What is sports massage and how is it different from the type of massage therapy that most people are familiar with? Can someone who isn’t a professional athlete benefit from a sports massage? How does a massage therapist become a sports massage specialist?

To answer those questions, we spoke with three registered massage therapists (RMTs), all of whom teach at Vicars School of Massage Therapy, and who have made sports massage an important part of their practice.

Tonia Vipler teaches at our Calgary campus. She has always been interested in body mechanics and athletic recovery—she’s a life-long athlete and trained as a kinesiologist before becoming an RMT—so incorporating sports massage into her practice was a natural fit. She has noticed that the general public (and even some athletes) are often uncertain of just what sports massage. So she explains it to her clients as a massage treatment that is specifically focused on the muscles and muscle areas that are most commonly used by athletes in their sport.

Earlier in her massage career, Tonia worked both as a massage therapist and personal trainer, with clients overlapping between the two disciplines. That’s when her work in sports massage started. Nowadays, her practice is with ‘everyday athletes,’ such as people who are training for a marathon, Iron Man, or cycling trip.

A big part of Tonia’s practice is educating clients about their bodies, and why it’s important to incorporate massage into their training schedule. Rather than coming to her for the first time when they are injured, Tonia wants to make people aware that massage is a tool that can be incorporated into their athletic schedule from the start, in the same way they would optimize their diet and sleep to maximize performance and prevent injury.

“I like to remind people who aren’t professional athletes that sports massage could be part of their journey to prevent any injuries,” she says. She also offers mobile massage and finds her clientele is shifting to include more families with younger athletes. “Right now, I work with younger kids, teaching them that massage is a really good tool for their athletic journey throughout their lives.”

Tonia describes the techniques used in sports massage as the same techniques that students learn at Vicars School of Massage Therapy. The key is how, and when, techniques are used. Sports massage often requires more dynamic movement in the massage than a relaxation massage, using more vigorous muscle stripping, stretching, and myofascial techniques.

Edmonton instructor Kerri Wagensveld agrees.

“The techniques I use are not specific to sports massage,” she says. “For example, compressions, which I use as an opening technique to help relax my client and prepare their muscles for deeper work, is a very foundational technique that we teach our first-year students.”

Kerri has always been interested in sports massage. After she graduated from Vicars, she was mentored by sports massage specialist Kip Petch at St. Albert’s Active Life Centre. She still works there, as well as at Active Physioworks Magrath in South Edmonton, where her clientele includes many types of athletes, among them ultramarathoners like herself. She is a member of the Canadian Sports Massage Therapist Association (CSMTA), a nationally recognized organization that offers courses and conferences for ongoing learning in the specialty. Joining the CSMTA requires RMT certification, a Standard First Aid certificate with CPR, completion of the CSMTA Advanced Sport Massage Course, among other requirements. Members of CSMTA are often selected to be part of the core medical team serving athletes at major sporting events such as the Olympics.

For Kerri, a huge part of practicing sports massage is understanding that it’s not only about the needs of the physical body.

“It’s knowing how to respond to an athlete to help them prepare mentally and being part of their team in preparation for their performance,” she says.

While most Kerri’s practice is in the clinic, she loves being out in the sports field whenever she can. But that’s not for everyone: “At a sporting event, you’re constantly dealing with dirt and sweat, depending on the sport you’re working with,” she says. “It can be a messy, stinky situation so you have to be OK working with that and being prepared to do a lot of cleaning of both you, your environment, and your equipment.”

At Vicars, we try to introduce our students to as many different facets of the massage therapy profession. That includes organizing outreach opportunities at sporting events.

Instructor Marci Terpsma has been the main organizer of our Edmonton outreach program for many years.

“We take the students off campus to 10K and 5K runs and ultramarathons to expose them to different aspects of our job,” she says. “When they’re on the field they have to think critically and quickly and take what they learned in class and put that knowledge into practice in the moment.”

That quick decision-making is more important, in Marci’s experience, than the potential physical mismatch between an RMT and an athlete. “You can be the tiniest of therapists dealing with the strongest of men and it’s all about the RMT assessing what needs to be done and just doing it,” she says. Sports massage often concentrates on a target muscle group. “If it’s a softball player, I’m more focused on shoulders and arms and if it’s a hockey player, then the legs,” she says. “And if it’s a pre-event massage it’s very focused on a specific area for 10 to 15 minutes.”

Marci runs REVIVE Health & Wellness Studio in Beaumont, where 15 of the 16 RMTs are Vicars graduates. Outside of the clinic, she works with higher level athletes on sports teams, including a competitive girls’ softball team who travel to competitions around Canada. Most of her work is maintaining the athletes’ bodies, preparing them pre-event to increase flexibility and range of motion, and working with injuries and recovery. Echoing Tonia and Kerri, Marci says the same principles of massage are involved whether she’s giving a relaxation or deep tissue massage.

As the age of competitive athletes is getting younger, Marci is finding that the parents of these athletes are much more educated about the benefits of massage to their children’s athletic goals and overall health, than parents were a decade ago. As sports massage therapy carves out a place for itself alongside other components of an athlete’s program, Marci finds herself in a fortunate position.

“I am always right up there with my knowledge thanks to our curriculum at Vicars,” she says. “What I learn is exactly what I am teaching students.” She’s the go-to person at her clinic for questions about particular approaches or treatment modality for clients because of her up-to-date knowledge.

While research on sports massage and its physiological benefits lags far behind the field’s burgeoning popularity, all three RMTs passionately endorse its benefits to athletic wellbeing that they have observed and experienced. And their passion directly benefits Vicars students.

“The quality of education at Vicars is second to none, largely because the instructors are passionate about what they do,” says Marci. “That’s easy to convey to students and that leads to a level of education where we expect the best from students.”


Does helping marathon runners, volleyball teams, or rock climbers achieve their goals sound like your dream career? Contact our friendly admissions team by calling us toll-free at 1-866-491-0574, or sign up for a virtual open house! And if you’re an athlete looking to stay healthy and improve your recovery, you can book an appointment at our student clinic.

This is the third post in our series about pediatric massage. So far in the series, we’ve looked at research in the field of infant massage and talked to an RMT who teaches infant and child massage to her clients. Today, we’re reviewing the research into the effects of massage therapy on older children.

When Edmonton-based teacher Carla C. began going to a registered massage therapist (RMT) in 2021, she took her four-year-old son, Lincoln, with her. For the first few visits, Lincoln played quietly in a corner of the room or nestled himself between his mother’s legs while she was being massaged. On one visit, Lincoln announced that he too wanted a massage.

Carla supported his decision. Lincoln had been born with serious health conditions, necessitating open heart surgery when he was only a few weeks old. While Carla had given Lincoln massages since his birth, stroking his arms and legs and back, she had avoided the scar on his chest. She thought touching it would be too much of a reminder for both of them of those fraught early years.

The RMT guided Lincoln through all aspects of the massage treatment that day, which given his age and size was only about 15 minutes long. She asked him if it was OK for her to touch his legs and arms and talked to him about the sensations he was feeling. When she came to his chest, she explained how important it was to massage his scar. “Treat it like a twisty little snake,” she said, “and roll it between your fingers to smooth it out and make it softer and less sticky.”

