Doctors, nurses, physical therapists, and other medical professionals play a significant role in the sports medicine field, treating individuals who suffer injuries caused by physical activity. If you're passionate about medicine, wellness, and sports, then a sports medicine career might be a good fit for you.
Sports medicine encompasses diverse degree and career options. This guide outlines potential degrees and concentrations, career paths, typical salaries, and relevant professional organizations to help you begin pursuing a sports medicine career.
Skills Gained in a Sports Medicine Program
Through classwork, hands-on training, and experience, you can hone many in-demand skills that transfer to a variety of sports medicine careers. The following list outlines five common competencies that you can expect to gain from a sports medicine program.
Compassion plays a vital role in all sports medicine careers. Professionals must possess empathy for their patients and a genuine desire to help others. This skill cultivates patient trust and helps professionals provide the highest level of care.
Excellent oral and written communication skills allow sports medicine professionals to understand patients' needs and deliver effective treatment plans. These skills also promote professional collaboration and learning.
Sports medicine careers require professionals to stay up to date with the latest discoveries and advancements. Students in sports medicine degree programs hone research skills applicable to their career through research papers, projects, and other coursework.
Organizational skills help sports medicine professionals manage dozens of patients, meet deadlines, and keep track of important information. These skills are particularly crucial for managers who are responsible for an organization's budget and personnel.
As physical therapists spend much of their time therapeutically touching patients, they must possess excellent physical dexterity. This skill allows professionals to guide and assist patients without inflicting discomfort or harm. Internships and supervised mentoring help sports medicine students hone this skill.
Why Pursue a Career in Sports Medicine?
From casual joggers to professional athletes, anyone who participates in physical activity can experience an injury. Primary care doctors often refer injured patients to sports medicine professionals, such as physical therapists, for treatment. These professionals possess specialized training related to specific injuries, allowing them to provide appropriate care.
Sports medicine careers offer strong growth prospects and lucrative salaries. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the need for physical therapists to grow by 28% between 2016 and 2026 — more than three times faster than the national average. Physical therapists also enjoy above average salaries; these professionals take home a median salary of more than $87,000 per year.
How Much Do Sports Medicine Majors Make?
Sports medicine salaries vary by industry, role, experience, and location. For instance, large cities typically offer the highest salaries, although the cost of living in metropolitan areas also tends to be higher. Additionally, physicians specializing in sports medicine undergo more training and education than athletic trainers, so they usually make higher salaries.
You can increase your salary potential by earning advanced degrees and professional certifications. Degrees and certificates demonstrate your expertise to current and prospective employers, providing career advancement opportunities and greater salary potential.
Interview with a Professional
Dr. Scott Rosner
Dr. Scott Rosner is the owner of Weymouth Chiropractic and Wellness Center in Massachusetts. In addition to a doctor of chiropractic degree, Dr. Scott holds a master's in sports science and rehabilitation. He is certified by the American Board of Chiropractic Sports Physicians, and is the medical director for the Boston 13s Rugby Team and has previously worked with the LPGA tour, USA gymnastics, Ringling Bros. Circus, the Beyoncé world tour, and the Taylor Swift Reputation tour.
- Why did you decide to pursue this field? Was it something you were always interested in?
The reason I became a doctor of chiropractic was mainly my dad. He is also a chiropractor and I grew up helping him in his office by changing the face paper in each treatment room and showing patients to the rooms. In fact, in our fifth-grade yearbook, we were asked what we wanted to be when we grow up; most kids wrote movie star, athlete, or teacher, and I wrote chiropractor
As I went through my undergraduate studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I decided to pursue my interests in working with athletes and ended up working as an assistant in the Athletic Training Department. One day, while in the training room, I was lucky enough to shadow the chiropractor for the athletic department and see my two loves of working with athletes and chiropractic in action. As graduation approached, I knew I wanted to become a chiropractor who focused on working with athletes.
- What are some of the greatest challenges you face on a day-to-day basis? Successes?
Challenges when working with athletes involve being limited in the equipment you have available when providing on-field care, as most of the time we have room for just a table and some portable tools. Being creative with care is important when dealing with athletes and limited on-field resources.
Success when working in an athletic setting is when all providers that are part of the medical team are working together to ensure the course of action is in the athlete’s best interest. In the clinical setting, success is when our patients are able to resume doing what brings them joy.
