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Society Members Show The Value of Sports Therapy in The Austrian Alps

A Sports Therapy degree from a Society of Sports Therapists’ accredited programme, together with membership of the Society, can open a number of doors for graduates. Our Members have the skills, knowledge and expertise needed to prevent, manage and rehabilitate injuries in a wide variety of arenas. Alex Haddow and Kirsty Hopgood, Society Members and graduates from the University of Chichester, are great examples of the places Sports Therapy can take you.

In 2012, Alex set up his own clinic, Alpine Sports Physio, based in St Anton in the picturesque Austrian Alps. Having previously played in the football league and represented England on the 5-a-side Futsal team, Alex found himself experiencing a number of injuries and underwent a series of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstructions, which is where his interest in rehabilitation and sports medicine began. This interest, combined with a new-found love of skiing, led Alex to find out more about, and then establish, his own practice in the mountains.

Kirsty, who is spending this season working in the Alps with the team at Alpine Sports Physio, took a different path to get to her current role. Like Alex, Kirsty studied for a degree in Sports Therapy at the University of Chichester, and went on to study for an MSc in Professional Practice at the University of Gloucestershire. Kirsty also lectured at Gloucestershire, sharing her own skills and knowledge with her students. Her Sports Therapy experience goes much further than this, too, having spent time working with elite athletes in a number of sports, such as the England Netball team, the GB Ice Hockey team, the England Hockey team, and the Malawi Olympic Squad. Now, Kirsty is enjoying being a practising Sports Therapist and spending her time working in winter sports.

We spoke to Alex and Kirsty individually about their work and their time at Alpine Sports Physio.

Here is what they had to say:

Alex Haddow

As a Chichester graduate, what attracted you to starting a clinic in Austria? Are you a skier/snowboarder yourself?

It is quite simple really, I always dreamt of living in the mountains. But it was during my time working in private practice in England that I went on a few skiing holidays with friends and loved it. Throughout that time, I also developed the idea of my company and I started researching the available medical care in the resorts I visited. It quickly became quite clear that there was a space for Sports Therapy. So I started to believe that my profession could make my dream into reality.

How did you get started? Did you know the area beforehand?

I'll try to give you the short version... I researched a lot and I picked St Anton and Lech due to the accessibility. I was working and living full time near London so I picked somewhere that I could ‘commute' to at weekends and for short trips. I then contacted many companies and set up meetings with them. I bought a Land Rover, rented an apartment and bought all the essential therapy equipment (a couch). I interviewed and employed one therapist to help me and away we went.

Tell us a bit about your team at Alpine Sports Physio.

My team is a collection of the most fantastic, fun and unique therapists in the world! We have a team of 7 Sports Therapists and 2 Physiotherapists. We all have varying amounts of experience and different skill sets. We pride ourselves on attitude. I am a strong believer that you can learn skills, gain experience and collect knowledge, but it's more difficult to change your approach or attitude, so it is important that all of our staff have an open mind and a flexible attitude rather than a long CV. We do lots of in-house training and we run a paid internship programme, so we are all more than up to our very high standards when the season starts. Quite honestly, I couldn't be happier with the team this year - total superstars and great fun.

Can you tell us a little about the clinic and all the other services you offer? Do you have more than one base?

We are mostly offer a mobile service but we do have a number of permanent clinic rooms associated with the hotels and chalets that we work with. We also provide the therapists for the town’s wellness park. We offer Sports Therapy, Physiotherapy, Massage, Yoga, Pilates and performance training.

What benefits do Sports Therapists bring to a multi-disciplinary team like yours?

The Sports Therapists lead the charge in my team. The skill set and approach is perfect for the environment here. We see the sharp end of musculoskeletal injuries, with sportspeople who want to get fit as soon as possible. This is exactly what a Sports Therapist is designed to do.

What kind of injuries do you see on a daily basis? Do you tend to see a mix of athletes and recreational skiers?

We see such a large variety of injuries and individuals. We typically see knee ligament injuries and muscle tears, as well as shoulder dislocation, fractures, back injuries, whiplash and just about everything else!

Our patient base is so wide reaching. This season we have helped a teenager walk again after a traumatic head injury with daily treatment for 3 months. We have helped Andy Gohl, Austria's best freestyle and halfpipe skier, compete in the world championships. We also see skiers in their 80s and everyone in between. Every day is full of different people needing different help, so our therapists come out of the season with an unbelievable breadth of experience.

What is it like working in the mountains – what’s the best bit about living there? Does it present any challenges as a Sports Therapist that you have to overcome?

Life in the mountains in general is very different. Just getting around can be a challenge. The best thing about living here is the energy of the place. All the people are here to enjoy the mountains and an active fun life. The seasonal nature of the work is also great - 5 months of madness, then a relaxing summer.

