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Working in Professional Sports: Pros and Cons

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Many physical therapists dream of working in professional sports. I’ve been fortunate to work with professional athletes my entire career. It is great to have highly motivated athletes that you can see throughout the entire spectrum of rehabilitation and performance.

But, there are long hours, a lack of autonomy, and other increased demands.

In this podcast episode, I’m joined by the team of physical therapists with the Chicago White Sox. Here are some of the pros and cons of working in professional sports so you understand what you’re getting yourself into.

To view more episodes, subscribe, and ask your questions, go to mikereinold.com/askmikereinold.

#AskMikeReinold Episode 277: Working in Professional Sports: Pros and Cons

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Show Notes


Transcript

Mike Reinold:
Hey, welcome back everyone. Thanks so much for joining us on this really special podcast episode. We’ve done similar episodes like this before. I know we’ve had a couple of people that are on this call in past episodes, but really excited to get together with a group of really fantastic physical therapists, that all work with me with the Chicago White Sox. So a bunch of great people, obviously all with the physical therapy background that are working in pro sports, and really wanted to get together and have an episode about talking about working with professional athletes, because a lot of people say that’s what they want. A lot of students, a lot of early career professionals think that, the thing that they want to get into with is physical therapy. And I think as we’ll learn tonight as we go through the podcast a little bit, we all agree.

Mike Reinold:
That’s why we’re doing it. We have a blast working with pro athletes, but I think sometimes though having a good understanding, of maybe some of the pros and the cons of working with pro athletes, just so you have a realistic expectation of what it’s like in this setting, I think would be really cool to go over. So want to introduce everybody to everybody on this podcast episode. First we have, Brett Walker. Maybe we give a quick wave, Brett.

Brett Walker:
How’s it going, guys?

Mike Reinold:
Brett, is the Director of Physical Therapy Rehabilitation with us, the Chicago White Sox, up in Chicago. We have, Brooks Klein. He’s our Rehab Coordinator in… I almost said Phoenix, but I guess Glendale. We’re supposed to say Glendale. Glendale, Arizona. Working with us there. Then we have Katie Stone, and Evan Jurgevich, both down in Phoenix, working with Brooks at our Minor League Baseball complex. Great group. I think, heck, just seeing this phone call or this podcast or Zoom, whatever it is, is really cool. There’s five of us here. We’re all working as physical therapist in one organization. I think that’s pretty neat. Huh? Good stuff, right?

Brett Walker:
For sure. We’ve come a long way.

Mike Reinold:
Yeah, right? Remember when you were the first one Brett, and you had a half job, a part-time job? And look at how much we’ve grown.

Brett Walker:
Yep. It’s been fun to watch.

Mike Reinold:
Yeah. Pretty neat. So I know Brett and Brooks and I, we got together in the past. We’ve done some presentations on how to get into pro sports. But what I thought we’d talk about, is a little bit more of an understanding of maybe what it is we do all day. So why don’t we start with this? Why don’t we start with… Let’s start with Brett. Let’s say Brett, physical therapist is your main role up in Chicago, with our Major League Baseball team. Walk us through a day in your life. We want to hear it all. Give us a good taste of what it’s like to live in Brett Walker’s shoes for a day.

Brett Walker:
I think of course the days vary, but for the most part when we’re at home you’re up early, hanging out with the family. Trying to get as much family time in as you possibly can, and then off to work by probably 11:30, 12 o’clock. And going in, preparing, making sure you have your program set for the injured athletes, and prepared for what you’re going to do that day, and hopefully you can plan out a week, or two weeks, or more than that. From there, we’ll usually have a meeting of our performance team. So that’s strength coaches, that’s our athletic trainers. Sometimes we’ll get our pitching coaches, infield coaches, outfield coaches involved when need be.

Brett Walker:
And then from there you’re elbows deep working with athletes, from probably about one o’clock on up to game time. Sometimes we get a little break with BP, but a lot of times we’re going out watching somebody throw, or watching somebody run to see where they’re at. And then once the game hits, usually I go see our Head Trainer, James Kruk, and we sit down and hash out the day. What did we do well? What did we do poorly? And how can we improve tomorrow? And what do we need to do tomorrow? And then once the game’s over then it’s all recovery from probably, about actually before the game’s over from about the fifth inning on. We’re trying to get guys prepared for tomorrow, and then probably get home or leave probably 12 to one o’clock in the morning, and do it all again the next day.

