Note: This is a lecture that I routinely give to students at the Texas School of Massage. I thought I would share it here for anyone that is interested….Dr. Perry
As a new professional in the healthcare field, its easy to get swept away on a new career path and forget about why you wanted to become a therapist in the first place. I have seen many therapists come and go in the massage-bodywork field, and I have learned a great deal from this experience. As a general rule, the therapists that have successful careers, share the following personal characteristics:
- They chose this profession because they want to help people and to be of service. They feel that this career will give their life new meaning, and are taking action to make this new life a reality.
- They are always learning. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are always learning new therapies or modalities, though most of them do continue their education after school. Rather, it means that they are always learning how to do what they do better. They have a hunger to improve.
- They are patient. They enjoy the path that they are on and are not overly concerned with arriving at their “destination”. By this I mean they are not obsessed with obtaining some particular status or recognition, and are comfortable with who they are right here and right now.
- They truly believe in their services and have no need to convince others of the value of their service. They let their work and experience speak for itself.
- They love what they do. They may not be rich, but they wake up each morning and look forward to working that day.
I am here for one reason, and that reason is to help those of you that desire to walk a career path that is similar to mine. I want to help you avoid some of the mistakes that I have made, and to support you in your efforts to become the best therapist that you can be. Below, I have listed a few specific suggestions that I believe will help you avoid common mistakes and assist you in building your personal practice. I am sure that some of these suggestions may have been taught to you previously, but I want you to understand that this material comes from my personal experience and not from a textbook.
1) Abandon your expectations
I think most new therapists enter the profession with what I call “expectation baggage”. I know when I finished Chiropractic college I certainly had some expectations as to what my new career was going to be like. Its a perfectly natural situation. You spent a great deal of time, money, and effort to get through school and all throughout the process you motivated yourself with dreams of a new career. Whether these dreams were about becoming rich, being your own boss, or helping people is irrelevant. Their purpose was to help get you through school and they served that purpose well. Now that you are finishing school I want to ask you to let these dreams go. I ask this because I know through my own experience, and the experience of many other therapists, that these dreams become expectations in the real world, and will do you more harm than good.
I’m not saying to abandon your goals, only to abandon those expectations of your future that you created before or during school. The reason is simple, like for every person that has ever lived on this planet, reality is never exactly how you expect it to be. I don’t want you to give up on your new career because its not what you expected it to be. I nearly did this myself. I had many expectations coming out of school and when my reality didn’t live up to my expectations it really crushed me. If I would of quit at that point, I would of missed out on the very rewarding career that I have now. Many of my classmates did quit, and now they have jobs very similar to the jobs that they left to start this “new career”. Needless to say that aren’t very happy about their situation.
Having said that, I want you to know that I am the last person who is going to discourage someone from seeking the career that they want. Just be prepared to work a few “less than ideal” jobs to support yourself in the beginning. Above all, I want to emphasize to you that the work you will do as a therapist is very valuable work. When you leave this school you may find yourself in a job that you never expected. Even if you don’t like the job, recognize the value of the service that you perform, and use the experience to grow as a therapist.
2) The Basics
Probably the one trait that I see most often in successful therapists is that they have a complete grasp of the basic sciences. In particular, they know their anatomy. I’m sure most students graduating from massage school these days have a good education in anatomy. But there is an important difference between being educated in anatomy and truly knowing anatomy. The difference results from being forced to learn something to pass a test, versus learning something of your own volition.
When I went to school we had a fantastic education in anatomy and physiology. We spent many hours working on cadavers and even more time in the library studying the anatomical textbooks. Both the lecture and practical testing were extremely difficult and thorough. But not long after my schooling ended, I realized that I hadn’t retained much from my anatomy education. It wasn’t until I began studying anatomy on my own time that I really started to understand it. It takes time to develop a good understanding of a subject, and time is usually very limited in school.
I can’t over-emphasize how important a strong understanding of anatomy is for a therapist. The human body is the most complex and amazing organism in all of nature. Just the fact that the human organism is capable of understanding the human organism is truly a miracle. Personally, my study of the human body continues to awe me with its wonderful design. I see this same awe and wonder in many successful therapists. So I suggest to you, now that the pressures and time constraints of school are gone, continue your study of the basic sciences. I am certain that any time that you dedicate to learning about the miracle that we call the human body, will enhance your abilities as a therapist tenfold.
