Where Modern Sports Massage began
By Mel Cash
It all began in the early 1980’s when, as a very keen Marathon runner and Triathlete I discovered the benefits of self-massage. Without any training and using the simplest massage techniques I found it really helped me recover better from long hard training sessions. Surely massage was something all us athletes would benefit from but why couldn’t I find anyone out there doing it for us? At that time, I was also looking for something meaningful to do with my life and there it was, I had found it with a passion, I wanted to be a massage therapist working with athletes. Not just the top elite’s but also this new group of keen amateurs like me. But how could I do this?
There were a few massage schools around which were mostly teaching a type of massage more suited to the Spa and leisure industry. The notion of “sport for all” and the “fitness industry” was only just starting in those days and there wasn’t an established market yet for what I wanted to do.
To get me started I went to one of these massage school where I learned the basics skills and got a certificate but there was nowhere else to go to learn anything more. So the only thing I could do was get started as a massage therapist and learn what I needed to know as I went along.
How Sports Massage began
This was still a time when the word “massage” was commonly associated with the sex industry so I started to call my work “Sports Massage” because it sounded good and gave “massage” a fresh new respectable image. The term itself is actually meaningless because you cannot massage a sport and as a therapy it involves much more than just the massage.
I had good natural ability and instinctively kept developing my skills in innovative and creative new ways that worked better with my clients. For example, I had only ever seen massage done with the client laying prone or supine until the day I realised I could get into some deep hip muscles much better with them laying on their side. And this developed into many new techniques and positions to work with. To this day I still believe that as therapists we can always discover more and improve our skills further, we can never know it all or ever reach perfection.
I started off treating members of my athletics club and one of them had a friend in the Royal Ballet so I soon had clients from there too. My name got around and I was getting some elite clients, ranging from the then British Heavyweight Boxing champion Frank Bruno to the World renowned prima Ballerina Sylvie Guillem (and they don’t come more different than that). At the same time, I was still treating recreational athletes and helping a wide range of people to live more physically healthy and active lifestyles. This also included treating people suffering with pain and dysfunction caused by more serious and sometimes terminal medical conditions.
And all this top quality experience was adding hugely to my depth and range of clinical skills.
But I also needed to learn more on an academic level to support my hands-on skills and as luck would have it at the time I was sharing a flat with a medical student who also did a lot of sport. He was happy for me to borrow any of his books and was also a willing person for me to practice on. But even better, in those days there wasn’t the security we now have at public buildings and so there was nothing to stop me going with him and sitting in to some great lectures on orthopaedic medicine.
My learning adventure also led me to some Osteopathy books which covered more advanced soft tissue techniques that went beyond the scope of massage. They dealt with the way the nervous system controls the muscles and offered a more profound way of treating injury and dysfunction. I taught myself these techniques from the books but with modifications that were more suited to the athletes I was treating. By adding Neuromuscular techniques and Muscle Energy Techniques to my massage skills I was becoming a unique and very effective Sports Massage therapist.
The first book called “Sports Massage”.
In 1986 I met a medical doctor from Finland who specialised in sports medicine and strongly supported the use of massage. With the credibility of a doctor and his academic knowledge to back me up I was able to persuade a publisher to sign us up to write the first ever book called “Sports Massage” which came out in 1988.
The First Sports Massage School
The book became a rallying point for a few other like-minded massage therapists who contacted me because they were trying to follow the same path. I was no longer alone and a real market was starting to emerge for sports massage. It now needed to be developed through a good quality training course. So with their support and encouragement I set up the London School of Sports Massage and we started the first ever sports massage training course in September 1989.
So what is Sports Massage?
Right from the start I saw sports massage as part of a support package for athletes and something much more than just a good massage. My overall goal was always to help athletes and dancers prevent injury and enhance their performance. Sports massage can greatly improve the recovery from training and this is the most important way of preventing common overuse injuries. This means it needs to be carefully planned as a regular and integral part of a training programme and not just a random treatment.
A skilled therapist is also able to assess the condition of the tissues, feel the affect training may be having on them and identify potential injuries the athlete may not be unaware of yet. This can then lead to good effective preventative treatment and advice. But athletes do still suffer with injuries so treating minor and chronic injuries is also an integral part of the job.
Sports Massage also has to include more than just the traditional massage techniques because there are also Neuromuscular techniques which have such great potential when treating athletes.
Other sports massage schools
The London School of Sports Massage was an instant success and we were soon operating at full capacity but the market was obviously growing further afield and inevitably more Sports Massage schools emerged to meet this demand. But these were mostly a disappointment to me because they were just modified versions of the old basic massage they used to teach. They were not teaching sports massage as part of a support package for athletes as I had always intended it to be.
Developing into Soft Tissue Therapy
We have moved on a long way over the decades (I can hardly believe it’s been so long) and much has changed. Physiotherapy training became less and less hands-on and become more and more exercise-based. This meant that clients were coming to us with the minor and chronic injuries that we used to expect a good hands-on Physiotherapist to deal with. In response to this we were continually acquiring new skills and knowledge which made us ever more effective at treating these injuries.
As we developed our clinical skills and responded to the changes in the market for treatment our scope of practice also grew to meet the needs of the wider population and not just the sports sector.
In 2012 my fourth book came out and was the first (and so far only) with the title “Soft Tissue Therapy” and at the same time we changed the name of our qualification to Soft Tissue Therapy as well. This is a far more advanced therapy which aims to treat the widest range of minor and chronic musculoskeletal problems across the whole population. It still includes Sports Massage because many of us still work with athletes but this is now just a small but important part of the job we do.