Mike Reinold:
I love it. And you have the weekends off though, right?

Brett Walker:
Oh, for sure. Off at a baseball game.

Mike Reinold:
I used to always tell everybody this fact, I think it’s changed last couple years, play 162 games in 180 days.

Brett Walker:
My kids wear T-shirts that say, “162 games in 185 days.”

Mike Reinold:
Yeah. Yeah, you added five days. That’s right. That’s what they did last collective bargaining agreement. That’s funny. It’s impressive too, and Brett’s being pretty humble, I think, with some of that. I think what’s interesting with what he said through that process, he’s not kidding. There’s no downtime from 11:30 when he gets there. You probably spend what, at least an hour planning not only that day, but then it’s almost like you look at each of the injured players and you say, “Where are they in their plan? Are they meeting their short term goals? Are they meeting the projections for the long term goals?” You spend good chunk of the day planning and meeting with all the other people within our department, before you even start to get your hands dirty. Right?

Brett Walker:
Yep. Yep. And a lot of time, it’s sitting down collaborating with those other individuals, with the strength coach, “Hey, what are we doing here? How do you feel that we can get better at this?” With James, our Head Trainer, and Josh, our assistant. “Hey, we need to get these guys outside. This is their throwing program. How can we accomplish this today? Who’s going to take that?” It is definitely a balancing act.

Mike Reinold:
Yeah. And I think the other thing too, you probably just take it for granted, I’m almost taking it as you’re being humble about it, but you probably take it for granted that you spend the entire afternoon, so probably a good five hour block of time, where you have a certain amount of players that you have to work on their programs today, their rehab for that day. But then at any moment in time any other athlete can just walk in and ask for something. So how do you manage that? How do you deal with just being on call, and just sitting there in the training all day just waiting for people?

Brett Walker:
I would say, that’s probably the biggest challenge, not having, “Hey, I have a patient coming in every 30 minutes or every 45 minutes or hour,” whatever the case may be. Knowing that, we could honestly just go out to BP and everything looked great and we’re thinking, “Hey, we got this,” and a guy blows out his elbow at BP, or whatever. His back tightens up and he’s down for three weeks. It can happen so quickly and it just changes your entire outlook on the day, and frankly, what you’re doing. For me if we have an acute injury, a lot of times I’m not going to do what I’d planned, I’m going to have somebody else do it. So somebody else is going to help me out and just take over, and then we’ll run that evaluation for that other person to see, “Hey, what do we need to do?”

Mike Reinold:
Yeah. It’s crazy how you put all that together and you manage it. And I think that’s one of the things that really makes Brett special, is that I think the best way to describe Brett over the course of a day, I’ve got to work with him quite a bit now, is that he’s cool as a cucumber throughout the whole day. He’s just same, even keel. Somebody could have just had an epic injury, or we could be having the best day ever with no injuries and you can’t tell.

Mike Reinold:
We’re there, we’re ready, we’re upbeat. We’re there to help the guys get out on the field tonight and succeed. So it’s crazy thinking of it that way, but lots of good stuff. So obviously it’s really cool, that you get to run out on a professional baseball field, some of the best manicured grass, Camden Yards and Wrigley, on the road and stuff like that. You get to do your agility and you’re running and you return to sport progressions there, but heck, those are long days. And I love how you started it, with you spend the morning with your family. I think that’s huge. What do you do when you are on the road in the morning?

Brett Walker:
That’s my time.

Mike Reinold:
So not even anyone here gets to learn. I like that.

Brett Walker:
No. No. That’s not honestly like that. That is, the road is really my time. I like to work out. I think you know that, but when I’m at home it’s family. My morning is devoted to my family. From the time my kids wake up to the time I leave. But on the road, when I wake up at six or seven o’clock in the morning, I am going to get as hard a workout as I possibly can on that day, so that I can try to hurt myself. No, not really, but I just want to get a good workout in, and then do things that help me heal. If it’s meditations, or even catching up on reading. I do a lot of reading, and just trying to catch up on something that’s going to help make me better. That’s also where I start calling you and Brooks, and try to make my phone calls so that I’m not interfering with things at home.

Mike Reinold:
Yeah. I love that. I love how you balance that. Everybody talks about work-life balance, thinking it’s just within a 24 hour period, but I like that. In the pro sports model, you have a week that’s heavy family and a week that’s not. Heck, four months, a year that’s heavy family, and eight months that’s not. It’s all about how you put it together. I like it. So great snapshot, that’s life in the Bigs. What’s it like down in Arizona for you Brooks? I feel like your day is maybe a little bit more scripted, yet a little bit hectic. Why don’t you tell us about your day, Brooks, down at a Minor League rehab complex.

