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Spotlight On: Society Member Gareth Thomas

The education and training provided by universities and colleges accredited by The Society of Sports Therapists equips Graduate Sports Therapists with the knowledge, skills, expertise and versatility to allow them to fulfil a wide range of therapy roles. Graduate Sports Therapist Gareth Thomas is a perfect example of this, with his current work ranging from a Sports Therapy role in Occupational Health, to First Team Sports Therapist at a football club, to treating patients in his own private clinic.

After graduating from Edge Hill University in 2009, Gareth started his career as a Graduate Sports Therapist by moving from his home in South Wales to the North West of England and beginning work in a clinic setting with his former lecturer Andy Jones. Gareth spent time observing, asking questions and learning plenty from his time at the clinic, while also providing sessional sports massage for St Helens Rugby League team, as well as pitch side first aid for Morecambe FC’s youth team at the weekends.

A few months later, a job opportunity arose to work in Occupational Health with IPRS Health. Unfortunately for Gareth, the job was back in South Wales. Clearly resilient and up for a challenge, Gareth took the job and also decided to open his own Sports Therapy clinic in the area. Amazingly, he still managed to continue some of his work in the North West as well, commuting back and forth.

Gareth finally made the decision to move back to the North West, working two days per week in his Occupational Health role, balancing this with the responsibilities of being First Team Sports Therapist at Morecambe FC, as well as dedicating time to his private clinic, Scholars Therapies, in Chorley. Gareth also finds time in his busy schedule to Chair the Society's Universities and Colleges Liaison Group.

We talked to Gareth to find out a bit more about his journey so far. Here’s what he said:

Why did you choose Sports Therapy as a career?

I used to play rugby when I was younger. As a Welshman from South Wales, you would have been lynched if you didn’t play rugby! It was through playing rugby I picked up several injuries, some more serious than others, that ranged from a fractured C3 to recurrent patella dislocations. It was during these injuries I started to realise that I would like to be the one helping others to get back to doing what they love, instead of being the one going through all the pain of playing.

I feel this experience of sport, along with such a variety of injuries has, in a bizarre way, enhanced my skills as a therapist as I have first-hand experience of how injured athletes feel and have genuine empathy with their plight.

When I first started working at Morecambe I remember one of the assistant coaches, a no-nonsense policeman who coached at the weekends and evenings, said to me that I was their best signing this season. I will be honest, I was a little perplexed as I had only recently graduated. I was under no illusion that I was the best in the business, so I was intrigued as to why he thought this. He simply replied: ‘I can tell that you have always been around sport and teams. You handle the players really well and are invested in the bigger picture and not just doing your own job in isolation.’

I wasn’t really aware that I had such a positive impact on the players, but I was very keen to ensure that I always offered this! To this day it is one of my favourite compliments as it came from someone I highly respect and it wasn’t forced, he didn’t have to say it but still took the time. I have always remembered this and tried to do the same by offering praise when people deserve it, especially if they don’t ask or go hunting for it.

What made you want to work in the private sector (IPRS Health), as well as in a clinic and with sports teams?

If I am being honest I didn’t want to work in Occupational Health. One of my Lecturers was doing some consultancy work for IPRS at the time and he gave me a nudge to take the job and try it, due to the more consistent pay compared to clinic and sessional work. After spending a week working onsite I was absolutely hooked!

I was fortunate enough that the clinic I run for IPRS had an isokinetic dynamometer (an instrument designed to measure muscle strength) and a Biodex balance system (a tool to help improve patients’ balance, agility and muscle tone). These pieces of equipment I thought were only available in the elite sport arena! I soon began to realise the parallels between sport and Occupational Health and realised how well equipped I was as a Graduate Sports Therapist to deal with the role and thrive in that environment.

In Occupational Health you are charged with trying to rehabilitate an employee back to a level of function required to perform their role. That is exactly the same as your role as a Sports Therapist working in sport. You need to understand the demands of the environment that the individual needs to return to, and then adequately prepare them for that environment by being sure they are physically and mentally capable to handle the load.

What benefits do you think Sports Therapy brings to the workplace?

I feel the biggest attribute that Sports Therapy and Graduate Sports Therapists bring to the workplace is our background in rehabilitation and injury prevention. There has been a lot of work done to highlight the cost of absence from work, and the injury prevention strategies not only reduce injuries to people but also the cost of absence for a business. I feel our rehabilitation skills also allow us to take an individual from initial acute injury right through to returning to full function and work.

What does an average work day look like for you?

My average work days are very different, so I think it would be easier to talk you through a typical week for me. 

Monday: IPRS Day, 7am-7:30pm

This usually consists of workplace assessments all over the North of England and Scotland, then travelling back home to complete reports from the day.

