Physical therapy sounds about as exciting as study hall. But putting in the work can really pay off—and get you back to doing what you love. Here’s how to get the most benefit out of your next physical therapy experience.
Have the right mindset A sports injury can come as a shock, especially if it’s a serious one like an ACL tear or bone fracture. All you want to do is get back in the game…but your physical therapist says it could be weeks or even months! The news can be tough to swallow, but there’s no way around it. If you want to get back to action, you have to commit. Otherwise, you are setting yourself up for a longer recovery or, even worse, another injury.
Listen to your physical therapist You might be good at tackling defensive linemen or running the 100-meter dash. But you may not know much about physical therapy. Physical therapists specialize in helping athletes like you systematically progress through strength training and range of motion exercises. With their help, you can return to sport and prevent future injuries. Listen to your physical therapist’s advice and take it to heart.
Make sure you get a specialist. “When mom or dad calls for your first appointment, make sure they ask for a therapist who specializes in sports medicine,” says Nathan Hershberger, a physical therapist at Kettering Health Network who specializes in sports medicine. “Rapport is important, too. You want to make sure your physical therapist is someone you can talk to and be honest with. You are going to see each other twice a week for weeks or even months, so developing a good working relationship will make the process a lot more productive and even enjoyable.”
Do the work Physical therapy is not glamorous, especially when it comes to doing exercises at home. But those exercises are an important part of the healing process and make a big impact. “Therapy appointments are really just to provide instruction and education—they are a small part of the rehab process,” says Jenell Princell, a physical therapist at Kettering Health Network who specializes in sports medicine. “In order to build strength and see gains, you have to do your exercises every day and follow what your physical therapist tells you to do exactly. If you don’t, believe me—we will be able to tell, based on how you do during our sessions.”
The goal is nothing short of perfection. “Form is critical. If you are sloppy or only do your exercises half the time, you can do more harm than good,” Hershberger says. “As you build strength you are also reinforcing muscle memory, which helps you keep good form when you return to sport. The more careful you are when you are doing your exercises, the faster you will recover, and the lower your risk of re-injury.”
Listen to your body Pushing yourself too hard can be a problem too, says Princell. “Some athletes get overzealous and push through a lot of pain during physical therapy,” she says. “Muscle soreness or discomfort is OK, but if you are in intense pain during or after physical therapy, you are also increasing inflammation and muscle irritation. Tell your physical therapist if something hurts, and we’ll adjust the exercises as needed.”
Involve your parents Your parents don’t need to hover over every physical therapy session, but it is a good idea for them to be familiar with your home exercises so that they can watch to make sure you are doing them correctly. Parents are also pretty helpful when it comes to scheduling appointments and — if you can’t drive — getting you there.
Trust the process Sports injuries affect athletes in different ways. It’s natural to worry that rehab is taking too long or that you’ll never be able to compete like you did before. But the fact is that you are young and strong, and you can count on your physical therapist to help you every step of the way.