Brooks Klein:
Yeah. So I’m in Arizona year-round, and I’d say I agree with you. I think it’s a little bit more scripted, because I can say if a Rookie League team, they’ve got a night game, we’ll say six o’clock. I can bring in my rehab guys early, especially if they’re not doing any on-field stuff. Let’s say it’s an acute injury, they’re recent postop, can bring those guys in early and give them a little bit more one-on-one treatment. And get them going and get them out before the second wave of rehab, which might be a little bit more late stage.

Brooks Klein:
And those guys are working towards on-field stuff, where I’ve got to get them ready, help out the Arizona Athletic Trainer get the Rookie League players ready too for the game. So we’re tag teaming, all those guys, and then get them outside so they can do their own field work, along with the weight room work too and all that stuff. So a little bit more scripted. I’d say once we get closer to the game, the model probably looks a little bit more like Brett, but definitely scripted a little bit more early on.

Mike Reinold:
And how does that evolve for you over the year? Because, Brett’s on the road, he’s in Chicago sometimes. He has an off season. What’s it like for you throughout the year with your rehab?

Brooks Klein:
Yeah, definitely. That’ll look a little bit different. Spring training is a ton of players, so that’s everybody in the organization. We’re all hands on deck and everybody’s going. When we’re on the Minor League side, much harder to script out a day. As we get guys, we’re getting them through and getting them out on the field. Let’s say we’ve got six tables and six medical staff. You’ve got your table in the morning, and guys are coming through for a pre throw stretch so they’re getting outside, a rehab guy’s coming through, and then they’re heading over to the weight room for the rest of their workout. So Spring training is all hands on deck. Everybody working together, getting the healthy guys out, getting the rehab guys going. So it a little bit busier then, and that day’s going to start early too.

Brooks Klein:
Then we move into more of the in-season stuff. That’s more what I described earlier with, I can script out a day with the rehab guys, where the guys were a little bit early on in their rehab. They can come in early, get some stuff done a little bit more one-on-one, and then the late stage guys later on towards game time. Then off season, it really just depends. It depends how many injuries we have, how many rehabs we have here and just the state of baseball in general. Right now there’s a lockdown, so obviously it’s going to be a little bit different this year on who we can talk to, who we can bring in versus a normal off season. I can’t say I’ve seen a normal off season yet, so it’s hard to tell with COVID and the lockdown. So we’re learning as we go.

Mike Reinold:
I think that’s well said, Brooks. Yeah. I think you can see a little bit of difference between, I think there’s a lot of pros of, being the Rehab Coordinator and the Physical Therapist, like Katie and Evan, based in one location where the players come to you. That’s pretty neat, where Brett’s almost traveling around with the team at times. That has its own pluses and minuses. There’re a lot of negatives that I can think of that come to it, but it’s still pretty cool to get to see all those nice cities.

Mike Reinold:
Although, Al Central’s probably not the most fun of road trips, but there’re some nice places that you go to. All right. Let’s hear a little bit from Katie and Evan. I think you guys are both newer, physical therapists within the professional sports realm both starting, heck, in the last four or five months or so. What do you guys think? What are some of the things that really stood out to you, about things that you’re like, “Gosh. I love this part about my job, working with pro athletes.”? Maybe you were expecting it, maybe you weren’t, but what’s really standing out to you? Let’s hear from Katie first.

Katie Stone:
I think the biggest thing for me, and I think I was expecting it because I’m also an athletic trainer, is just not having to work within the constrictions of insurance is super nice, because you get to decide, “Hey. One guy needs a little more time today. I can take my focus on him. And maybe somebody else needs less time,” and you can plan out based on that. Rather than, “Oh, I’ve got to meet this many patients an hour, and I’ve got to do this much documentation.” Our documentation is also a lot better than the insurance based documentation, so that’s also another pro.

Mike Reinold:
That’s funny you brought those up as some of the pros, because I think if somebody like Brett probably, you’ve been doing this for so long that you almost take it for granted, that you can rehab a guy for two hours if you need to, one day. And that’s not physically possible, if you need to get that table cleared out in 45 minutes for the next person to come in on the schedule. So good stuff, Katie. I agree with that completely. How about you, Evan? What do you think? Obviously, I think you love playing catch for a living, but what is it that’s really stood out to you so far?