Carla realized that by encouraging Lincoln to massage his scar, the RMT was also giving him an important message: that the scar was his, part of his body, an important part of his story, and not something to be ignored or feared.

Carla and Lincoln both started regularly massaging his scar.  Several months later, Carla says that it is noticeably more pliable and has less profile on his chest.

The benefits of pediatric massage are backed by research

Stories like Carla and Lincoln’s show the wholistic effects of massage in young people, encompassing mind and body. This is something that pioneering touch therapy researcher and psychologist Dr. Tiffany Field has spent her career investigating. Dr. Field is internationally renowned for her the quality of her research on the effects of massage on infants. (Her research has shown that massage therapy led to faster weight gain and discharge from hospital for infants born prematurely, and that for full-term babies the benefits include relieving jaundice, better sleep, reduced stress in parents, and strengthening infant-parent bonding. Read all about it in the first post in our series).

Dr. Field conducted a comprehensive review of research that has been done on the effects of massage therapy in older children (between a year of age and adolescence), and in children with psychological and mental health conditions. The results make a very strong case for pediatric massage therapy.

Children with autism spectrum or attention deficit hyperactivity disorders were reported to have greater attentiveness, fewer sleep problems, and decreased hyperactivity after a month of regular short massages.

Preschoolers to adolescents with psychological difficulties including aggression, anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) showed improvements in their symptoms and a decrease in the levels of stress hormones in their bodies. As an example, child survivors of Hurricane Andrew who were experiencing severe PTSD showed much lower PTSD symptoms after a month of daily massage treatments. Studies on children with anorexia and bulimia experienced increases in dopamine and improved management of their eating disorders.

In children with symptoms resulting from a number of physical conditions, massage therapy—often delivered by parents—resulted in reductions of gastrointestinal problems from diarrhea or constipation; spasticity from cerebral palsy and hypotonicity (flaccidity) from Down’s Syndrome; and increased motor development in children with motor development delays. Children with painful diseases, with conditions such as burns, or who had undergone painful procedures, experienced pain relief, better sleep, and reduced anxiety after massage therapy.

Why is massage therapy so good for children and teens?

The common thread running through the majority of the assessed studies is the calming effect resulting from reduction of stress hormones and increased production of “happy” hormones such as dopamine, purported to be results of massage therapy. Dr. Field and other researchers have identified the possible bodily mechanisms that are “translating” massage into these physiological and other effects. Earlier in this series, we outlined some of the potential mechanisms activated by massage in preterm infants: the vagus nerve, responsible for controlling stress hormone release, activates the gastric system, which enables digestion.

Additional mechanisms were seen in the studies on older children. Dr. Field has proposed that the reason massage therapy has such an effective role in pain management is that it engages the body’s touch receptors. These nerves are longer and more insulated than pain receptors—but once activated, their signals reach the brain faster and can “drown out” the messages being sent by the pain receptors.

In the broader context of the nervous system, Dr. Field posits that massage potentially has an effect on the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the “rest and digest” functions in the body including heartbeat, vagus nerve activity, and digestion. When activated by moderate-pressure massage, the parasympathetic nervous system “overrides” the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system, decreasing the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and increasing the release of immune fighter cells and anti-pain chemicals such as serotonin.

When parents are involved in massaging their children, they also benefit. Several studies by Dr. Field and others investigated the effects of parent-given infant and child massage on child-parent attachment and attunement, the receptiveness between caregiver and child. Parents reported less stress, improved wellbeing, a greater sense of competency with their parenting skills, and for those with moderate mental health issues, reduced symptoms of depression.

This effect doesn’t seem to be restricted to direct parent-child relationships : grandparents and other trusted caregivers can benefit as well. In a study published in the Journal of Applied Gerontology, older adults were given massages for a month and then gave massages to infants over a month. Measurement of cortisol from saliva samples showed they were calmer and more relaxed after massaging the infants.

All of the studies were conducted over short term periods, and Dr. Field and other researchers stress the need for further high-quality, longer-term research in order to produce evidence that can be used by decision-makers on funding and policy changes. While research is vital to ensure pediatric massage is accepted as a valid clinical tool, its popularity continues to grow.

And as Carla says, “It’s important that as my son grows, he sees massage therapy as another important therapy with a trusted professional alongside the other therapies he receives.”

This is the second instalment in a series about pediatric massage: massage therapy for children ranging from infants to adolescents. Check out the first post to learn about massage therapy for infants, including its potential benefits for both parents and child and the science that assesses those benefits. Today’s post is a conversation with an experienced Vicars graduate who has incorporated infant massage into her practice.

Shannon Collum, RMT, is a Vicars graduate who lives and works in Duncan, BC. She owns Maple Bay Massage Therapy there. As part of her general therapeutic practice, Shannon also has training in infant massage education, and offers one-on-one and group sessions with parents and their babies.

Shannon Collum, RMT

I recently talked to Shannon about this part of her practice.

Robin: Can you give me a brief overview of your experience with infant massage?

Shannon:

Early in my career, I found I was working with a lot of pregnant clients. It just happened by word of mouth—I think it helped that a lot of my friends were at the right age to start having babies!

As I went on, I realized I wanted to offer even more services in this area. We had learned the fundamentals of infant massage in school, but I knew there was more to learn.

I found a continuing education course for RMTs on infant massage and at the same time I trained as a doula, learning how to give support to mothers during and after childbirth. I was fascinated by it and knew there were at least some of my clients who would be interested.

I’ve been a massage therapist for more than 18 years now. Teaching infant massage has been a bigger part of my practice at some points than others. But it’s something I enjoy and that I’m glad I can offer to my clients.

There are so many different continuing education options out there for massage therapists—so many different directions and areas of practice for people to choose from. Would you recommend taking infant massage, and pregnancy massage?

When new grads ask me for continuing ed recommendations, I always say that it depends on what resonates with you. What are you interested in? Because if you’re not really engaged with whatever it is, you’re not going to make a success of it.

For me, I’ve always had a connection with babies and children—it’s always been a part of my life. If an RMT feels the same way, furthering your education by taking ongoing training in pregnancy massage and training new parents may be a good choice for you.

And you have to be practical too, of course. Think about the focus of your practice, where you work, and your current and potential clientele. If you’re based in more a retirement community this will obviously be less of a focus in your practice!

How do you introduce the idea of infant massage to pregnant clients?

I have it listed on my website as something I have experience in, and so some of my clients bring it up to me themselves or even find me that way. But usually it will organically come up in a conversation with them about what they’re experiencing, their hopes or even what they’re nervous about.

The last time it came up was I was working on a woman who was quite far along in her pregnancy. I was performing abdominal massage, and I was explaining to her how we do the strokes in a specific direction around the abdomen to promote digestion. I explained that this is also what we do with babies, and she says, “Wait, we can do massage on babies?!?!”

Do you find that do you usually get that surprised reaction? In your experience, do parents know that this is an option?

