So you want to be a Sports Physio…

You want to work in professional sport as a Physio do you? Well before you get too excited or carried away dreaming of the high life and glamour, I think its well worth 10 minutes of your time to read this excellent piece kindly written for ‘The Sports Physio’ by Gary Anderson (@CoachGA) Gary is the Performance Director for the Great British Bobsleigh Team and Olympic Team Leader 2014, he has a wealth of experience and some valuable advise for you all! He gives you a rare insight into what he is looking for in Sports Physios that he employs, and shares his first hand experience of what its like to work in professional sports.

Wanted a physiotherapist to work in High Performance Sport

 “its not pretty and its not about you”

Every day you will interact with the best athletes in the world, get a very high salary, attend all the best parties, wear the national kit and watch great sporting action up close.’…yeah right, think again…
In your role (and at those parties) you will be doing your job in the changing room, on the field of play or your hotel room, which incidentally you will probably be sharing with another member of staff, two or more if you are really lucky.
Your clinical skills and know how will be severely tested when you are filling up water bottles and loading freight into containers in the early hours of the morning as you prepare to move onto the next venue.
Often you will have no chance to see any of the competition. When traveling with teams, expect to work 7 days/week, and very long hours – first in last out type of hours. (Probably be late for all of those parties unfortunately).
Oh and did I mention the all the bureaucracy, admin, politics etc ?… Ah “but I wont get involved in that” you say …yes you will. “But I can rise above all that” …no you cant.
So I would like to share my philosophy built around my experience of being involved in fairly high-level sport from the age of 14 and then working in a management capacity at three Olympic Games. I am not for one moment saying that I am right or you should even put yourself in a position to endure life in high performance sport, its tough, thankless and pretty damn ruthless.
I don’t want to come across here as a “flippant arse” many people think I am anyway, but I am someone who is lucky, privileged in-fact, to work in this industry but I also want to let you know a little bit of what life is really like.  I will also try and share what happens if you don’t get it right and the consequences.
I learnt the ropes starting at the very bottom, as a washed up athlete that tried to buck the system and take every short-cut that I thought existed, I defied authority and found myself at the whim of many a disciplinary committee. I was one of those athletes these that these days present a constant challenge to me now.
I did however, become a student of high performance, I went back into education, became a physiotherapist, that was boring so undertook post-graduate study in the science of high performance, I undertook research that answered my questions and have a very high quality thesis unfinished, because I answered the question I needed answering. I was fortunate in my time in professional football to work with some charismatic and very knowledgeable individuals; their advice stays with me to this day. It was tough in high performance, initially every day I thought about quitting but it get better as you persevere, I now only think about it every other day !
Before I start, a mantra that was taught to me and one that I adopt currently it stands one in good stead for what life in high performance sport may throw at you –

“Shit happens, life is not fair and the goalposts do move”