- Having worked in so many different settings -- academic, clinical, athletic, etc. -- is there one you find particularly rewarding?
I enjoy all of them for different reasons. I enjoy teaching because I get to help kids learn more about the human body and cultivate a love for the sciences and healthcare, regardless of what profession they end up in. I love working with athletes on the sideline as well as the office because I get to be creative in how I approach their care and tailor it to their sport.
If I had to choose, I would say I enjoy the clinical setting most of all because most patients are not elite athletes — they are people with a problem that they have trusted me to help them with, and I love to hear that they can get back to doing the things that bring them joy. Clinical settings allow me to take techniques that I use for treating athletes and apply them to the general population. I enjoy watching as their range of motion, strength, and quality of life improves.
- What does continuing education look like for you? How do you stay up to date with new research and developments in the field?
Each year, Massachusetts requires 12 hours of continuing education, and being a certified chiropractic sports physician requires these 12 hours to be in sports medicine. Most of my continuing education is from hands-on seminars that teach me a new technique or concept to help my patients.
For instance, this past year I attended a FAKTR seminar. FAKTR stands for functional and kinetic treatment with rehabilitation and utilizes instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization and various other manual techniques to personalize care based on a patient’s musculoskeletal issues. While I’ve been certified in the concept for seven years, the hands-on seminar was a great refresher and the new research that was presented helped to validate the treatment concept. I also subscribe to a number of medical journals and use keywords to discover new studies regarding spine and joint health and treatment of soft tissue injuries.
- What advice would you give to someone considering a career in sports medicine?
The best advice I can give is to shadow a variety of professionals in the sports medicine field to discover which roles you're most drawn to. Taking courses and attending seminars about sports medicine can help you make sure you are passionate about sports medicine.
If you know that you absolutely want to pursue a career in sports medicine, then I suggest applying to schools with programs like exercise science and kinesiology. Make sure to diversify the electives you take within those programs to learn as many techniques as you can because every athlete is different and the more choices you have in your treatment toolbag, the faster you can help them recover.
How to Succeed in Sports Medicine
Depending on the sports medicine career you pursue, you may need a bachelor's, master's, or doctorate. Sports medicine physicians need a doctor of medicine, while researchers and professors typically need a doctor of philosophy in sports medicine. Other sports medicine positions, such as physical therapists, require a master's degree. Many master's programs offer concentrations that allow you to specialize your degree to match your goals and interests, such as injury prevention, sports nutrition, and kinesiology. With a bachelor's degree, you can work as an athletic trainer, physical education teacher, or recreational therapist.
Some sports medicine programs require professional experience for admission — particularly master's and doctoral programs. Many sports medicine programs include internship and practicum requirements that allow you to gain hands-on experience throughout your studies. Upon graduation, you may need to gain additional on-the-job experience before qualifying for a state or industry license. The following section covers licensure requirements for sports medicine careers.
Sports medicine careers often require one or more professional licenses. These licenses ensure that sports medicine professionals provide the highest level of patient care. After completing a bachelor's or master's program, aspiring athletic trainers in most states take the Board of Certification for the Athletic Trainer Exam.
Along with earning master's degrees, physical therapists must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination and complete continuing education courses each year to keep their licenses active. Although only exercise physiologists in Louisiana must obtain a license, professionals in this field often earn certifications from the American Society of Exercise Physiologists and/or the American College of Sports Medicine to advance their career. Both of these certifications require professional experience and organization membership.
Dietitians and nutritionists typically need a license or certification to practice. Even if you live in a state that does not require it, earning a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist credential can help advance your career and increase your salary potential.
Concentrations Available to Sports Medicine Majors
- Health Informatics: This interdisciplinary specialization combines sports medicine with information technology. Students learn how to use technology to provide better care and improve patient outcomes. Before starting their careers, graduates often earn the Certified Specialist in Business Intelligence certificate.
- Executive Leadership: Some master's in sports medicine programs offer executive leadership concentrations. Courses emphasize team management, strategic planning, and other relevant leadership strategies for advanced sports medicine careers.
- Athletic Training: Athletic trainers need specialized training to work with people recovering from sports injuries. Students analyze injury prevention, common disabilities, and differentiating treatment for men and women. Many athletic training concentrations include practica, internships, and other hands-on experiences.