Some do, some don’t. And some are confused—some think that I do the massage; that they bring the baby into the clinic. But I explain that it involves teaching the parents what to do and how to do it in a way that is comfortable, safe, and joyful. And for most people, I find, that’s a lot more appealing.

So how do these sessions work?

I like to set up a class, either one-on-one or in a group setting, outside the clinic. It’s usually a set of four short sessions. That way, baby isn’t overwhelmed by a new environment and the parents are able to practice with the child between sessions. My goal with these sessions is for the babies and the parents to feel relaxed and have fun together, and for the parents to leave feeling confident and excited about having learned a new way to connect with their baby.

I normally don’t teach the classes for babies younger than two months. Before that, massage can be overwhelming and too stimulating. Babies still don’t understand the world, and they are getting bombarded with new information every second, so we wait until they’re a little more settled.

Earlier, you were telling me about a recent client you had for infant massage that was a bit of an exception to this rule. Can you share that story?

Of course. That experience was exceptional in a few ways: it was only one session, it was at my clinic, her baby was a newborn, and we fit it in after I had just given the mother a full massage!

This woman was living and working in a very small community up north on Vancouver Island. Because of the remoteness and lack of medical care, her employer transferred her down here to Duncan for a month or so before her due date, and for a couple of weeks to recover postpartum. She booked a few prenatal massages for herself while she was in town. Because I saw her regularly for a few weeks, we developed a rapport and had lots of conversations about her pregnancy and upcoming baby, and we ended up talking about infant massage in a general sort of way.

Not long after she gave birth, she came in for a last massage before heading home. She then revealed that the doctor had told them their baby had significant torticollis and she wondered if I could help. They weren’t going to be in town long enough for that, and baby needed some specific help as soon as possible, so we arranged for baby and dad to arrive at the end of her next appointment. I ended up working with them for about 15 minutes in the treatment room, laying baby on the warm massage table in front of us. I demonstrated a few techniques specifically for that issue and had them try them out and walked them through a few other things. I was able to start the process of improving his positioning and they felt more confident taking him back up north without an RMT nearby. Everybody was happy.

What sticks out to me about this story is that this was a therapeutic massage, essentially. I usually think of infant massage as being about helping the baby sleep better, helping with bonding, helping with digestion…

But when you think about it, babies have just gone through a quite physically demanding experience! Especially in that case, as he was very newly born. But even after that, they’re constantly building muscles that have never been used before.

But you’re right, a lot of times people don’t realize that something like torticollis can happen to babies. Extreme versions don’t happen a lot. Usually, it’s mild and corrects itself over time. But in this case, it was extreme, and he wasn’t able to keep his head straight.

The infant massage outcome that is probably most well known is how it strengthens bonding between parents and baby, helps babies sleep, and can help with things like colic and digestive issues. What people don’t always think about is that it can help alleviate postnatal depression for both parents. It seems most effective when massage is built into their daily routine. For infants, massage sessions should be short but frequent; a little quiet time after baby’s bath is great.

But there can be more direct physical benefits, too. I remind parents that birth is hard for babies too. As newborns, they’re not moving much and they’re often end up facing in one direction for long periods in car seats, carriers, and strollers. It’s a tough life!

And, of course, as babies get bigger they turn into active children, and children’s bodies are going through a lot, too. Starting massage at a young age can really help as they age and start getting growing pains and other bumps and bruises. Because they’re starting life with more body awareness, they’re more likely to be able to communicate about what is happening in their bodies when they need help.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience with infant massage! Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I almost forgot to mention, although it is really important to me, is that learning how to give a massage to your baby or child can actually help them start to understand bodily autonomy, consent, and the concept of healthy touch. Those are big concepts, but understanding them starts with day-to-day routines like this.

One of the things that we teach parents is to make sure that they’re only massaging when baby consents. This is more nebulous when they’re very young and you’re just starting out, but you start to learn your baby’s body language. You can tell when they’re up for it and when they’re not. And when they’re not, you just hang out with them so they’re still getting one-on-one time and see that their refusal doesn’t equal rejection from their loved one.

It’s showing kids, from a young age, that they have a say in what happens to their body. And that’s a really huge thing, in my opinion.

Still to come in our blog series: Research on the effects of massage on conditions in older children and the benefits of massage in strengthening the parent-child relationship beyond infancy.

Happy baby getting an infant massage

This is the first in a series about pediatric massage: massage therapy for children ranging from infants to adolescents. In this first post, you’ll learn about massage therapy for infants, including its potential benefits for both parents and child and the science that assesses those benefits.

Pediatric massage has been practised around the world for millennia and is foundational to child-rearing in many cultures.

In Europe, Canada, and elsewhere in North America, pediatric massage is rapidly gaining popularity. Because of the vulnerability of children (age, physical sensitivity, immature language skills), professionals and parents must ensure massage therapy will help, not harm. Massage therapy research provides non-biased evidence that can be used by parents, massage therapists, and within healthcare facilities.

Of course, like any research into any complementary and alternative medicine, massage research is a challenge: funding is scarce, and it is hard to get definitive results in a study where double-blind studies are impossible.

One of the leading researchers in the field of touch therapy is psychologist Tiffany Field. Dr. Field has led ground-breaking clinical research over the past four decades that gives a greater understanding of the effects of pediatric massage. She is an award-winning professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine where she founded the Touch Research Institute. One of her goals to provide a scientific rationale and understanding of pediatric massage therapy to inform practice and policy.

“Touch is critical for children’s growth, development, and health,” writes Dr. Tiffany Field of the University of Miami’s Touch Research Institute.

In her graduate training, Dr. Field worked on a neonatal intensive care unit looking for ways to improve weight gain in premature infants (preemies), so that they could be released from hospital sooner. The preemies were on feeding tubes and Field found that when they were given nipples to suck on, they gained weight. She proposed that if mouth stimulation could benefit the babies, then whole body stimulation—massage—would also benefit.

Happy baby getting an infant massage

Infant massage therapy helps parents and baby bond, and offers many physical benefits to the baby

She was proven right: massaged preemies thrived when regular massage was added to their care. They showed significant weight gain and were able to go home to their families several days earlier than non-massaged preemies. When her own daughter was born prematurely, Dr. Field used her in her massage therapy research. Since then, investigating the potential of touch to improve health became the foundation for Dr. Field’s career.

In 1986, she and her research colleagues developed a moderate pressure massage protocol for their research studies on hospitalized preemies that has been used globally. Dr. Field’s pioneering work in hundreds of studies resulted in her authorship of dozens of books and hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers.

A scientist looks at infant massage therapy

One of Dr. Field’s seminal papers was a review in 2019 of all academic pediatric massage therapy studies published between 2008 and 2018 that investigated the effects of massage on various pediatric health conditions. In addition to faster weight gain and shorter hospital stays, premature infant massage therapy resulted in reduction of infection, better pain tolerance and immune function, better developmental scores for babies born of mothers with HIV or cocaine addiction, and reduction of parental stress.