As a therapist, like anywhere, it is sometimes difficult to educate the population on what it is we can do. However, if you are bold, confident and practise with purpose, skills are advertised organically and that is what has happened here.

What’s your favourite part of your job as a Sports Therapist?

I obviously love making a difference and being efficient with my treatment. It is a great feeling to receive genuine gratitude from someone who needs help, but now I really take pleasure from long term planning with my team and implementing a strategy to improve performance or enhance recovery. The results we see over the weeks or months are incredible.

What aspect of the job do you find most challenging?

Well, my job is so varied as I have to do all the accounting and admin for the business, so I would say this is the most challenging! From a therapy point of view, staying fresh and keeping on top of new ideas is a challenge, mostly due to me living in the middle of the Alps. I will be heading back to Chichester to hang out with those clever lecturers in the Autumn, so that should inject some fresh knowledge. It’s lucky that I have staff like Kirsty to ask questions too!

Do you have any advice for Sports Therapists looking to work in alpine sports?

I think the advice goes across the board with all sports... believe in what you do. Sports Therapy, if delivered well, can outperform any other therapy provision in winter sports. You must do your homework and have a good grasp of the mechanics of the sports involved.


Kirsty Hopgood

Before heading for the ski slopes, you were lecturing at the University of Gloucestershire, having studied there for an MSc in Professional Practice. What made you want to swap life as a lecturer for your role in the Alps?

As much as I enjoyed my lecturing role, I also love being a practising Sports Therapist. Fuelled by a love of the mountains and skiing, in 2016 I gained some work experience with Alpine Sports Physio over Christmas. This made me realise that I would really thrive as a Sports Therapist in the winter sport environment. I knew that I would always regret it if I didn't go.

Tell us a bit about the path you took to becoming a Sports Therapist at Alpine Sports Physio.

During my Professional Practice MSc at the University of Gloucestershire, I completed a CPD module that allowed me to explore my strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities. As a winter sport enthusiast working mainly in Ice Hockey, I began to realise that I still had a lot to learn. Having a love of the mountains and winter sport, I decided to investigate the Sports Therapy opportunities available in this field.

After some research, skype calls and emails, my work colleague Dani suggested I speak to Alex; having studied with him at the University of Chichester she was aware of his set up in Austria. Alex kindly allowed me to visit and gain some work experience for a few days in 2016. I left that trip knowing that I would want to go back, although at that point I was completing an MSc and had just started lecturing. Fast forward 2 years and I felt that I was in a place to apply for a role in Alex's team. Lucky for me, I successfully got through the interview process.

You have lots of experience working in elite sport - how do you think your degree and your further learning since graduating has helped you adapt to the challenges that different sports present?

Beyond a core knowledge base, the biggest thing that the degree, further learning and previous experience have given me is a network of practitioners and professionals to bounce ideas with. Every sport presents a multitude of unique challenges and it is really important to remember that you cannot always succeed or recognise these on your own. Communicating with other therapists, coaches, sports doctors, nutritionists, psychologists, strength and conditioning coaches etc. has helped me tackle new challenges successfully and led to the next opportunity. Alpine Sports Physio has been a classic example of this; I am surrounded by a fantastic team that I can and have learnt from, as well as having clinical conversations with practitioners back home in the UK.

What is an average working day like for you?

Due to the fact that most clients would like appointments in the evening, several working days can start with a ski and a coffee on the mountain, which is definitely the best perk of the job. I am ready for work just after lunch and then appointments in the evening can be exciting and variable. The nature of ski injuries means that every day is different. Some days are more sports massage, while other days will be all injury appointments. I have been lucky enough to deal with some injuries here that I have never dealt with in the UK, especially the acute nature of the injuries. Acute injury management is definitely a skill set I have improved on dramatically since working here.

What’s your favourite part of being a Sports Therapist in alpine sports?

Alpine sports enthusiasts want to be back on the slopes as soon as possible, so when they do have a traumatic injury they will often present to you within the first few days. As a sports therapist, it is a dream being able to deal with an injury within the first 24 hours. It means that you are able to give clients a gold standard care and can see improvements with every appointment.

What is the biggest challenge?

As much as it is not specific to Sports Therapy, moving to another country is probably the biggest challenge. At some point everyone will miss home, struggle with the language barrier, or get lost in a new location. It is fortunate that I am surrounded by such a fantastic team that can help when it is needed.

Do you have any advice for Sports Therapists looking to work in alpine sports?

Go and get some experience - the more people you can meet, even if it is just for a conversation, will give you an insight to the opportunities available. You are never too old to do work experience in an area that you find interesting; I had been graduated for 7 years when I decided to gain some work experience in the Alps.  Also, make sure that you are comfortable working as a team. In this particular environment, you spend a lot of time with each other. Living, working, skiing and socialising together means that you become very close. It is key that you are willing to work hard for each other and help each other, as and when needed.

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