Evan Jurjevic:
Yeah. Of course, always love playing catch, but just having a great appreciation for how elite these guys are. When it comes down to it, there’s normally right around 450,000 high school athletes that play baseball. And then about 0.5% of those guys end up getting drafted. And from high school to college, it’s about 7% of high school players go play college baseball, and from college to getting drafted is about 10%. That is a very low odds in order to make it to this level. So these guys are highly motivated. They want to return to play. They want to perform really well, and on top of that they’re very competitive and they love the game. On top of that, they’re also getting paid to play baseball, which is also a key component of them recovering and getting back on the field.

Mike Reinold:
Yeah. I love that. So putting what you and Katie said together, I think that was awesome. You don’t have the limitations, where you can give them as much resources as they need with time or whatever it may be. But also, using a little bit of what I got from what you said Evan, is you get to see this person throughout that rehab process. You get to see them go from some of the basics, from early injury or postop, all the way to some advanced level stuff. You get to see them through this to get to that late stage return to sport phase, and you’re involved in every second of that. That is so cool. Versus imagine running out of visits, or the patient just stops coming, or something. These are the things that we don’t have to deal with as much in the pro world, so I think that’s good.

Mike Reinold:
So let me throw it back to maybe Brett and Brooks, because you guys have a little bit more experience with this. Let’s flip it a little bit and say, what surprised you most about isn’t so amazing about working with pro athletes? What are the things that you think are some of the negatives, that maybe you didn’t consider before you got into this position? Maybe Brett, you start with some of those, because you probably have some of the bigger headaches than all of us combined.

Brett Walker:
I think, when someone’s paying you to come to therapy, that has a big impact on how they feel about what you’re doing, and their willingness to do it say at home or something like that. Just thinking about when I was practicing, these people are paying, with insurance or whatever, a lot of money to come see me, and so they are very invested in what they’re doing. When it comes to professional athletes, it’s not to that they aren’t invested, because they are fully invested, but they’re getting information from everywhere. And sometimes because I work for a team or something like that, if they’re paying somebody to do the same thing that I am or to do something similar, of course that’s a challenge.

Brett Walker:
And the other thing that really gave me some realization, the big one I would say, is when you talk about the looking at research and experience, that third factor that you really have to allow, is your patient goals, and with these athletes, they have things that they have experienced in the past. Because they’ve had a lot of treatment normally, whether that be college, high school, because they were elite. They have expectations, and sometimes you have to meet those expectations and then adjust from there. Make adjustments, maybe not when you want to but when you can, and they are willing to accept those adjustments, if that makes sense. I’m reaching there.

Mike Reinold:
No, that’s good. It was deep, but that was great. I don’t think people consider stuff like that enough. I think that’s a big component of what makes these athletes tick, is their expectations and where they are and yeah. I definitely see that. So Brooks, what about you, man? What are some of the things that surprised you that maybe aren’t so awesome? What would you tell that student that’s just dying to get into baseball or pro sports in general, but maybe doesn’t realize everything? What would you tell them?

Brooks Klein:
Yeah. I don’t know if I’d call it surprising, because I expected that when I was coming in, but it’s definitely a big time commitment. Coming here I’m working at least six days a week in season. If not, it might be a month straight before day off, and that’s generally probably more than Brett’s going to get there too, because they’re gone all season. So it’s a huge time commitment, and generally for me, I’m going to be here from, like Brett’s saying, you have your time where I’m probably going to come here early, try to work out a little bit. Get any extra work I have to do done, which is planning for players, planning for just overall maybe organization programs, stuff like that. And then Brett didn’t mention it, but as soon as he’s got a free second, usually we’re on a phone call once a week talking about if we have any big league rehabs down here. We’re catching up on those guys to make sure we’re on the same page, update their plan, go over their exercises.

Brooks Klein:
So there’s always something going on. It’s the off season now, and I’ve been here since early this morning. Again, working on off season programs, trying to talk to different professionals in the field about our shoulder program, our hamstring program, what over it may be, while we’re also working on presentations for Winter meetings and getting other stuff ready. And here we are with a podcast too, because it’s great to share this info with everybody. So there’re a lot of demands, a lot of things pulling you in different directions but I’d say, it’s still rewarding but it’s a big challenge too.