Getting to the “how it works”

Dr. Field’s review also considered the bodily mechanism—how it works—that are thought to lead to the physiological responses to massage therapy. For example, the mechanisms behind premature babies’ weight gain after massage therapy are thought to be increased gastric motility (movement of food through the gut) and stimulation of the vagus nerve, which regulates bodily functions such as heart rate, breathing, and stress hormones.

Massage also leads to increases in levels of insulin, which helps regulate blood sugar, and increases in natural killer cell activity, an important defence against infection in an infant’s immature immune system. But Dr. Field says that validating how and which bodily mechanisms are activated by massage requires additional research.

Massage therapy effects on full-term newborns were also included in Dr. Field’s review, with reported results similar to those found when the small subjects had been born prematurely. In both groups, results included decreases in bilirubin (jaundice) levels, sleep disturbances, irritability, colic, crying, and facilitation of infant development and reduction of stress in parents.

Parental stress and anxiety interfere with the attachment that is vital between parents and their infants. Maternal infant bonding increases self-confidence in mothers and positive mental health in later life for infants. A 2019 UK literature review by community practitioners, spanning 36 years of publications, showed that in some of the studies, massage therapy performed by mothers on their babies showed improved maternal infant bonding, with higher levels of improvement for mothers who experienced moderate mental health issues.

Another systematic review of five years of massage therapy studies, representing more than 1400 participating newborns (under the age of one year), was undertaken by Swedish researchers and published in Maternal, New-Born and Child Health in 2022. While the review focused on health benefits to infants attributed to massage, it highlighted the effect of parent-given massage in significantly reducing post-partum depression experienced by both parents.

Other research, including a study published in 2011 in Journal of Perinatal Education, found that during the early postpartum period, infant massage conducted by fathers “significantly decreased paternal stress” and increased bonding with their babies. As with most massage therapy research, the caveats apply: more research is needed to fully understand and verify the mechanisms behind massage therapy’s effects.

Growing popularity of pediatric massage therapy

Evidence produced by researchers like Dr. Field is helping to establish the legitimacy of pediatric massage therapy in clinical settings such as neonatal intensive care wards. Outside hospital settings, the popularity of pediatric massage therapy is growing because of its observable emotional, social, and health benefits for the children, but also for the caregivers or parents who give the therapy.

Pediatric massage therapy training

Graduates of Vicars School of Massage Therapy receive an introduction to pediatric massage as part of the curriculum. All Vicars graduates can conduct safe, nurturing massages on people of any age, including infants and children, but some go on to enroll in continuing education to obtain a post-grad professional certificate in infant massage.

For full-term babies or premature infants who are home from hospital, infant massage is generally performed at home as an enjoyable and health-promoting part of baby’s care.

RMTs with infant-massage training  often conduct workshops or give individual training to new parents to help them learn an effective and safe massage routine. Many communities offer parent-child massage workshops and courses as well.

If you cannot find a class near you, there are excellent online resources to guide you in delivering a simple, short and playful massage to your child. These videos are a great place to start:

Still to come in our blog series: Research on the effects of massage on conditions in older children, the benefits of massage in strengthening the parent-child relationship beyond infancy, and a conversation with a Vicars grad about why she loves providing infant massage training in her practice.


Kathleen Thurber is a health and science writer. She lives in Edmonton.

a career in massage therapy

When you’re a massage therapist, getting injured on the job hurts more than just your body. Taking time off to recover from an injury means loss of income, and even potential loss of clients.

The best way for an RMT to deal with workplace injury is to ensure that it doesn’t happen in the first place. And that means a focus on body mechanics—the right way to move—so that soft tissue and joints stay injury free.

The path to a long injury-free massage career

In 2001, Vicars School of Massage Therapy was founded, there was a prevalent myth that massage was a very short career.

“The idea was that injury was inevitable, but we knew that was just not true,” says founder Maryhelen Vicars. “There was lots of evidence that students who had early and consistent training in correct body mechanics and self-care had a huge advantage in staying safe and pain free.

“From the first, our program was modelled after the curriculum in Ontario, one of the first provinces to regulate massage therapy education. For decades, massage schools in regulated provinces have incorporated safety and injury prevention in their practical training.”

So the Vicars curriculum did the same.

“From the first day of instruction, students learn body mechanics in our core science courses of anatomy and physiology,” says Curriculum Director Linda McGeachy. “And they put that knowledge into practice in class. During hands-on instruction and practice, students are monitored by instructors not just for technique, but for attention to their own body mechanics.”

At Vicars School, body mechanics is a structured part of the curriculum, and includes techniques for core stability, keeping joints in straight alignment and applying pressure appropriately. “There isn’t just one way of doing anything,” says McGeachy. “Instructors correct for stance, posture and pressure, and they also encourage students to listen to their own bodies.”

Different body shapes and sizes mean that students need to be able to adapt a theoretical “perfect form” into positions that work for their own bodies.

Preventing overuse

The most common injuries directly result from overuse and such injuries are the most preventable, says McGeachy. “Hands, elbows and shoulders are subject to overuse if we don’t use our bodies properly,” she says. “In addition to listening to their bodies, RMTs need to ensure they don’t overuse their bodies by booking too many clients in a day, especially when they first start their careers.”

Awareness of strengths, coordination and mobility are vital, as is the need to adjust techniques depending on the client. She also points out that new information resulting from research and outcomes-based approaches to attitudes about what massage should be, are informing awareness of injury prevention.

With practical experience comes knowledge about not overloading muscles and joints and using “relative rest”—a recovery technique that protects and rests the injured area while continuing to be active with other parts of your body.

Less is more

We’ve all seen memes of massage therapists reducing their clients to tears and whimpers. But that is as outdated as the idea of “no pain, no gain” in gyms and sports fields.

One of the most important changes, says McGeachy, is that the concept of a heavy, load-bearing workout on tissue as the only way to get results has lost its credence. “It’s more about understanding how to work on tissue rather than simply pushing down hard on it,” she says. “Understanding physiology and what tissue is, means that we don’t have to create pain in order to get results.”

Quite the opposite, in fact. Current knowledge about massage’s benefits reinforces a pain-management approach to therapeutic massage.

RMTs are educated about repetitive strain injury and overuse and they in turn educate their clients. Key to that education, says McGeachy, is movement. “If you are planning to do a physical activity, then do the movements of it as a warm-up.” She points out that any exercise will carry restrictions for someone, depending on their body. “It’s not that the exercise—whether it’s yoga or tennis or gardening—is harmful; it’s that you have to be aware of your body and when something hurts, move away from that position,” she says.

Using brain power for body power

Using a research-based curriculum, instructors at Vicars School encourage students to build on their understanding of body mechanics and principles with critical thinking skills. “This means students have confidence acting on their own understanding of when something doesn’t feel good, and how to adjust their technique by using a different position that feels better,” says McGeachy. “From our school perspective, even if a student’s body mechanics aren’t ‘textbook’, the important thing is that they are learning to prevent injuring themselves.”

Piloting a new movement course

Building on the importance of movement as foundational for injury prevention and career health, the Vicars School curriculum will be piloting a new course in September, based on a resource called Trail Guide to Movement.

