laney Nelson, DC, and Ed Corley, DC, about how to assess and manage acute injuries and trauma on the spot.

After working rodeos, I realized how little I knew about sports injuries, and so I began taking ACA’s rehabilitation diplomate and sports diplomate courses in order to better prepare myself for work in sports medicine. My next opportunities came in professional track and field and triathlons, which I really enjoyed. I got to meet and learn from rock stars of sports chiropractic like Tom Hyde, DC; Ted Forcum, DC; Tim Brown, DC; and Mike Leahy, DC, to name just a few. These doctors and those early experiences began to shape me and helped me to develop a style of practice that made sense to me and got quick results. I was soon incorporating a lot of softtissue diagnosis and treatment in my approach, because I treated so many soft-tissue injuries, and pro athletes demanded much more than a good adjustment to perform at their best.

A Functional Approach

My next evolution occurred when I began to realize that even with great soft-tissue skills and adjusting, many of my athletes continued to return with the same problems, and I wanted to know how to help them further. At the same time, I was being introduced to a new paradigm of care by Craig Liebenson, DC, in the rehabilitation diplomate program. I was learning a functional approach utilizing more active care, along with adjusting and soft-tissue work. After completing this program, I had an opportunity to interview for a position on the sports medicine staff of the PGA Tour, and I was hired.

It was on the PGA Tour that I saw the practical application of all these active care approaches by a very talented physical therapy and training staff. I was able to witness how the PTs went from evaluation to treatment and then into rehabilitation with the tour professionals. It was an incredible opportunity, and I learned for the first time how to work as part of an integrated team and how to incorporate my skill set with the team for the sake of the athlete.

I also learned the hardships of trying to juggle a private practice with working a week or so out of every month on the road all year. Along with that came long hours working in the sports medicine trailer beginning at 5:15 a.m. and ending at 6 p.m. It also meant time away from family and friends and a constant feeling of playing catch-up. Life working in professional sports was not going to be easy, however I had been bitten by the pro sports bug and I was enjoying my time working in a team setting with celebrity athletes on the road. I continued to take courses and expand my knowledge of this functional approach. One of the beautiful things about being a chiropractor is we can make it what we want. This can also be one of the confusing things about going to a chiropractor, as there are so many styles and so many ways of doing things.

Olympic and Paralympic Athletes

I was really intrigued by this functional active care approach, so I wanted to learn more about the interrelationships between other systems and structures, such as soft tissues, joints and how movement patterns are coordinated by the nervous system, rather than just focusing on a single site of pathology or cause. I continued to develop and refine my functional assessment skills so that I could find the key dysfunctions quicker and more accurately and began applying these skills with a different set of athletes: Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

Paralympic athletes are our nation’s top athletes with a disability, and they have had a profound effect on me personally as well as professionally. These athletes challenged me clinically with limb deficiencies and various birth defects that I had never before encountered. They also challenged me to look within myself and to realize how many things I took for granted and how many things I could overcome in life if I simply chose to apply myself. Humans have so much untapped potential, and when you see others who have endured extreme hardships both physically and mentally and come out on the other side successful beyond your wildest imagination, it makes you stop and wonder why we complain about small stuff. I am grateful for my experiences with Paralympic athletes, because they gave me so much and made me a better person.

Professional Soccer and Football

In 2009, I was presented with the opportunity to work with the Seattle Sounders professional soccer team as their soft-tissue consultant. I was thrilled to be able to provide care to professional athletes near my home. The Sounders have a first-class organization, and I enjoyed my work with them for four years. Next came an opportunity to interview with the Seattle Seahawks after their longtime chiropractor, Gerry Ramogida, DC, left to work in the U.K. for the British Olympic Committee.

I was fortunate to get the position as team chiropractor five seasons ago, and I am blessed to be a part of the best sports medicine and training staff I have ever known. Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think that my desire to work in professional sports in college would find me working with a team of this caliber. Being on the sidelines for two Super Bowls has been an unbelievable experience. I have been exposed to so many acute injuries in professional football and have gotten to witness firsthand what working in a team environment with topnotch professionals is really like. I wish every chiropractor who desired it had the opportunity to see what great results come from combined medical, physical therapy, athletic training, strength and conditioning and chiropractic care.

Need for Integration

Our profession lacks experience working with other health care providers, and we don’t have many residency programs. I feel this puts our profession at a disadvantage, and it would be nice if we had more opportunities to see what others do and how they manage many of the same cases we see every day.

It’s also good to be exposed to situations we don’t often see in practice. One has been the opportunity to work with athletes post-surgically and see how good manual skills can help speed up the rehabilitation process and get athletes back on the field faster. My work in professional sports has been somewhat of a residency program for me and has opened my eyes to many different ways of managing cases and how the sports chiropractor fits in all this. It has given me more respect for my medical and athletic training colleagues. Too often in private practice we see other providers’ failures, and we tend to get a negative view. When you work side by side with well-meaning colleagues, you begin to get a better sense that we all share many of the same frustrations and challenges, and you also get a sense of how to help one another.

In a team setting, most often the athlete comes to you, referred from the head athletic trainer. The chiropractic physician then performs the functional evaluation and treats the athlete, gives recommendations and reports back to the trainer. The athlete may see the head ATC, the chiropractor, the PT and even the MD for medication or an orthopedic evaluation all in one session over the course of an hour or two.

Athletes make tremendous improvement in a short time with comprehensive care, which people witness every week while watching their favorite NFL players. Sprained ankles, for example, which may take four to six weeks to manage in your private practice, are often handled successfully in one week in this setting. There is no time to spare during the regular season when an athlete is injured on Sunday and needs to be ready to stand up to the rigors of playing professional football the following week. With 53 active players and nine practice squad players on an NFL roster, it makes for busy days in the training room. Football players, like pro golfers, need to play to get paid, and so they will seek out whoever they feel can help. One unique aspect of working in a team environment, like the training room on the PGA Tour or for NFL training, is that athletes are there to get better so they can return to play without missing tournaments or games.

Individual providers need to know if you can’t help professional athletes, that then the athletes will show up on the next treatment table seeing another provider. In private practice, one doesn’t usually see any of the failures, because those patients leave your office and go down the street and see another provider. However, in a team environment you will see your failures up close, and it can be very humbling. I quickly decided that I was going to learn from those mistakes and be more comprehensive and focused so that those situations didn’t happen on a regular basis!

On the flip side, there is nothing better than playing a part in helping athletes recover from an injury or just perform at their best. I think that is why most of us work with athletes in the first place; because we enjoy helping them be successful.

I also have been very blessed to have a very supportive spouse, Ming Ming Su-Brown, DC, who is also my business partner. Without her help and understanding, and putting up with a spouse who travels a lot, I would not have been able to accomplish half of what I have. I am also deeply indebted to a number of people who have helped me along the way to achieving my dream of working in professional sports. I hope that the future generation of sports chiropractors continues to expand their knowledge base and improve their skill levels so that there will be even more opportunities to work in collaboration with other health care providers and thus help more athletes and chiropractors achieve their dreams.

Dr. James T. Kurtz, DACRB, DACBSP, CSCS, is team chiropractor for the Seattle Seahawks. He is treasurer of the Professional Football Chiropractic Society and is 2015 ACBSP Sports Chiropractor of the Year. He owns two clinics in Seattle. For more information, go to www.nwsportsrehab.com
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