3) Make the effort to care about your clients
As a massage therapist or bodyworker, you have an opportunity to offer a service that is in dire need in our modern age. That service is personalized healthcare. By its very nature, healthcare is a personal business. But our modern medical system is extremely impersonal in both its design and operation. This creates a real need for a healthcare service that recognizes people as individuals and not just a problem to be fixed. People don’t need their auto mechanic or banker to care about them, but they want and need their healthcare provider to care. As a therapist, if you make a genuine effort to get to know and to care about your clients, then you will take a giant leap towards establishing a successful practice.
To me, caring about your clients means one thing, giving them your full and complete attention. Approach each client with the objective to learn as much as you can from them. Concentrate on listening to the client. Ask questions and answer questions, but avoid speaking about yourself. As your client, this is their time. If you do this sincerely, you will be absolutely amazed what you will learn from your clients. Not only will doing this make you a better therapist, but it will improve your life in ways you cannot imagine.
4) Expand your services
Given the recent economic hardships by many people in this country, you might be worried that the massage business will suffer. And to be honest, if money is short, I think many people would probably skip a massage session to save money for more important needs. This is why I believe its more important than ever to expand your services beyond the stress-relief type of skills taught here at the school. My experience has taught me that physical pain is a very real and very persistent motivator. If your services offer people an effective solution for their physical pain, then people will always require your services, whether times are good or bad.
Beyond the fact that it makes good business sense to offer pain-oriented services, there are a few other facts that support that conclusion as well. First, besides offering pain killers or surgery, the medical establishment has no effective treatment for the most common pain complaints. Unfortunately, this leads many people to the conclusion that there are no effective treatments for their physical pain. Of course, there are many effective therapies and treatments for physical pain disorders, but doctors are not taught them in medical school. I will spare you the speculation as to why this is and simply state that there is tremendous opportunity for massage therapists to fill this void in the healthcare system.
Whether you expand your services with pain-oriented skills or some other modality, you should strive to offer a service that your clients will truly value. This means that they should feel a real, tangible result of their session with you. I see many therapists spending a lot of time and energy trying to convince clients of the value of a particular bodywork modality. In my opinion this is completely the wrong approach. Clients don’t want to be sold something, they want to be able to feel the results of your work. My experience has shown me that those therapists that spend more time on developing their services and less time on being a salesperson, are more successful in the long term.
5) Invest in yourself
Many of you will begin your careers working for someone else. For some of you this situation is ideal because you want to concentrate of being a therapist and are happy to have someone else worry about the business aspects of practice. Others of you won’t be truly happy until your in business for yourself. If that is your case, I suggest the following investments to make:
- Develop your skills as a therapist. Seek out those therapists that are successful and learn from them. Continue your education. Research those modalities that you feel would benefit you the most and take classes in them. Develop a library of instructional books and DVDs. Most importantly, work on someone everyday.
- As soon as you can, establish some means of seeing clients outside of your job. This may entail taking your table to client’s homes, or it may mean that you rent space from someone and see clients there. Whatever you choose, try to see a few clients a week outside of your job.
- Keep records of your personal clients. Be sure to get their address and birthdate in your records. Use this information to maintain contact with your clients, such as sending them birthday or holiday cards. You may even include coupons in these cards.
- Establish a website. Websites are great ways to indirectly market your services. The site doesn’t have to fancy, but it should have a professional feel to it. This is something you can learn to do in a few weeks time. Or you can pay someone to create it and maintain it for you. Advertise your website on your business cards, telephone book listings, and flyers, etc. Submit your information to the local business directories of Google and Yahoo.
- Start saving money for the day when you go into business for yourself full-time. Believe me, you will need every penny to get you through the slow periods. I know that it is difficult to save money, but if you establish the personal habits that will allow you to save some money now, these habits will help you survive the early years of a practice.
- In general, do something everyday to prepare for your own practice. This could be learning a new skill (such as building websites), going out of your way for a new client, or just meeting new people and establishing new friendships. Everyday, try to sacrifice some part of your “now” for your future.
I think its important to develop some specialized skills and market those skills. How do you know what to specialize in? I think the answer to that question has two components. First, research those areas that you have a personal interest in. Perhaps your active in sports, so maybe you might want to learn more about sports massage. Or maybe you really enjoy the spa setting, so you would want to learn more about common spa modalities. Or perhaps you or a loved one have a history of headaches. In that case you might want to learn more about pain-oriented modalities.