- Kinesiology: Typical kinesiology concentrations emphasize how anatomy, physiology, and lifestyle choices affect physical health. Kinesiology concentrations prepare graduates for sports medicine positions, such as personal trainers and physical therapy assistants.
What Can You Do With a Sports Medicine Degree?
Sports medicine encompasses many industries and roles. Depending on their degree, graduates can pursue sports medicine careers as coaches, athletic trainers, physical therapists, physicians, and professors, among other roles.
The degree and concentration you select significantly impact your career choices. A bachelor's degree qualifies you for many entry-level roles, but a master's degree is typically needed for managerial and leadership roles. To work as a physician or professor, you must obtain a doctoral degree.
Bachelor's Degree in Sports Medicine
A bachelor's in sports medicine or a related field represents the minimum degree you need to work in a sports medicine career. After earning your bachelor's degree, you can continue your education in a master's program or look for entry-level positions. As some master's programs require applicants to possess relevant professional experience, you may need to work for a few years before applying to graduate school.
- Athletic Trainer
Athletic trainers work with athletes to identify and treat common sports injuries. Much of their job involves observing athletes for signs of injury and implementing rehabilitation programs. Bachelor's programs prepare students for this profession by covering essential anatomy and physiology topics, including first aid.
Coaches train athletes at all levels to play sports competitively. They organize practice sessions, mentor athletes, and provide encouragement and positive reinforcement. They also recruit new talent. Coaches can use their bachelor's in sports medicine education to help protect athletes from injury.
- Exercise Physiologist
Exercise physiologists help patients with physical impairments and illnesses regain mobility and improve their overall health. They meet with patients, take vital signs, and create exercise programs that their patients can perform independently. A bachelor's in sports medicine provides these professionals with essential medical knowledge and skills.
- Recreational Therapist
Like exercise physiologists, recreational therapists help patients with physical impairments and illnesses. However, recreational therapists often take a more hands-on approach by leading patients through activities. These professionals also focus on patients' mental health by holding group activities where patients with similar afflictions can bond with one another.
- High School Teacher
Many sports medicine bachelor's graduates pursue careers as high school teachers in public or private schools. They often work as physical education or nutrition teachers, promoting healthier lifestyles through exercise and lessons on health and wellness. Other job duties may include mentoring students and addressing students' behavioral issues.
Master's Degree in Sports Medicine
Sports medicine master's programs go into greater detail than bachelor's programs. They often include extensive hands-on requirements and academic research that results in a thesis. Master's programs frequently fall into one of two categories: career preparation or doctoral preparation. The former stresses practical knowledge and skills, while the latter emphasizes academic research skills. Due to the specialized nature of master's programs, these often prepare students for specific sports medicine careers.
- Occupational Therapist
Occupational therapists treat patients with injuries and disabilities through the therapeutic use of daily activities. They evaluate patient conditions, develop treatment plans, and help people with varying abilities perform daily tasks. Most states require that occupational therapists possess a license and a master's degree in occupational therapy, sports medicine, or a related field.
- Physician Assistant
Physician assistants practice medicine under a licensed physician's guidance. They examine patients, prescribe medicine, and track patient recovery. Many physician assistants possess experience as EMTs or paramedics, although some come from the sports medicine field. A master's in sports medicine, along with some supplemental education, can prepare students for this career.
- Nurse Practitioner
Nurse practitioners possess a highly advanced skill set. They perform medical tests, diagnose patient health problems, prescribe medicine, and create treatment plans. A nursing license, master's in sports medicine, and certificate can qualify candidates for this position.
- Registered Kinesiotherapist
Registered kinesiotherapists specialize in medical conditions that negatively affect bone and muscle function. They lead patients through exercise routines and chart progress and regression. Earning a master's in sports medicine helps prepare candidates to take this field's certification exam.
Doctoral Degree in Sports Medicine
A doctorate is the terminal sports medicine degree. Many professionals earn this degree to learn about sports medicine best practices and advance into senior management positions. Doctoral programs tend to emphasize academic research, which prepares students for sports medicine careers in academia or at government agencies.
Professionals who already possess terminal degrees in other fields may earn a second doctorate to modify or focus their career paths. For instance, surgeons may earn a doctorate in sports medicine to exclusively treat professional athletes. These medical specialists often earn higher salaries than physicians without a specialization. Full-time students can earn a doctoral degree in sports medicine in 4-6 years, depending on graduation requirements.
