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The Life of a Sports Physical Therapy Resident

Posted Aug 22 2011 6:00am

Today’s post is a pretty cool guest post from Matt Failla, a sport physical therapy resident at the University of Delaware.  Matt gives us an inside look at a day in the life of a PT resident.  For those that know me well, you know that I was a sports physical therapy fellow at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, AL.  A fellowship or residency is something that I strongly recommend.


My name is Mat and I am a current Sports Physical Therapy Resident at the University of Delaware Physical Therapy Clinic. I decided to pursue a residency to enhance my clinical knowledge and skill set as well as gain experience in acute and on-field injury management, with the ultimate goal of becoming a board certified sports specialist. I had over three years of outpatient orthopedic experience prior to entering the residency. I knew I had a passion for working with athletes, and wanted to “step my game up.”

There are currently 18 APTA credentialed sports residency programs in the country, which can range in length of one year or longer.  The Sport Section of the APTA has information on these programs .  These are full time programs that fulfill the necessary requirements to sit for specialist examination. A wide variety of applicants can apply including new graduates and experienced therapists.

The most difficult aspect of the residency is the time requirement. An average day is about 12 hours long, but can sometimes be 13 or 14 hours. These days usually involve time spent in multiple settings which breaks up the day so it doesn’t feel as long. “Outside experiences” include rotations with orthopedic surgeons in clinic, observing surgeries, and providing medical coverage at local sporting events. Shadowing orthopedic surgeons as they examine patients has been an excellent experience, and allows me to learn another side of return to play decision making and especially improve my radiology reading skills. Surgical observation is a lot of fun, and I have observed procedures for all of the major sports injuries including variations on each (revisions, complicated cases, etc).

The best part, by far, is that I get to examine the patients under anesthesia prior to being prepped for surgery. It’s amazing what you can feel when there isn’t any guarding!! If only we had anesthesia in the clinic, it might make some treatments go by a little easier! Event coverage involves working alongside athletic trainers and sports medicine physicians to provide emergency care and injury assessment at football games, wrestling tournaments, and rugby tournaments. I have learned a great deal about sideline injury management, which is a different perspective than we are used to as outpatient PT’s.

“Inside experiences” include treating patients in the clinic, working in the university training room, clinically instructing students, being a teaching assistant for DPT classes and labs, and participating in on-going research. In the physical therapy clinic, I treat athletes of all ages. I am surrounded by clinical specialists and experts in sports medicine, who constantly push me to provide the highest standard of evidence based practice. I frequently have one on one mentorship and co-treat patients with clinical specialists to improve my treatment progressions and hands on skills. For me, there is no better way of learning than to evaluate a patient and have an expert re-evaluate right after to confirm or deny my findings. This can be stressful at times, as everything you do will be questioned, but I know it will make me a better clinician in the end.

We also provide a sports injury clinic open to all club sports one night a week to come in and have an injury screened. I love the challenge to be ready for anything that may walk through the door. The university training room has given me a taste of what it’s like to be a part of a high level sports team. Thinking back to Mike’s day in the life of an MLB trainer post, I now have a greater appreciation of the commitment it takes. I’ve experienced the long hours working with football, the treatments before and after games, and the loss of my weekends. I was use to assessing patients in a nice clean clinic with a high-low table, not on my hands and knees in the mud with rain hitting me in the face. If I need a good laugh, all I have to do is think back to the first time I attempted a lachman on a sweaty leg the size of my waist! These were examples of things I hadn’t thought of coming from the outpatient world that became small challenges along the way.

Other experiences include helping write book chapters, presenting topics of interest at conferences, and leading a journal club made up of local physical therapists, athletic trainers, orthopedic surgeons, and sports medicine physicians. In the end, the juice is worth the squeeze and it’s an experience I may never have again.

Overall, a sports residency requires a commitment to eat, sleep, and breathe sports medicine for the length of the program. The time requirements can be physically and mentally exhausting, but the experience is something that can’t easily be obtained anywhere else. Where else can I have the opportunity to witness the initial injury, provide immediate care, sit in on the surgery, and then rehabilitate post-operatively? There isn’t any one overwhelming aspect; it’s the constant battle to always be juggling multiple things at once. I would argue that one of the more valuable things I have learned isn’t the intricacies of sports medicine; it’s the drive and the work ethic it takes to become a leader in the profession. I hope this post is informative for both students and clinicians alike to understand what a sports residency is all about.

Mathew Failla PT,MSPT,CSCS


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