Treat Yourself:

Helping Athletes Understand The Importance of Self Directed Maintenance

Robert Wilson, Clinical Soft Tissue Specialist, ClinicalAthlete


Performance and injury prevention are parallel tracks.  Convincing athletes to become active participants in the maintenance of their own bodies can be a real challenge.

The key is framing it from a performance-based paradigm.


If a clinician sees an athlete 1 hour per week for an entire year there are still 167 hours per week to reverse any changes made during a session. It seems reasonable then that the best course of action for the bulk of the time you spend with an athlete to be about education and behavior modification.


When treating athletes in a clinical practice, the easiest part is identifying movement problems and using various means and methods by which to correct them.  I know coaches and practitioners love to discuss and debate ad nauseam the most effective tools to correct biomechanical problems in athletes.  This is all moot however, unless we can convince and inspire athletes to change behaviors that will help them to prevent and recover from injury in the future and promote optimal training adaptation.  The best clinician in the world cannot compete with the daily behaviors of athletes both that of the seemingly mundane and those directly related to sport and fitness activities.  The best recourse then is to educate athletes on how to maintain and care for their own frame on a daily basis.

Know Your Audience

It has to be about performance FIRST. 

Athletes DO NOT care that their pelvis is asymmetrical (unless you show them how it effects their squat numbers).  They might not even care about being pain free either.  If they did, they probably wouldn’t be athletes.  The act of training for a sport alone is uncomfortable less competing in a sport.  Athletes learn to shut pain signals down and get after it.  Unless it makes them bigger, faster, stronger, more agile, it’s not useful for them.  There must be a connection between the practice and the result in the sport.  Educating athletes about the why behind the protocols given can serve as a powerful motivational tool and can ultimately help athletes become autonomous freestylers when it comes to learning about how to keep their machines healthy.

It can be helpful to use techniques in session that have a direct proprioceptive connection to the homework that will be given.  For example, if I’m using a soft tissue technique on the athlete during a treatment session I’ll let them know that they should feel that slow burn when they treat themselves as well.  This can also hold true for practitioners and coaches using a variety of techniques to improve movement patterns.

 Apex of the Problem

As a clinician it is up to us to observe the athlete’s movement patterns and correct deficiencies through cuing, assistance work, manual therapy, corrective exercises and the like.  This is where education and expertise are useful.  We can pinpoint the root of performance problems and prescribe specific solutions.  Additionally, it is incumbent upon the professional to communicate with the athlete about what we are seeing and feeling when we work with them.  This helps facilitate a deeper comprehension of the origin of the problem and can segue into helping the athlete understand the reason for corrections they are given.

The K.I.S.S. Principle

Keep. It. Super. Simple. 

Where can your athlete deliver the most impact and feel an immediate change? Giving athletes homework that will show some change in performance initially is a sure fire way to keep them interested in continuing behaviors that can positively shape their health and performance in the long term.

Don’t over prescribe.

For most athletes 2-3 exercises are enough.  Of course their are exceptions to this rule.  For example when we are in the middle of a complete rehab scenario and the individual in question is on hiatus from their activity/sport.  The idea here is to help them develop a quiver of tools they can go to when trouble begins to arise.  Not only does this put your athlete in the driver seat, it better equips coaching and therapy staff to delegate resources towards athletes who are in need of more immediate attention.

How much time does it require? 

Give a realistic amount of homework that doesn’t rob the person of too much time.  Time is the most precious commodity we have and people are stingy with it.  Giving an overwhelming amount of homework can be frustrating and will most likely never get done at all. Creating another stressor on top of an injury or performance limiter for an athlete is counterproductive and ultimately a waste of time.  For most folks 10 minutes a day is a great start and also an absolute minimum amount of time to make a positive change.  Once you can show your athlete the value of the practice it gets easier to ask for them to devote more of their time and energy to this type of work.  Again this can vary from person to person and some athletes are disciplined and can handle more homework right away and some not so much.  This is a matter of being able to decipher the personality of the athlete in question and making a decision of how much to assign.  It’s generally better to err on the side of a little less than a little more.

Create Realistic Expectations 

Rates of change in athletes with injuries are multifactorial and can be hard to predict.  One thing that is for sure is that if they discontinue potentially injurious behaviors and are diligent with self-care, their likelihood of rapid success is much higher.  Although we do know “healing rates” for structures in the human body, being ready to perform at a comparable pre-injury performance is much more nebulous and is best left to conservative predictions.  If you set a false expectation and don’t come through it’s easy to drive the individual towards non-compliance and sometimes right before a potential tipping point in their progress.

In summary, put yourself in the athlete’s shoes.  Because being an athlete is a deep part of a person’s identity and taking away the ability to perform can be very challenging for athletes both physically and psychologically.  Thoughtfully integrating self-treatment protocols into athletes’ training regimes is a very effective way to deal with current problems and to prevent future ones.  It effectively deepens their own performance perspective and puts them in the driver seat.  Education is the key to making the 167 hours the athlete is not your care conducive to optimizing performance.  Make it about performance, keep it super simple, be precise and time effective and watch athletes flourish.

About The Author:

Rob Wilson, CMT practices out of Performance Therapeutics in Virginia Beach, VA.

“My treatment philosophy is centered around athlete education and personal responsibility. Although, manual therapy is a very effective means of accelerating and guiding healing processes it cannot compete with athlete behavior. I try to develop a relationship with the athlete that allows them to understand the root of dysfunction and to change their mindset and behavior from reactionary to proactive. ” – Rob Wilson, CMT 

To learn more about Rob and his practice, check out his ClinicalAthlete Profile HERE, and follow he and his team on INSTAGRAM, TWITTER, and FACEBOOK.