“We already have rich material on movement, including orthopedic assessment courses and gait analysis,” says Linda McGeachy. “But this will really augment our existing curriculum and delve into movement as core in keeping a health body and promoting longevity in our careers.”

written by Kathleen Thurber


Start your long and successful massage therapy career at Vicars School! We have campuses in Calgary and Edmonton and schedules that are designed to work with your lifestyle. For more information and to speak with our friendly admissions team, call us toll-free 1-866-491-0574 or sign up for an online open house!

If you do a quick online search for registered massage therapists in your area, there’s a good chance that most of the names that come up will be female RMTs. And if you’re a man interested in a massage career, you might end up wondering: Is there room in this profession for me?

The short answer is: Yes!

The long answer is: Yes, as long as you’re not afraid to work hard, blaze your own trail, and stomp on a few outdated stereotypes while you’re at it.

Why aren’t there more male RMTs?

Male and male-identifying RMTs are practicing in every area of the profession, in every type of clinic environment—and they’re thriving.

But they’re still a minority. In Canada, about 15 percent of practicing MTs are men. Here at MH Vicars School of Massage Therapy, the number is about the same: 17 percent of students in our last two graduating classes were men. For men who want to become massage therapists, that gender imbalance can seem pretty intimidating.

Why are there not more men in the profession? It’s complicated.The most obvious reason, of course, is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most people have met more female RMTs than male ones, so if you ask them to picture an RMT in their head, they’ll probably picture a woman. This makes it harder for men to picture themselves as massage therapists.

Unfortunately, there are also plenty of myths and misconceptions about massage out there that actively discourage men from pursuing a career in this field.

Articles about opportunities for men in the massage business can make for discouraging reading. It’s still sadly common for commentators in industry magazines (most of which are American) to talk about hard it is for male grads to get clients.

But in our experience—and in the experience of our male graduates and faculty members—the reality is much more positive.

What’s it actually like for male massage therapists?

Mark Smith has a massage practice in Northwest Calgary and teaches first- and second-year at Vicars. He’s always excited to see male students in his classes, and to pass on the lessons he’s learned.

He’s upbeat about the career opportunities for male therapists, while acknowledging the challenges that male therapists sometimes face.

“What I tell the men in my classes is ‘Be patient’.”

When Mark first graduated from massage school, he worked in a spa in Whistler, BC.

“In a spa environment, it is a lot harder to be consistently booked. I would have maybe two or three massages a day while the women were fully booked.”

But his persistence—and his talent—paid off. Every appointment he had was an opportunity to demonstrate his skill, his education, and his professionalism. His clients would not only re-book, but they’d tell their friends. After a few months of proving himself and word-of-mouth promotion, he had built up a comfortable practice.

Mark later moved to Vancouver, where he worked in clinics that had more of a focus on rehab and sports medicine. He found this type of clinic to be a much more receptive environment, and he was able to build up his client list in no time.

Things went faster because he had fewer stereotypes and preconceptions to overcome. But at the end of the day the source of Mark’s success in Vancouver was the same as it had been in Whistler: He is a well-trained and effective therapist. He conveys by his actions and attitude that he is focused on making each massage a positive and safe experience for all his clients.

Will I have hard time getting a job as a male massage therapist?

Edmonton instructor Janine Borger has taught at Vicars for 20 years, and owned a busy massage clinic in Lacombe from 1997 to 2012. While she didn’t have very many men on her team, she says that it was only because there weren’t as many male therapists out there. There were fewer men graduating from massage schools back then, and even fewer of them wanted to work in small-town Alberta.

But Janine says things have changed a lot. Now there are many men who work as RMTs in Lacombe, including a man with a busy practice in a local spa where therapeutic massage co-exists with manicures, pedicures, and facials.

Janine has also watched as the numbers of men in her classes has steadily increased over the years.

“One class I had last year was actually half men and half women!”

She believes that the massage business is starting to be seen as a more valid occupation for men.

Public perception of massage has changed over the years, away from the sense that massage is just a relaxing indulgence. Thanks to an increase in standards of education for massage therapists (even in non-regulated provinces), massage therapy now has the recognition that it deserves as a valuable health care profession.

Things have changed so much that when David Galarza enrolled at Vicars, it didn’t even occur to him that he might face obstacles as a man in a female-dominated profession.

He had always loved giving massages, he says, and was completely focused on turning his passion into a career.

By the time he graduated 2019, he was prepared.

“It has been challenging, but not that bad. It is harder at first, getting new clients. There is [still] a stigma.”

David thinks he was lucky that his first job was in a busy clinic that happened to be owned by a man, so the clients were accustomed to a male RMT. A lot of the clients he saw there, and continues to work with, are living with chronic pain. He has positive results and is well accepted by these clients.

But his practice is not limited to athletes and rehabilitation. He has since opened an esthetics and wellness clinic, D&M Treatment, in partnership with an esthetician specializing in permanent makeup applications. He and another Vicars grad, Laura Dunlop, practice massage therapy as part of that “beauty-oriented” business. David also sees clients in his home studio, and has a mobile practice, taking his equipment to workplaces and family homes.

This has allowed him to work with young children and teens as well as their parents and given him experience in pre- and post-natal massage, both areas of practice that are included in the Vicars program .

What advice would David give to other men considering or starting out in a massage career? The same advice he would give to any new graduate:

“Be friendly and be kind. Stay professional and communicate well. Stay engaged with your client throughout a treatment. There is always an education component: walk them through the whole process of where your hands will be and why.”

What does the future look like for men in massage therapy?

Male and female students learn together at MH Vicars School of Massage Therapy

Vicars curriculum director Linda McGeachy says the greatest hope for growth in the numbers of successful and effective male massage therapists lies with the many men who are demonstrating that it can be done.

She points to colleagues who have earned the trust and long-term loyalty of their clients by the way they practice and the way they communicate. At MH Vicars School, we are proud that this group includes our own instructors, supervisors, and two decades’ worth of graduates.

If you want to help people get well and stay well, be your own boss, and never be tied down to a desk, massage therapy could be the career for you—no matter your gender. To learn more about this fast-growing career, contact our friendly admissions team by calling us toll-free at 1-866-491-0574, or sign up for a virtual open house!

massage therapy career FAQs

MH Vicars School of Massage therapy was founded in 2001, which means we’ve been talking about massage for over 20 years. On the phone, in person, over Zoom, at Christmas parties, and in line at the farmer’s market…we never get tired of chatting about this incredible career or about what it takes to become a successful registered massage therapist (RMT).

Over the years, we’ve been asked—and have answered—pretty much every conceivable question about massage therapy, and massage therapy education. And are some questions that we hear over and over again.

We’ve collected a few of the most popular questions that our students have at the beginning of their career change journey and answered them here for you.

What does a massage therapist do?

Okay, I admit it: this isn’t actually one of the most frequently-asked questions that future students ask our admissions advisors. I think that’s because by the time someone gets to an open house, or is talking to one of us on the phone, they’re either too afraid to ask or they think they already know the answer. But here’s the thing: we talk about it anyway, and they’re all still fascinated and sometimes even surprised by the answer.