Tuesday: Morecombe FC day

I tend to arrive at 08:45am. The first part of the day is spent assessing injured players and preparing the fit players for training with strappings, massage, manual therapy etc and I take the injured players for their gym-based rehabilitation. This season has been quite challenging as we have had more long term injuries this year than previous years.

The injured players then have an afternoon session. This is typically a conditioning based session that is specific to their rehabilitation timeline and return to play schedule. I will then head to my clinic for around 4:30pm, where I will be based until around 9-10pm.

Wednesday: IPRS Day, 7am-7:30pm

Similar to Monday, it all depends on what work has been booked in. I also deliver isokinetic clinical training for IPRS, which tends to be once a month on average. 

Thursday: Morecombe FC day

Thursday mirrors Tuesday, including my evening clinic after being at the football club.

Friday: Game Day Preparation

Friday tends to be a shorter day as the players prepare for the Saturday fixture. If we are playing at home the following day I will go to my clinic in the afternoon until around 8pm.

If we are playing away and travelling more than 3 hours, we tend to travel half way to our destination and train on route. This means setting up a portable medical base to prepare the players for training, providing first aid/pitch related conditioning for non-involved or injured players, then pack up base ready to leave for our hotel.

We tend to arrive at our team hotel between 5-7pm where I would then begin the players’ massage treatments and manual therapy treatments, sometimes until 11pm depending on the duration of the journey.

Saturday: GAME DAY!

Our biggest day of the week. If we are home I will tend to get to the ground around 10am, where I prepare the emergency action plan and check all the equipment is present and in full working order. Injured players arrive for treatment and rehabilitation around 12pm and the match day squad arrives at 1pm for their pre-game massage, strapping and manual therapy treatments.

I manage the off the pitch aspects of the emergency action plan. This commences with a medical meeting 30 minutes prior to kick off with all relevant parties, including opposition medical staff, club doctor, crowd doctor, paramedics, St John’s Ambulance staff, stewards and safety officers.

Following the game, we tend to stay around for 1-2 hours depending on the casualty list and begin preparation for the following week.

Sunday: FAMILY DAY!

What kind of patients/injuries do you see on a day-to-day basis?

I tend to see a lot of athletes and footballers in the clinic. I would say 80% of my patients are athletes, runners or triathletes, mixed in with occasional non-sports person with lower back or neck pain. In my clinic I tend to focus on the athlete and sport side, whilst my business partner focuses on the medico-legal work. These athletes and sports people tend to have typical sporting injuries, from ACL injuries, sprained ankles, rotator cuff tears of the shoulder, hamstring tears etc.

Our clinic is based within a large leisure facility so we have access to great facilities, including a state-of-the-art gym fitted with Watt Bikes. We also have two swimming pools, one large and one smaller pool, which are perfect for hydrotherapy.

What’s your favourite part of the job? Is it rewarding?

Without a doubt my favourite part of my job is dealing and interacting with people. I feel honoured and humbled that I can help people get back to, or keep doing, something that they love! It is the most rewarding thing in the world to help others and I genuinely get a great sense of satisfaction and happiness from it. 

What’s the most challenging part of your role?

The most challenging aspect of my role is trying to fit everything in, as well as spending time with my beautiful wife, my amazing, funny and gorgeous baby boy, not to mention my very patient family and friends!

Do you get much time to relax? What do you like to do in your down time?

I only really have Sundays during the season to relax. I take my little boy, Jack, out for a few hours in the morning to give my wife a bit of peace and quiet, although I have been known to take him through to the clinic to drop off some towels and pick up some used ones! Then we all go out for the afternoon as a family.

We are lucky in the North West of England as there are lots of places to visit for family days out. During the off season we tend to try and fit in as many holidays as possible into the six-week period. We go to my wife’s mum and dad’s villa out in Spain for a week, a two week break somewhere hot (but not too hot since we’ve had Jack!) and we also fit in a week down in South Wales with my family (my mum would disown me if I didn’t bring her grandson down during the off-season).

I say every year that on the days where I usually would be at the football club in the summer I am going to play golf on those days instead. The problem is I can’t really say no and just end up spending most of the day in clinic!

Do you have any career advice for Student Sports Therapists or those who have recently graduated?

My advice for students and recently graduated Sports Therapists would be to gain as much experience as possible in a variety of settings. Not only does this give you a good baseline knowledge but you will be amazed at where the opportunities can take you. When I started, I chose to do a lot of voluntary work; this gave me valuable experience which I wouldn’t have gained without initially being willing to volunteer my time.

People who know me will think this is a little ironic (as I apparently talk a lot?!), but I feel it’s so important to listen to those with great knowledge and experience and then ask relevant questions. Working in football, I have had the opportunity to meet some of the best surgeons in the country, and when I take players to see these surgeons it’s truly an educational experience and I feel really fortunate that I have the opportunity to work with such exceptional professionals, especially after watching them operate.

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