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Sports Medicine Education, Schools, and Career Overview

Sports medicine is a branch of healthcare devoted to the application of medical knowledge and expertise to the prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and management of injuries related to participation in sports, exercise, and other physical and recreational activities. Professionals who work in sports medicine may provide healthcare services to men and women who participate in athletic pursuits of all kinds.

The study of sports medicine has roots that date back thousands of years. From practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine who explored physical exercise as a means of preventing illness to the ancient Greeks who considered athletics a means of education and self-improvement. And perhaps the first team physician in human history, Claudius Galen, served as the on-call medical expert and rehabilitative therapist for gladiators during the days of the Roman Empire.

In modern times, the field of sports medicine has grown due to the increasingly central role that sports and physical activity are taking in the lives not just of professional athletes, but in the lives of amateur athletes of all ages.

Specializations in Sports Medicine

There are a variety of sports medicine careers available for those interested in combining a love of physical activity with the pursuit of an allied health profession.

  • Fitness trainers are trained professionals who work with athletes of all kinds, although some may specialize in particular sports. For example, some trainers may work with individual athletes or with those who compete in individual, non-team sports such as swimming, skiing, gymnastics, and figure skating. Others may work with teams that compete in sports like baseball, football, basketball, and soccer. Many fitness trainers work in clinics, gyms, training facilities, or health clubs.
  • Physical therapists can assist athletes as they recover and rehabilitate from physical injuries that either were sustained during athletic activity or that impair performance in athletic competition. They may work with injured athletes on a long-term basis when an injury precludes or severely limits continued participation in athletics. A physical therapist can also devise individually tailored exercises and fitness routines with the goal of restoring the athlete to a physical state in which it is possible for them to participate fully in athletics at the competitive level.
  • Sports psychologists can help athletes deal with the stress of competition and find the motivation and discipline needed to pursue the physical training necessary to succeed. They can also help improve group dynamics within sports teams so that the members work together more successfully toward their competitive goals. The field of sports psychology has been growing as athletes and those who work with them have come to appreciate the significant impact of an athlete's state of mind on his or her performance level.

How to Become a Sports Medicine Practitioner

Those who engage in sports medicine usually focus on one or more of these career tracks, although their work often overlaps into all areas of practice:

  • Improving fitness and enhancement of performance through nutrition, exercise, and training
  • Preventing, diagnosing, treating, and managing injuries
  • Counseling athletes on cardiopulmonary function and psychological issues relating to competition and performance anxiety
  • Educating athletes about the effects of steroids and other performance-enhancing substances
  • Managing the impact of controlled substances on athletes who have taken them in an effort to improve their performance or handle the pressures of competition and other psychological stressors

Degree Programs

A number of academic subjects and majors related to healthcare and the human body can help you to prepare for a career in sports medicine. Common course topics can include:

  • Kinesiology
  • Human anatomy
  • Exercise physiology
  • Sports science
  • Biology
  • First aid
  • Emergency response and care
  • Illness and injury prevention
  • Injury assessment and diagnosis
  • Physical therapy
  • Nutrition
  • Sports management
  • Sports psychology
  • Professional ethics

Bachelor's degree programs are generally the starting point for those who want to work in sports medicine, whether you plan to become a physical therapist, fitness or athletic trainer, or sports psychologist.

Master's degree programs are usually the minimum required for working in some sports medicine occupations, such as a sports psychologist or for working with student teams at the university level. Earning an advanced degree can also help to enhance the opportunities available to you for career advancement and pay increases.

Doctoral degrees in sports medicine fields may open the doors to the most prestigious and highest-paying positions. Medical schools are offering programs that allow students to concentrate in sports medicine and receive advanced training in that field.

Hands-On Training

If you want to optimize your chances of succeeding in the field of sports medicine, getting hands-on experience is key. Having practical experience in a variety of settings — a school athletic program, a health club, a clinic, a training facility — can make you more attractive to potential employers and more qualified to perform a wide range of sports medicine jobs. Take advantage of internships and clinical instruction while you are in school so that you can get as much practical experience as possible.

Sports Medicine Schools

The type of sports medicine school you decide to attend depends greatly on the type of sports medicine career you wish to pursue. Degree programs in sports medicine and closely related fields are offered by a variety of institutions including sports medicine schools, traditional colleges and universities, online institutes of higher education, schools of public health, and schools of exercise science. 

You can find sports medicine degree programs and related major areas — such as kinesiology and exercise physiology — at two-year community colleges and four-year colleges and universities across the country.

Certifications

Earning a certification or credential can be a way to be more competitive in the job market. A number of organizations offer opportunities for credentialing:

  • Board of Certification for the Athletic Trainer (BOC)
  • American Society of Exercise Physiologists (ASEP)
  • American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)

Career Outlook and Salary Information

Salaries for those entering or already working in sports medicine vary greatly. Pay can be affected by a number of factors including location, type of employer and work setting, level of experience, educational credentials and level of responsibility.

Sports medicine occupations can include fitness or athletic trainer, physical therapist and sports psychologist.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that job opportunities for athletic trainers and exercise physiologists are expected to grow in the coming years across the country. Part of the increase in demand may be due to youth leagues, colleges and universities that can use athletic trainers to better prepare athletes for activities and prevent injuries.

CareerTotal EmploymentProjected Job Growth Rate
Therapists, All Other12,02019.7%
Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

Professional Resources for Sports Medicine

A number of organizations and agencies are devoted to educating athletes and healthcare professionals about sports medicine and ensuring a high quality of care among those who seek out sports medicine services.

Organizations that focus on sports medicine include:

These organizations and agencies provide general information about sports medicine, offer certification credentials, and supply educational and professional opportunities for students and practitioners of sports medicine.

Sources:

  • Athletic Trainers, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes299091.htm
  • Athletic Trainers and Exercise Physiologists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Jan. 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/athletic-trainers-and-exercise-physiologists.htm#tab-6
  • Exercise Physiologists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291128.htm
  • Physical Therapists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291123.htm

Sports Medicine Schools