The second component to that question involves analyzing your market for unaddressed needs. Ask your clients what they need in a therapist. Make an effort to notice the common complaints of your client’s. Maybe you notice a lot of your clients complain about neck stiffness or low back pain. Or maybe your clients frequently tell you that they are stressed out. In general, just listen to your clients, they will open new doors for your practice.
Now, simply look for areas where your personal interests and the needs of your clients overlap, and specialize in these areas. Be willing to put in the extra effort to develop your specialty. This might mean becoming an apprentice to someone in your desired field, or it might mean being creative and developing your speciality through trial and error.
As you gain profienency in your specialty, your client base will naturally expand as word of mouth about your specialty spreads. However, be sure to remain well-rounded with your services. Being well rounded maximizes your potential market, and more importantly, gives you some variety in your daily practice.
Probably the one factor that prevents most therapists from fully developing into their potential is a prematurely ended career. I can’t count how many really good therapists that I know, that no longer practice because they burned themselves out. Bodywork is physically and mentally exhausting work. In order to survive long enough to truly succeed in this business, a therapist must learn to work in a manner that protects the longevity of their career. Personally, I have found the following factors helpful in this regard:
- Streamline: Learn to make your routine more efficient. Identify which techniques and skills actually benefit your client, and which ones don’t. Eliminate the inefficient techniques from your routine. Many therapists believe that they must offer their clients a massage for a given period of time (i.e. a one-hour massage). Because of this, they “fill” their alloted time doing worthless techniques. I suggest that with your own clients, you offer a full-body massage rather than a one-hour massage. This will allow you to work whole-heartedly on each client, and to concentrate on them instead of the clock.
- Specific Technique: Seek to learn and utilize the most efficient techniques in your practice. This is the one area that I think most therapists can improve upon. Most clients seek out massage because they have muscle tension that they can’t seem to get rid of. Clients instinctively learn that muscle tension leads to pain, and they seek a massage to relax their muscles and prevent the pain from occurring. Most therapists attempt to relieve their client’s muscle tension with general massage techniques applied to the muscle group as a whole. While this may feel good to the client, it actually does nothing to address the cause of the muscular tension, and it can even make it worse. Typical muscular tension is the result of only a few fibers of that muscle undergoing a sustained contraction. The muscle becomes stiff or spams in an effort to protect these contracted fibers. A much more effective and efficient approach for the therapist would be to seek out these contracted fibers and to focus their technique on trying to release these fibers only. The rest of the muscle will relax if these fibers relax, and therefore the muscle as a whole, needs no significant attention from the therapist. So by working very specifically, a therapist can become much more efficient at creating the desired result for their clients, and save themselves from a lot of wear and tear in the process.
- Don’t Take It Personal: As a therapist, you have to deal with clients that are tense and in pain nearly everyday in your practice. Muscle tension and negative emotional states go hand-in-hand. As a therapist releases a client’s muscular tension, there will typically be a concurrent release of negative energy from the client as well. This negative energy may take the form of anger, sadness, or fear in your client. Your client might complain about everything to you, or they might become unresponsive. Its important to recognize that what they say or don’t say during this process is a natural consequence of the situation, and you must avoid taking it personally. Good therapists develop a “thick skin” over time, and this quality helps them in both their practice and personal life. Typically by the end of a session, a client will feel much better and leave your office with a smile on their face. If possible, you should try to give yourself 10 to 15 minutes between clients to “clear the air” in your office and restore your focus.
- Get A Life: By all means possible, have a life outside of your business. When you begin to start working for yourself, its easy to let your business engulf your life. Your entire self-image can become too focused on your business, and your own self-worth becomes a slave to the ups and downs of the business cycle. Because bodywork is a very personalized form of healthcare, your personal stability is a very important factor in your ability to help clients. You must have areas of your life, outside of your practice, that provide you with this personal stability. I have found regular trips into nature to be very restorative for me personally. Whatever it is that helps you “get out of your head”, be sure to do it on a regular basis. I think you will find that this is critical to a long and happy career as a therapist.
Developing a practice can be very frustrating. Although technically you are your own boss, you quickly realize that the real boss will always be your clients. Some days you will feel on top of the world, and some days you will feel like the world is on top of you. Do your best to keep taking a step towards your goal, no matter how you presently feel about your situation. Be patient with your progress and don’t give up. The reward of your own practice is worth all your efforts.