Improve Your Physical Therapy Career Happiness with Mentorship 

One of the worst feelings you can experience as a Physical Therapist is when a patient of yours walks in and says, “I think I’m getting worse. My back is killing me”.

This moment is particularly uncomfortable when you don’t have any possible advice, exercises, or solutions to offer on how to help them.

On the contrary, one of the best feelings you can experience is when a patient walks in and says, “It’s getting a lot better! My back feels great”.

The mixture of happiness that comes from feeling like you helped someone, tied to the sense of confidence and hard work, is what most clinicians are seeking out of their careers. 

I have been on both sides of this equation.

As a new graduate, having just slogged through 7 years of Physical Therapy school, I vividly remember some very uncomfortable moments. From being completely stumped on what was causing someone’s pain on an evaluation, to someone saying their shoulder was really flared up after a visit, to feeling intimidated working with a patient in a ton of pain after surgery.

Now, as a clinician 10 years into my career, I can safely say I love my day-to-day job. While I still have a ton to learn, I generally know how to help most people who walk in the door. I also have a huge library of treatment options to try with people, and I am completely comfortable working with someone the week after surgery when they are really struggling.

When other clinicians or Physical Therapy students ask me how I got to the point of loving my job, I tell them one thing: find a good mentor.

In this blog post, I want to share my 5 best pieces of advice on physical therapy mentorship in hopes that it can help other people achieve greater success in their careers.

Make Sacrifices for Great Mentorship

This is one of the hardest things, so I wanted to be honest and say it upfront. If you want to learn from some of our professionals’ best people, you will likely have to make some sacrifices.

It might be money, such as a job with great mentorship but slightly lower pay. Or it might be time, such as going in early, staying late, or traveling on weekends to get the mentorship you are looking for. Lastly, it might be having to relocate and live somewhere that isn’t ideal for you to be closer to a valued mentor.  

If I could do it again, I would spend more time researching my first job and happily take less pay, move, or donate my time to get high-level mentorship.

Absorb Skills From Many Mentors

While I’m a massive fan of immersing yourself in how one person (or one clinic) thinks, I think there is an incredible amount of benefit to be gained in tapping into a range of thought processes.

Early in my career, I saw many people for lower back pain. Not surprisingly, there were about 7 different schools of thought on how to treat back pain, along with 700 exercises and treatment techniques people recommended.

Rather than follow one person or school of thought dogmatically, I intentionally tried to pick the brains of everyone. I talked with different mentors like Erson Religioso, Stuart McGill, Paul Hodges, and more via online interaction or courses. I wanted to get a variety of perspectives and theories from each ‘mentor’ and then also have a large library of perspectives and options to use.

It turned out to be the right choice, as throughout the years, I had to tailor education and treatment all the way from 50-year-old adults with nonspecific back pain to 15-year-old gymnasts with lumbar stress fractures.

Make Your Own Systems

Building on the point above, I would not recommend you take one mentor’s advice as gospel. Their experiences are much different than yours, and the patients you see will be best served with a range of approaches. Not to mention, if you are a new graduate, there are likely many concepts you have picked up fresh from education that can be blended into more ‘classical’ research.  

I feel that creating your own system based on all the mentors of mentorship experiences you have had is best.

For one, it forces you to really understand and digest the information, not just copy what you learned without true thought. Second, it allows you to blend the best of everyone’s thoughts and gives you a range of approaches to try.

Sometimes, I evaluate a patient with back pain who is highly sensitive and fearful of MRI findings, and I lean more into pain science. Other times, I have someone who is a high-level athlete and loves discussing anatomy and kinematics. For those people, I lean more into the biomechanical model for buy-in. Due to me trying to learn from a range of people, I have this backdrop to use in the clinic.

Use The “Ask, Learn, Try” Loop

An error I see in mentorship is someone only going into “sponge” mode to listen and learn. While that is helpful at times, soaking up information without using it makes it hard to solidify a skillset. You can only retain so much verbal or written information.

Instead, I recommend that people have a shorter loop between asking questions, learning about those topics, and then trying things that tie them together clinically.

Say you were curious about manual therapy for acute back pain. You would first ask a mentor about what manual therapy techniques are useful. Then, you could either watch them do those techniques or spend some time in courses or digging through the research to understand their mechanisms and best usage. Lastly, you would practice either on a nonpainful person or try to co-treat with your mentor. This is a fantastic way to get the most out of mentorship.

Plan Non-Clinic Mentorship Time

Some of the most valuable and impactful time you can spend with a mentor is not in a formal, structured setting. Of course, being able to be ‘in the trenches’ for the clinic skills, patient care, and practice is enormously helpful.

But that’s not practical for many.

But there is so much more to great mentorship that is a bit abstract and grey. Things related to time management, career advice, personal development, and more. Some of the best things I have picked up from mentors like Mike Reinold and Lenny Macrina came from casual conversations over coffee or not in the day-to-day grind.

If you can get coffee every once in a while without a structured agenda, I highly recommend it. I have a bi-annual coffee get-together with Mike, and it is always great to pick his brain on life and business advice unrelated to treatment.

Want To Learn More?

If this resonates with you and you want to gain some great mentorship, be sure to check out our Champion Sports Physical Therapy Mentorship with Mike Reinold, Dan Pope, and myself.

We know not everyone has access to great mentorship, so we created a 12-week mentorship program that we wish we had when we were younger physical therapists.

In it, you can learn exactly how we evaluate, treat, and manage various sports-related injuries in the clinic every day.

The first cohort starts Monday, June 10th, so be sure to sign up this week before we close the doors!


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