I would also like to share with you the ethos and working rules within my teams.
Managing High Performance Support Teams.
“A team is a group of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” – my philosophy here is the Italian Coffee effect, the output of my team must be greater than the individual contributions. I love coffee, I buy the best beans, grind them perfectly, I invested in a good quality espresso machine, use good water and get the best pressure from the machine. But my coffee never tastes as good as it does in Milan ! They just appear to have that magic ingredient – I think they call it the Dolce Vita or something like that.
My Support Team Criteria – “Team behind the Team”
To make it into our team there are conditions to be met, obviously each individual discipline  has their own professional qualifications, membership of professional bodies, post graduate this, PhD that, but what we look for is someone who can do the job and fits into the team ethos. So how do we determine that ?
a) Best in Area – if not you then who? Strive to be the very best you can be. Everyday is a school day in sport. As a performance director I want to learn from you. You should also want to learn from me and others. Tell me that. Build up your intelligence network.
b) Contribute to team climate – know your job and respect others areas of expertise. What is your responsibility ? What is your level of authority ? – who does what. All staff will be given authority to undertake their respective roles, with that authority comes a level of responsibility, with that come accountability, you cannot have just one element, it comes as a package.  Authority = Responsibility = Accountability
c) Cutting Edge – appropriate methods, evidence based. Be careful of “fads” with my coaches, they have been around a long time –  “no luminous K-Tape” in my dressing rooms. I dont know if K-tape works (does anyone?) what I can be sure of is that by making it bright orange does not improve the physiological effectiveness of its supposed actions.
d) No opinions in public – often misinterpreted as facts.  I always state there is “No room for jugglers in my circus”. The All Blacks have a great philosophy that they adopt for both the players and the support staff, “NO DICKHEADS” this is mentioned throughout the book Legacy by James Kerr. NO DICKHEADS is the antidote to the leak, the enemy inside the tent. A powerful and effective philosophy that helps maintain an exceptional environment. Read any leaders philosophy they allude to this type of operation.
e) Success always due to the athlete – Never claim success, the athlete is the owner of the result, of course they share that and we all experience the emotions associated but it belongs to the athlete not me or not you.
f) Accept uncomfortable environment – you will be challenged, you will be wrong, you will be right but no one will believe you – one day you will probably be sacked from a job in sport. It may well be that you are not at fault but this goes with the territory. A results based industry where if the required results are not forthcoming then changes are made. Accept it.
g) Never an easy day – That said one of the best pieces of advice I can give any member of my support team – “if you are lucky enough to be able to take a day off do so, because you don’t know when the next time this may be. Also if you have nothing to do “don’t do it here”. I don’t clock my staff in and out, nor do I expect them to inform me of the number of hours they have had to work recently.
h) Resilience – speed of recovery from adversity – DO NOT PERSONALISE IT – logic over emotion always. Accept and move on. Don’t sulk. All my team know that if they have been “balled-out” it was for that one thing and that one thing only, not that they are not liked or un-loved, they were “balled-out” for that one thing……
My Performance Philosophy that I expect staff to adhere to:
1) Athlete centered – the support network is all about enhancing an athletes performance. If it does not contribute to the sled going faster then there better be a good reason for it being part of the programme.
2) Coach led – our programme is coach led, the head coach is the filter to the athletes, all support services report to the head coach and the head coach to the athlete. All athletes agree that ethical boundaries include direct medical reporting to the head coach on any matter that could affect performance.
3) Performance driven – all decisions are taken once their impact on performance can be verified.
4) Services supporting – as it states, you are supporting the performance process. Your only responsibility is to allow the athlete to perform better than they did previously.
5) Winning under Pressure – know how to do this, by its nature competition is time driven, not only a measure of outcome but also a determinant in the period you have to do it. Time is a precious commodity, do not waste it.
6) Not about athletes being happy – they can be happy when they have won, always ask the question is it what the athletes wants or what they need ? Evidence why it is necessary and in most cases it will be ultimately accepted.
7) Do not confuse opinions for facts – advice will be given daily, it is important that you determine the relevance and sift the “opinion” based upon preference to the actual facts appertaining at the time. People, can and do often “re-paint scenarios”
I ask all my staff to ask themselves several questions before each major championship:
“Why are we here?” When this question is resolved a support team achieves purpose, personal fit and proper membership. Unresolved, this question creates disorientation, fear and uncertainty.
“Who are you?” When resolved a support team achieves mutual regard, forthrightness and spontaneous interaction. Unresolved, this question leads to mistrust, caution.
“Who does, what, when, and where?”  When resolved a team operates with explicit assumptions, clear & integrated goals and identified roles. Unresolved, this question leads to misguided competition and apathy.
Now for a true story and what the coaches can be like:
So the terminology of loading here is not accurate but you will get the idea, a coach I know and is part of my intelligence network and his first interaction with a new Physiotherapist, (or an athletic trainer I think they are called in his part of the world)
Physiotherapist: “Do you incorporate recovery weights in the athletes sessions?
Coach: Sorry ?
Physiotherapist: “Do you do recovery weights?
Coach: We lift heavy weights for strength; we lift medium-heavy weights quickly for power or medium heavy weights for high reps for muscle size. What the f******* hell are recovery weights?”
Physiotherapist: “ Do you not think It may be beneficial to incorporate some light weights on a stability ball to improve the players core” ?
Coach: “Listen, We will start training with light weights when our opponents stop being strong 110 kg men who want to smash our core muscles with their shoulders, knees and fists”
The same coach had further dialogue with a therapist, a different one (he did give me some issues !) Upon being told by the physio that an athlete should not include squats in their S&C programme. Can’t squat ? – they’re going to struggle taking a shit then, he then skulked off.
As a physiotherapist in my team your job is to create the optimal environment for athletes to be at the best they can be on the day of competition or to be able to undertake training to ensure they get the physiological adaptation required. That is by ensuring that athletes that require it rehabilitate effectively and that fully fit athletes are maintained.
Athletes are not, in the main, in an aesthetic competition whilst training in the weights room, to get adaptation they need to move a Load from point A to point B with the required / prescribed velocity, if they can do that without pre-disposing themselves to injury I am not too concerned how the technique looked. Obviously they need to be coached in the technique but not above the reason they are undertaking that exercise.
Do not forget the human interaction – effective communication overrides every element of technology or procedure that you have in your armoury. In my experience the body has a very clever way of righting itself in time, you are just trying to accelerate that natural process. Show that you care, show that you have the best performance interest at the for-front of what you do, that is very powerful for an athlete.

As a Performance Director – I listen with my ears but watch with my eyes.


Gary Anderson

Performance Director & Olympic Team Leader

Great Britain Bobsleigh

Twitter: CoachGA

Oh and if all else fails…




  1. To whom it concerns,
    Regarding this post below- do you know of a direct email that can forward my CV to regarding this post.
    Thankyou Connie

  2. In other words know your place. You are a small cog in a big wheel, some physics don’t like hearing that!

  3. Similar to what i wrote for a newspaper article once; exactly – it’s not glamorous, your not at those parties (your working) and your not just there watching games from the sideline (your probably underneath the stadium working hard, or busy working on the sideline) you may not even see any the competition* (*depending on sport), and yeah ok you get to travel the world sounds great (but after 3-6 months on the road each year, and more in Olympic year, this is time traveling ok. But you don’t see much more then your hotel, airport, team bus and training venue, it’s no holiday. And all this is time away from your family and partner, repeat many more times, it will really take it’s toll on your life, relationship and family after awhile, take it from someone whose lost partners in the process of long trips in Europe with teams.) Ok eventually you will find a partner who will stand by you, and kids that won’t hate you for missing their whole life’s, and if your passion is there, then yes you have the ability to feel like you genuinely made a difference in helping an athlete achieve their dreams, whatever that is. It’s worth it, if thats were your passion lies (In my opinion much more rewarding job then helping someone who got back pain just cos their lazy). Follow it if you want, i have moment i love my job (usually after seeing an athlete reach their international success), but many times after the 100th or so day in a lonely dark hotel room on a long overseas trip away from partner i often think to myself “why do i do this job, a private practice would be easier and better pay”. Don;t let that stop you however, every thing you do in life has pro’s and con’s, and i think if you really want to make a difference, then this profession is great for that, and do follow it, but do understand its not all glamorous and weigh up the sacrifice you will have to make along the way. Pat on the back to Gary for drawing attention to this fact that it’s not as great as most will think. That all said i still love my job.

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