That’s because massage therapy is a more exciting—and challenging—career than most people realize. If you’ve only experienced massage treatments as a client, you may have no idea of the depth of knowledge and technical skill that goes into treating your pain.

As a massage therapist, you will be a frontline health care professional and play an important role in maintaining and improving your clients’ well-being. You will have the training to reduce their stress, decrease their pain, and treat or alleviate the symptoms of a wide range of injuries and physical conditions.

Every treatment that you do will be unique to your client and their needs. You’re not simply performing a pre-set sequence of strokes and techniques—which means no day at work is ever the same. At each appointment, you will begin by talking to your client and doing an assessment. This will allow you to create a treatment plan. The massage itself will be customized for your client. That’s why we teach you so much anatomy, physiology, and pathology along with hands-on skills.

How long does it take to become a massage therapist?

Massage therapy training in Canada takes about two years to complete. Different schools have slightly different schedules, but if you want to become a professional massage therapist you should be prepared to be in school for between 20 and 24 months.

At MH Vicars School of Massage Therapy, our diploma program is divided into year one and year two material. Each “year” is actually 10 months of full-time learning. Students who start with us in September follow the traditional school year (September–June) each year, with a two-month break over the summer. This is particularly popular for parents, because it lines up with the K-12 school year. The January classes run until late October or early November, and take their break over the winter holidays—even more appealing for many students than having the summer off!

That said, the time in between school years isn’t only for building sandcastles (or snow forts). While it’s a break from the full-time workload, you will have some work to do during this time to keep your mind and body in practice, and prepare for the year ahead. Many students also use this time to get a jump-start on some of their second-year practicum clinic shifts.

What kind of training do I need to be a registered massage therapist in Canada?

In order to be a professional massage therapist in Canada, you need to get an education that is recognized by the regulatory body or registering organization in the province you want to practice in. Which leads us to a related question with a much more complicated answer:

How do I choose a massage therapy school?

In order to be a successful massage therapist who is able to make a real difference for your clients’ health, you need to choose your massage therapy college very carefully.

That’s especially true in non-regulated jurisdictions like Alberta (and Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the Territories), because there are multiple registering organizations and no central regulatory body. Alberta’s massage therapy professional associations each have different entrance standards—some higher than others. Some of the professional associations are even run by individual massage schools, which raises big questions about the objectivity of their membership standards!

That’s why national accreditation exists. The Canadian Massage Therapy Council for Accreditation (CMTCA) is a national, independent organization that evaluates massage therapy colleges to make sure that they’re providing the best possible education and educational experience. They assess schools based on the curriculum and delivery standards set by the Federation of Massage Therapy Regulatory Authorities of Canada (FOMTRAC).

In regulated provinces like BC, Ontario, and Newfoundland and Labrador, all massage schools must be accredited (i.e., they have to meet the FOMTRAC standards). This protects massage clients and massage students.

Unfortunately, Alberta isn’t there yet. Meeting the FOMTRAC standards is optional. As a result, the type and quality of massage education available in Alberta programs is uneven. But things are starting to change—CMTCA recently opened up its accreditation process to Alberta massage colleges.

Vicars has preliminary accreditation status from CMTCA, proving we’re one of Alberta’s best massage therapy schools.

 

If this blog post answered your questions about starting a career in massage therapy, you should give us a call. And if this blog post answered some of your questions about becoming an RMT but left you craving even more information, then you should definitely give us a call! Contact our friendly admissions team by calling us toll-free at 1-866-491-0574, or sign up for a virtual open house!

massage therapy as a career

Why Being a Registered Massage Therapist Might be your Dream Job

Massage therapists provide an invaluable service to people who are in pain, recovering from injuries, or experiencing stress. Massage therapy speeds up the healing process, improves circulation, lowers blood pressure, and can help restore emotional balance.

For most massage professionals, that’s the main reason we chose this job: we care about other people. We want to help our clients get better and stay well. We’re attracted to the health care and wellness field, but we want to make more of a one-on-one connection with our clients than would be possible as an EMT or a nurse (not to mention being able to avoid the high stress, long hours, and potential burnout so common in those jobs). Massage therapy is one of the most accessible, adaptable, and personally satisfying careers in health care.

Massage therapy could be a satisfying career for you if you are empathetic, active, and ready to learn. Over our 20 years training RMTs, we hear a lot of stories about why students choose massage, and still find it rewarding five, 10 or 18 years later.

Massage therapy may be the right career for you, if:

A flexible schedule suits the way you live

With the start of covid, Canadians traded full-time, in-office jobs for work from home and setting their own hours. Post-vaccine, many of us are still doing that, or wish we could. It’s great to be able to do an errand midweek, or volunteer for the Grade Four field trip.

Massage is that flexible: block out time to accommodate your other responsibilities and make up the time by opening your calendar earlier or later a couple of days a week.

Night owls can work more evenings, and larks can start early. If you can work evenings or early mornings or weekends, you will be doing your 9-5 clients a great service, and it will give you a competitive edge.

You have had enough of office work

Some people thrive at a desk and find making sense of a balance sheet or facilitating a zoom conference suits them perfectly. If you have tried that, and it is not for you, think about a career that lets you stand up and be active while you work. As we’ve written about before, sitting is dangerous work!

You like learning about health and how bodies work

Massage is a good choice for you if you have a background in sports, yoga Pilates, or another health care field. Much of the massage school curriculum is about the human body and how it works. You will graduate with a thorough knowledge of the anatomy, physiology, and pathology of the systems most affected by massage therapy.

You don’t have be an expert on human anatomy before you start our program, though! We have designed our program to be accessible to students from all backgrounds. If you meet the basic academic entrance requirements, the only other things you need are a passion for the subject matter and a willingness to work hard. This is thanks to the quality of our curriculum material, and the way we teach it.

Often, our best students are people who were nervous about going back to school because they weren’t star students in high school, or because it’s been a while since they were last in a classroom.

Our program is built specifically to meet the needs of adult learners, and our blended-learning program can accommodate the different ways that students learn. Learning the science, theory, and other academic material when it’s combined with hands-on learning and you can apply the knowledge in a practical way.

“I’m not much of a classroom person – I find it hard to sit and listen to a lecture,”, says Karen Goforth, a 2017 Vicars grad. “So that it was only four classroom days a month worked really well for me. It was hands-on and I got to learn a lot of information in a short amount of time, and then take it home and digest it myself and reread. That setup worked really well for the way that I like to learn.”

You want be fully qualified and ready to practice in less than two years

Massage therapy is one of the most accessible of the health care careers.

In regulated provinces, massage schools are required to teach anatomy and physiology, pathology, orthopedic assessment, treatment planning, medical terminology, and other subjects to a specified standard. Their hands-on education includes many hours of supervised work experience. When they meet their first clients as RMTs, they have the knowledge and experience they need to be fully effective.

In unregulated provinces, providing this level of preparation for national “entry-to-practice” standards is optional. It is expensive for schools to meet the standards, but good schools know it is what our graduates need for success.