- Postsecondary Teacher
Postsecondary teachers instruct students in college and university classrooms. Other job duties may include mentoring students and publishing research. They often possess a doctoral degree and extensive experience. A doctorate qualifies graduates for tenure-track positions, which convey job security and managerial responsibilities.
- Physical Therapist
Like many sports medicine careers, physical therapists help people with limited mobility regain function. Their advanced education allows them to work alongside doctors and nurses to create treatment plans. A doctorate in sports medicine prepares these professionals to work with diverse patients with different diseases and abilities.
Many physicians earn a Ph.D. in addition to a doctor of medicine to tailor their careers to match their interests. For instance, a physician with a doctorate in sports medicine can work as a team doctor or surgeon who specializes in a particular sports injury, such as a torn ACL or slipped vertebrae.
What Industries Can You Work in With a Sports Medicine Degree?
Sports medicine careers can be found in diverse industries. The industry you select influences where you work, how much you make, and your daily responsibilities. The following industries house many sports medicine careers.
- General Medical and Surgical Hospitals
General medical and surgical hospitals treat patients who need emergency medical care or surgical procedures. In this industry, sports medicine surgeons and physicians diagnose and treat injuries.
- Offices of Health Practitioners
At health practitioners' offices, medical professionals meet with patients to discuss medical issues, diagnose illnesses, and create treatment plans. A health practitioner with a sports medicine background can specialize in a particular sports injury and provide expert care to patients.
- Nursing Care Facilities
Nursing care facilities help patients with severe injuries and diseases regain mobility and attain a higher quality of life. Physical therapists and nurses with a degree in sports medicine can provide patients with specialized care.
- Spectator Sports
Sports medicine professionals work for spectator sports teams to create treatment plans for injured players. They assist players with physical therapy routines, observe players to watch for injuries, and provide on-field care.
- Elementary and Secondary Schools
In elementary and secondary schools, coaches and physical education teachers use their sports medicine education to instill healthy habits in their students, promote physical health, and prevent injuries.
How Do You Find a Job as a Sports Medicine Graduate?
Pursuing a sports medicine career requires a polished resume and keen interview skills. To improve your resume and interview skills, take advantage of your college's career center. It may offer resources such as feedback, mock interviews, and resume templates. Career advisors can also help you determine which state or industry certifications you should pursue to stand out in the job market.
Professional organizations provide job seekers with networking opportunities that may lead to a position. For instance, the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, and American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation provide members with excellent networking opportunities.
To increase your chances of securing a position, consider sports medicine careers with low unemployment rates. For example, according to the BLS, the healthcare and social assistance field boasted a 2.3% unemployment rate in May 2019.
Professional Resources for Sports Medicine Majors
The AAPSM helps athletes recover from and prevent foot and ankle injuries. Members receive fellowship opportunities and benefit from invitations to the annual Stand Alone conference. Members must attend at least one conference every five years to remain in good standing.
Earning ACE certification can greatly improve your employment prospects as a coach or physical trainer. Besides granting certification, ACE publishes evidence-based research, hosts networking events, and promotes fitness programs.
ACSM student members benefit from access to professional publications and discounts on certification exams. Professional members receive invitations to ACSM conferences and voting privileges. Members and non-members can take ACSM continuing education courses.
FIMS members gain access to professional discounts, leadership opportunities, and networking events. Membership requirements include at least five years of relevant experience.
Sports medicine physicians benefit from membership in the AMA. Members receive student loan refinancing assistance, discounts on insurance, and professional development resources. Non-members benefit from the AMA's collection of free resources, including relevant literature.
Entry-level athletic trainers can earn the BOC to demonstrate their expertise to potential employers. Candidates must complete a Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education-accredited program and pass the BOC exam.
NATA applies nearly 70 years of experience to provide athletic trainers with continuing education and networking opportunities. Members can access a private job board, professional publications, and professional interest groups.
The NCAA regulates collegiate sports at nearly 1,300 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada. The organization collaborates with federal health agencies and offers sports medicine continuing education resources. The organization's Sport Science Institute provides free resources for doctors, trainers, and athletes.
This journal covers new surgical techniques, sports injuries' epidemiology, and rehabilitation and training best practices to keep medical professionals up-to-date in their field.
NHSSM promotes collaboration among high school and college sports medicine professionals. It hosts chapters on more than 60 college campuses. Members also receive an invitation to the organization's annual sports medicine seminar.