4 Qualities I Look For In My Athlete Patients As A Physical Therapist

When I edit PT application essays, I’m struck by how often future physical therapists mention wanting to work with athletes. Sometimes they mean athletes of all types – 12-year-old soccer players to 65-year-old golfers. But usually, they are referring to more glamorous athletes – professional or collegiate athletes in high profile sports such as football or basketball.

I believe the reasons for this are twofold: working with athletes seems dazzling and also many physical therapists are former athletes themselves. As a renowned physical therapist, Dr. Shirley Sahrmann joked about a common sports injury during a recent continuing education course I attended, “Tearing one ACL gets you admitted to our PT program. Tearing both gets you accepted early decision.”

As a former athlete who works in orthopedics, many people assume I also strive to treat athletes. And I do treat athletes daily. Most of them play high school sports, some play in college or adult softball leagues, while others are middle-aged weekend warriors or retiree tennis players, and a handful are professional athletes. But playing a sport doesn’t automatically make you one of my favorite patients. Instead, rather than simply playing a sport, these are the qualities I look for in my patients:

1. A Desire To Be In Physical Therapy.

This sounds obvious, but many people who attend physical therapy don’t actually want to be there. They are there due to a doctor’s orders, family member’s suggestion, or simply to satisfy their insurance’s requirements so they can get an MRI. Instead, those who choose to attend physical therapy – including those who self-refer –are often the most engaged patients and have the best outcomes.

2. Healthy and Active Lifestyle. 

There are countless ways to define being healthy, but oftentimes, you know it when you see it. These patients are usually active in some way and prioritize their health. This means they’ll do what it takes to get better so they can get back to doing what they love.


You don’t have to be an athlete to work hard in physical therapy. Whether it means altering their desk setup, tuning in to their own bodies to figure out what triggers their pain, or complying with a home exercise program, these patients go beyond what is asked of them and often recover faster than expected.


Patients with hobbies and interests are often more goal-oriented when it comes to their therapy. They also have something to talk about, which can make treatment sessions more enjoyable for both patient and therapist. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve having something in common, but finding something to discuss makes the session go by faster and makes exercising more enjoyable.

So while many athletes do fall under these categories, some do not. There are also many non-athletes who are great to work with and share these traits. I’ve worked with college athletes who want to take shortcuts and treated sedentary people who give physical therapy 100% of their effort. At the end of the day, I enjoy working with motivated, active patients, whether they are involved in sports or not.

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