MH Vicars School was an early adopter of the national standard and one of the first schools in Alberta to have achieved accreditation from CMTCA, the same authority that accredits schools in the regulated provinces: BC, Ontario, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, and PEI. 

You want job security and a living wage

As standards for the profession have risen across Canada, the profile of the well-trained professional has risen with it. Good massage therapists are in higher demand than ever. Research evidence of the value of massage piles up, and it has become increasingly common for other health professionals to view RMTs as part of their patients’ health care team. Doctors regularly recommend massage for rehabilitation following surgery or injury, to promote flexibility and increase range of motion for older adults and people with disabilities, and to provide relief to those with chronic pain.

And with this growth in respect from other professions and the public, job security for RMTs is better than ever. Most years, between 95-98% of our grads are fully employed (or working as much as they want to) by the end of their first year in the profession. Even with covid precautions in place, our grads report that they’re booked for weeks or even months in advance. Especially in smaller centres, many are no longer accepting new clients.

Talent.com reports an average salary of $67,500 for massage therapists across Canada (higher in regulated provinces). Your income will rise as you build a reputation for effectiveness, and generally be higher if you are self-employed.

You can be your own boss

Massage therapists can work anywhere that they want to. You can find MH Vicars graduates in dedicated massage clinics, in clinics or health centres alongside physiotherapists and chiropractors, at gyms, at corporate or industrial work sites, at resorts and hotels, and even in their own homes.

Most Vicars graduates work for themselves. They rent a room in a larger clinic or a gym, have clinic space in their own homes, or start and operate clinics that employ other massage therapists or other practitioners.

 

The Massage Therapy Program at Vicars could be the pathway to your ideal career. We have campuses in Calgary and Edmonton and a schedule that is designed to work with your lifestyle. For more information and to speak with our friendly admissions team, call us toll-free 1-866-491-0574 or sign up for an online open house!

 

For our latest entry in our graduate spotlight series, we’re switching things up a bit. Instead of interviewing a grad and writing about our conversation, we handed over the whole blog to her! 

In this post, Claudia Wattel tells the story of her massage therapy career in her own words—from going back to school as an adult, to starting her own business in her small town. 

Hello! My name is Claudia Wattel, RMT. I run my own home-based massage clinic, R.E.M Massage in Barrhead, Alberta. I graduated from MH Vicars of Massage Therapy in Edmonton in 2017.

 

For me, going back to school was a life-changing event in more ways than one. When I decided to go back to school and pursue a career in massage, it was a now-or-never moment in my life. It was also, in a lot of ways, a spur of the moment decision.

 

I was 43 years old and I had already been a single mom for many years. I was looking for something that would be fulfilling and I wanted to do something that would benefit the health of others. I was looking for a career that would give me freedom and would not tie me to a specific place.

 

I also wanted options so that I would never feel stuck in any job. At the time, I was working full time as manager of a furniture store. I was doing okay making a living off of that, but knew that something had to change if I ever wanted to get ahead financially so that one day I could retire.  

 

I was also looking for a career where I could attend school while working full time. After doing a lot of research I was pulled in the direction of massage therapy because MH Vicars offered a blended-learning schedule option that would make this possible. 

 

But I still was not sure I would like it. So when I saw that MH Vicars was offering a weekend introductory massage course, I signed up for it.

 

This in itself was way out of my comfort zone, but I decided if I was ever going to do it then now was the time. My two older children had already graduated and in the work force, and my youngest daughter was in high school. I wanted to be done my own schooling before she went into her grade 12 year—I wanted to be able to dedicate my time to her in her graduation year.  

 

After taking the weekend massage course, I decided to jump in with both feet. I was called into MH Vicars for an interview after which I was accepted into the weekly program.

 

I will admit it was a very tough 2 years. But I knew it was doable. I remember thinking when I started that if I can make the pass grade of 75% I will be happy. Being a mature student, I knew that failure really was not an option. There is not only a lot of money invested into education but also a lot of time. Time is a precious commodity. And I will admit—there is also a sense of pride that is not always there when you are younger. There was no way I was going to go home at the end and have to tell people that I failed! 

 

I was working full time most weeks. I had two days off each week: Sunday and Wednesday, the day I had class. 

 

The first year I was in school from 9am-5pm (plus the commute to and from Barrhead, which is 2 hours each way). I also did about 4-5 hours of independent study work every weekday evening and most weekends. 

 

Once public clinic was added into the mix, it became even more time-consuming. I chose to do my public clinic shifts on Wednesdays after class so that I wouldn’t have to drive into the city more often than necessary. So I was in school pretty much every Wednesday from 9am-9 pm. 

 

I was thankful that my kids were older and fairly self-sufficient. I was also thankful that I had a strong support system: my sister and brother-in-law helped me out a lot.

 

When all was said and done it was all worth it: hard work and perseverance definitely pays off. Not only did I achieve my goal of not failing—I graduated from MH Vicars with honors! 

I received a great education through MH Vicars. 

 

The program is jam-packed. I had very hands-on instructors and public clinic supervisors. By the time I graduated I was prepared to confidently put into practice what I had learned. Today, I am doing what I love.

 

I was very fortunate because I still had my full-time job at the furniture store when I graduated. This meant that I didn’t have to stress about having a full client base right away and gave me the freedom to build my massage practice at my own pace. 

 

I started working part time at Pembina Massage in Barrhead in September 2017. I knew that I eventually wanted to have a home-based practice where I would have complete control over my schedule and my clients, but I also wanted to get some more clinic experience first.

For almost three years, I worked at Pembina Massage three evenings a week and treated a few clients at the clinic space I set up in my home. And then COVID hit in spring of 2020 and Alberta had its first shutdown. 

 

When Alberta Health made the decision to allow massage clinics to open up again, I decided that the time was right to leave the clinic and focus on my home-based business. 

 

I knew that this would mean rebuilding my clientele, but I could afford to take this risk because I am still working at the furniture store (I love that job too!). 

 

It was always my intention to practice massage part time. This career supplements my existing income. At first that additional income went towards paying off my student loans. Now that I have done that, I can slowly work towards retirement.
 

I believe that massage therapy in a small town differs a lot from a city practice. In a small town everyone knows everyone. When you walk down the street it is a constant stream of saying hi to people you know. This also means that your clinic has a much more personal feel to it. 
 

When we studied ethics in school, our instructors really stressed the importance of having boundaries between your friendships and your client relationships. In a small town, many of your clients are friends or acquaintances before they become clients. So I need to pay special attention to enforcing the appropriate boundaries and maintaining the therapeutic relationship both during massage treatment sessions, and in my everyday life. When my friends and neighbours come to me for a massage treatment, they know that for the time they are in the clinic space, they are my clients and I am their massage therapist. Outside of that space, I’m their friend and not their RMT.

 

Professionalism is very important. I have found that because I work from my home, new clients are sometimes surprised that it’s a professional space, a professional business. But they learn right away that my clinic is exactly that: my clinic. It is a professional environment, and I my clients receive the same respect and care that they would in any professional clinic. 