Mike Reinold:
Yeah. I love it. And Katie, Evan, I want to hear from you guys too. So far, what are some of the things that, let’s say surprised you in either direction? Something that you thought was really awesome, or maybe something you weren’t quite expecting that maybe is a con of the job. Yeah. You can go first, Katie, don’t be shy.

Katie Stone:
Okay. I think just like what Brooke said, I don’t think it was surprising to me having an athletic training background, but it is a lot of hours. So just finding that balance, like Brett said, with friends and family, and really making sure you take out time to call your mom or different things, because the hours are all over the place. So I think that, and for me a unique thing is, I’m the only woman that works at our facility. So I think that there are unique challenges that come with that, just being a woman in a male dominated field. Obviously I’ve got great coworkers, but there are just unique things. But it’s pretty cool, because there’s a pretty great group of women just all throughout baseball, that our Education Coordinator has connected me with. So I’ve gotten to connect with women from different organizations and stuff. So that’s been really interesting just hearing their stories, and people that have been in the game for a few years or so.

Mike Reinold:
Yeah. That’s awesome to hear. I’m glad you connected with that, because like you said, it’s a different environment. So having a group of people that you can connect with, share experiences, learn from each other is awesome. And then Evan, we’ll throw it to you, maybe to hear your last words before we start wrapping up this episode. But what do you think?

Evan Jurjevic:
Yeah, I think just from a rehab standpoint working with a guy, and then later in the evening they’re going to play a game, once they’re able to return to play, and watching them actually perform in a game, again, is a pretty cool thing overall. Along with guys that are doing shoulder program, all the pitchers coming in to do shoulder programs. They do pre-throw stretch and being able to see them perform on the field later in the day, I think that’s pretty cool.

Mike Reinold:
Yeah. That’s a good point too. That’s something that most physical therapists don’t get to do. Your job doesn’t entail rehabbing them and then also watching them compete, which is a pretty neat thing to do. So I like it. I think I’ll just share maybe from my perspective a little bit. Brett started to hit on this a little bit here too, but working with pro athletes in the private sector, versus for working for a team, I think, is a lot different too. And I’ve been fortunate to do both, and even do both at the same time somehow. So it’s cool to see that, but it amazes me where I wear two hats. Where literally on a Wednesday, I can be at Champion. I can be there and people are coming there to see me for my opinion.

Mike Reinold:
They sought me out to hear from me what I think about something. Then I get on a plane, I fly to Chicago, and now all of a sudden there the people, they’ll listen to your opinion and they’re like, “You know what? I’m going to check with my agent and get back to you, because I have some medical people back home I want to run that by.” And it’s different. It’s a different experience. Where when you’re working within the private sector, everybody there wants to be there. And it’s funny, it’s a Bell Curve and I don’t know the exact percentages. I don’t know if this is accurate, but 20% of the people want to be there in pro baseball.

Mike Reinold:
They want to work their tail off in the gym. They’ll do anything you say in the training room to get ready for the games, or when they’re rehab it’s great. 20% of the people will just be non-compliant, don’t want to be there. Just don’t want to be there. They just got lucky that they were good at this sport, and didn’t have to work hard to get to this point. They got lucky. And then everybody else is in the middle. You have to try to like win them over, and get good relationships and good days, bad days. But in the private sector, everybody just comes to see you. So you have these rose colored glasses, where you think everything’s always perfect. But when you work day-to-day with the team it’s different.

Mike Reinold:
One of the big things I got out of this talk just listening to all you guys, is how collaborative, not only you are all together, but with so many different disciplines. And then outside of the health world, coaches, front office members, agents, all these different things that you have to work with and be accountable for. So sure you don’t have insurances, but you have Scott Boras. That might be worse. I think I might rather deal with Blue Cross. Sorry. I don’t think Scott listens to this podcast, so it should be pretty good, but it’s a different vibe, so awesome. Thanks so much, all you guys. We just literally spent the whole episode talking about how busy you guys are, so thanks so much for taking time to share your experiences.

Mike Reinold:
I think it’s super important, that somebody that’s interested in getting in pro sports gets to hear some of the pros and the cons. There’re tons of pros. That’s why we all do it. But there are some things that make it maybe not the perfect job for everybody. So hopefully you’ve learned a little bit from us. Hopefully this was a great experience. Thanks so much, Brett, Brooks, Katie, Evan. Really appreciate it. If you have any more questions like that, please head to mikereinold.com. Click on that podcast link, and you can fill out the form to ask us more questions. We’ll get to you in a future episode. Thank you so much. Have a good night.

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