 

In a small town there is a lot of “it’s not just what you know, but who you know.” Advertising happens through word of mouth. You have to be good at what you do, because if you are not news travels fast. That being said, if you do your job well others will hear about it.  

 

I have been very blessed.  My career in massage therapy to date has been very fulfilling. I have been able to help a lot of people and continue to do so. My clinic is open 3 nights a week. I am fully booked through October and am booking clients into November and December. I have not had to advertise for my clinic and have had to turn clients away because I am already busier than I imagined I would be. 

 

My massage career has also given me that step up that I was hoping for financially. In addition to saving for retirement, I was able to purchase a new home this spring and I have been able to create a perfect set up for my home-based clinic. 

 

When I was a student, we had to create a business plan. One of the required elements was a mission statement. I still believe in what I wrote back then, and it’s now the mission statement of R.E.M Massage: 

 

To assist in the healing of body and mind. 

To relieve tension and pain. 

To bring an overall feeling of health and wellness to each and every client in a professional and relaxed environment. 

One massage at a time. 

 

Claudia Wattel, RMT 

R.E.M. Massage 

Rejuvenate. Enhance. Maintain. 

Q & A with Jocelyn Stewart: RMT and owner of Sunrae Massage and Wellness

 

A career in massage therapy called to Jocelyn Stewart. She enrolled in the 2-year program at MH Vicars School of Massage Therapy in Edmonton and  graduated in 2013.  Jocelyn got a job in a clinic as a student therapist when she was in her second year at MH Vicars, and stayed on after she graduated. During her four years there, she established a loyal client base, developed as a therapist, and learned even more about the business side of massage therapy.grad spotlight- Jocelyn Stewart

When she was ready to strike out on her own, she opened Sunrae Massage and Wellness in Fort Saskatchewan. Sunrae is now a thriving multi-therapist practice. Jocelyn herself is booking four or five months in advance, and she rents clinic space to other RMTs as well. 

She recently sat down with us to talk about how she became the therapist she is today, and what she’s learned along the way.

 

Tell me about your experiences as a business owner

I had the most wonderful mentor at the first clinic I worked at. She was so open to teaching me or letting me ask any questions, but yet letting me explore my own way. When she decided she was going to work from home, I decided to open Sunrae. I found this beautiful little building – and then I got a lot of life lessons!

Renovating, signing contracts, dealing with leases, accountants, all of that.

Maybe the biggest thing, on the business side of it, is I have learned the importance of a contract. My whole motto in life now is: “To be clear is to be kind.” 

When I have new therapists come in, I really try to foster them and say: “You know what, I don’t want to be on a split, I want you to have your own business. I want you to rent the room. I want you to develop, and do what you want to do.” 

 

You’ve been working as an RMT for nearly a decade. How has your client base changed over the years?

I don’t work with a lot of new clients now. Some of my clients are the same ones I’ve had for nearly ten years, and I’ve been so blessed. Right now I’m booking into October and November.

I have one client that I massaged at school outreach event when I was a student—I think it was the Mother’s Day Run. I massaged him for ten minutes, and he asked me for my card. [Laughs] I didn’t have cards! I was just a student! But I gave him the information of the place that I was working, and I’ve been treating him ever since. 

When you get a real connection with your clients, it’s so nice. You can build on each massage therapy treatment, and have an idea of where we need to go next. That’s really interesting.

I’m kind of nervous when I do get a new client now. I’m like “Oh my god! I’m going to have to explain myself and what my philosophies are!”

 

Can you elaborate on that? How have you managed to build a client base that aligns with your outlook and what you’re trying to do? 

I think that as a new therapist, you really try to please everybody and in doing so, sometimes you don’t get to find your own gifts or your own qualities. 

You have to be OK with the fact that you’re not for everybody. My style may not be for everybody. And, you know, you have to let your ego go and do what’s best for the client. 

Communication is so important, with all your clients. You tell them, “This is what we’re going to try, and why.” And at the end, I ask them how they feel and ask for feedback. And to my newer clients, I do say: “I’m not for everybody, and there’s other types of massage that may help you better.”

You really have to communicate and listen to what the client’s saying. 

It can be really hard to be open enough to know that you can and even should refer out to other therapists. I will refer out to the other RMTs that work with me sometimes, or to other colleagues. Sometimes I’ll tell them that they should try going to a physio, and so on.

And another thing that sometimes we don’t talk about is when you get a complaint about how you’ve performed, or in my case sometimes I hear a complaint about one of the therapists working for me. 

You have to take a step back, take the deep breath and go, “OK, how do I make this better? Is this a learning situation or is it a little bit unreasonable? Is this person just not for us?”

It can be really hard! I mean, I put my heart and soul into this. This is a little piece of me.

 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your practice?

When it hit, there were three of us working at the clinic. It was difficult because of all the new regulations. I took that very seriously: I went into the clinic, removed the waiting room, put up the signs, got all the new things we needed. And then we were off for what, four months? 

I didn’t get a rent break, I still had to pay my lease. I was able to give a rent break to the RMTs who rent rooms from me, because I was able to access some of the financial support. 

But you sit at home for four months and you think, “Oh my god, how am I going to keep my clients?”

But I had clients asking to buy gift cards to help me stay in business. I was just so humbled and grateful. And most of my clients came back. 

I went right back to my normal schedule, following the new rules. And then we got shut down again [in December 2020]. And again, you worry about how you’re going to pay the bills. But it was ok.

The only thing that I have really struggled with is clients who were anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers. I got really tired of having to fight for them to wear a mask. I have a couple of clients that I just didn’t rebook, because I couldn’t deal with it anymore. It’s my safety, you know?

I was following the restrictions, and really trying to do my best with that. The other RMTs and I just sat down and discussed what we want to do now that the government has said that there’s no more restrictions. We’ve decided to keep them going for now, because that’s what we’re comfortable with at this moment.

 

Those can be tough conversations to have. 

I really think it’s great that we just sat down and discussed how this going to look for us. We’ve been pretty much on par, and so supportive of each other. We’ve been there for each other. 

I really enjoy that part of the business—trying to empower younger therapists. 

It’s hard to find somebody who’s brave enough to go out on their own. It’s hard. So I try to create an environment of support for them. 

 

What advice would you give to someone just beginning their massage therapy career? 

It is really important to make sure that, with any place that you go to work, that you have a very good contract. A contract protects both you and the other person—a verbal agreement isn’t good enough. You really do need to have a contract, because then there’s no guesswork and I would really do things.

And take continuing education courses. Get excited about new techniques, and get excited about what you’re doing. 

When you go into that massage room, go find what needs to be done—not what you think needs to be done. Really, really try to be open to solving the problem.

It can be really hard to be open because I think massage therapists are, as a rule, fairly sensitive people. So just know that it’s okay to say to yourself, “That didn’t go as well. What can I do to do better?”

And of course, support each other. There’s no need to be cutthroat. Support each other, and let’s make this industry really well respected. 

A massage therapy career (and the opportunity to open your own business!) is well within reach. Jocelyn got her start with our massage training program and you can too! Set up your virtual tour today to learn more about how MH Vicars can help set you on a path to a new career as a registered massage therapist.