Experiences and Advice from an NBA Physical Therapist: Interview with Dr. Steve Short

Working with professional athletes or for a professional sport team is a dream job for many young clinicians and students. Many of those same clinicians and students are unsure of how to best go about working their way into a job in professional sports or what the job truly entails. Recently, I had the pleasure to meet Dr. Steve Short, PT, DPT, SCS, CSCS, who is the Team Physical Therapist and Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Denver Nuggets. Dr. Short was gracious enough to answer some questions about his experiences working in the NBA and provides some helpful advice for those seeking to follow a similar career path.

Describe your path to becoming the team physical therapist for an NBA team. Was working for a professional sports team something you knew you wanted to do prior to getting the job?

First, and foremost, thank you for the opportunity to chat with EducatedPT!  It’s been great meeting you and getting familiar with the quality content you have been putting out.

My path to working with elite athletes is a lot like the old Happy Gilmore quote about luck.  And that’s been a big part of it.  I’ve been fortunate to establish great relationships with people I admire. Mentors such as Chris Moore, Donnie Strack, Phil Anloague, Jeff Moore, and Cameron MacDonald, who have all inspired me to prioritize the patient and continually develop as a person and as a clinician. Learning from these amazing mentors and establishing relationships with them opened the doors of opportunity professionally.  

I was always involved in sports, since I was three years old. Then by being injured in both high school and college, I was able to see the impact a PT can make on an individual.  That made me seek out volunteer and educational opportunities to develop a clinical skill set that can serve our athletes while being valuable to a sports club as well.

Having a strength and conditioning background prior to entering our doctor of physical therapy program helped pave the way.  College athletes, high school athletes, weekend warriors, semi-professional football players, it didn’t matter. I would train anyone that was willing to get after it.

With that, I was able to volunteer for research opportunities and start working with college and pro athletes in various capacities. Things began to snowball, as my next step was interviewing nationwide to sports medicine clinics to gain experience in the field.  I was fortunate to get amazing reps and mentorship at Next Level Physical Therapy & Sports Performance in Golden, CO.  We had some exciting research work going on at the University of Dayton, which augmented my experience in Colorado, and helped set up an internship and clinical rotation with the Oklahoma City Thunder Basketball Club.  After a short time in private practice, an opportunity arose to jump back into the NBA, which has been a great situation to continue learning and hopefully make an impact.

What is your role as the physical therapist for an NBA team? How much do these roles differ or overlap from those of the athletic trainers?

What I love about being a PT in pro sports is that there are few lines of distinction.  When you are developing and working in a high-functioning high performance unit, roles and duties are happily shared.  Ideas and experiences mix to create a seamless environment for the athlete.  I think as clinicians, we all have variable talents, with certain skills that we may be more proficient with than others.  It’s our job to utilize what we do best, and use teamwork to augment areas where we could use a little work.  Quality care encompasses many health care, sports medicine, and performance specialists, and the better we communicate and work together, under a shared vision and culture, the better our outcomes become.

What does a typical week look like for you during the NBA season?

There is no typical week in the NBA.  We could be playing 4 games in 5 nights or flying to London for a one-off game. We do develop routines, with usually morning and afternoon (as well as evening on game-day) sessions, working up to 14 hours a day, 7-days a week, all season long. Depending on how healthy the team is, we have to setup additional rehabilitation schedules and management schedules for each athlete.

What does a typical week look like for you during the off-season?

We switch gears in the off-season a bit, and are occasionally able to have a weekend off.  We are more of a traditional 9-5 operation in the summer. But we are involved in taking care of our athletes year round, providing whatever they need to be healthy and perform at the highest level.

What skill(s) do you have as physical therapist that are most utilized/important in working with professional athletes.

Serving the patient always priority number one, and with that being said, we have to be able to communicate.  High-pressure clinical situations require the ability to synthesize the big picture and educate the individual on the plan of care and establish a relationship that can accomplish goals.

After that, we need to be able to consistently maximize the fundamentals.  That means utilizing evidence-informed practice to promote movement, exercise, and continuous athletic development.  Knowing how to appropriately dose exercise in it’s many forms is probably our biggest clinical companion, with our manual therapy skills and additional resources helping us get to that point.

Other than the SCS, are there certain credentials/specializations/training backgrounds that are helpful for working in the NBA? Is being dual credentialed as an ATC favored?

If I could go back and do it all over again, I definitely would have partaken in an athletic training educational pathway.  However, my opportunities were unique and I feel helped me out in the long-run. Exposing yourself to situations where you can get certifications definitely shows the commitment to learning, and at least a floor level of knowledge in various areas of medicine, whether its S&C or manual therapy. That being said, credentials do help on a resume, but letters are just letters. At the end of the day, you have to have the skill set to get the job done.  As a clinician, the manual therapy fellowship through AAOMPT and Regis University has improved my clinical reasoning and lead me to constantly challenging the way I think.

What are the biggest challenges or struggles to working with an NBA team? As a physical therapist, do you find that you’re usually respected within this realm? What additional challenges arise from working with elite athletes (e.g. time constraints and higher necessary levels of function)?

No matter what area of practice, there will always be professional challenges. There will always be challenging cases, unique presentations and things that make you question your abilities. And those are usually the situations you learn from the most. As in life, time is such a valuable and priceless commodity. Whether it’s staying organized on a 12 day road trip to dose your rehab appropriately, or flying overseas to provide post-operative care, the schedule is the schedule and you need to get the job done. Travel makes time even more precious, especially at the sacrifice of your personal life. I’m fortunate to have an amazing family that understands and supports me, but the sacrifice of time away and striking a life balance is a very real issue.

What advice would you give to current physical therapy students hoping to get the opportunity to work in professional sports, particularly basketball?

As a young clinician, I wouldn’t focus on a sport. I would spend all my efforts in finding the right mentor, sacrificing your time, and getting quality reps treating anything and everything. As you grow and specialize, learning the demands of the sport and the feel of the locker room definitely helps, but the standard of care of treating an ankle sprain in football isn’t any different than treating an ankle sprain in basketball, or for your sedentary 65 year old patient. You impose the highest level of care possible for that patient and individualize to their specific demands. That usually means mastering the fundamentals and giving all you can for the patient. The more diverse your opportunities and challenges early on will prepare you for specific challenges down the road.

How would your advice differ to to new grad physical therapists already out and working in a different setting?

I’m not really bringing much variety to the table, but find a mentor, be a mentor, and grind. Reps will build your skill set, while staying active in the evidence-base helps you question everything in a productive fashion. It’s never too early or too late to do any of that, regardless of where you are in your career.

Dr. Short joined the Denver Nuggets Basketball Club in the fall of 2014 as the Team Physical Therapist and Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach. Prior to joining the Nuggets, he served in private practice at Back in Motion Physical Therapy in Kingsford, MI. Dr. Short graduated with a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from the University of Dayton after serving with the Oklahoma City Thunder during the 2013-14 season.

Dr. Short is a Sports Certified Specialist through American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties and currently a Fellow-in- Training through Regis University’s Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapy Fellowship program. He became a certified strength and conditioning specialist while quarterbacking the Michigan Tech Huskies and completing his undergraduate studies in biology and exercise science. Along the way, he has completed additional certifications in numerous clinical subspecialties while focusing on sports performance and rehabilitation.

Dr. Short is an active participant in evidence informed practice, researching, publishing, and presenting content regarding injury risk reduction, sports performance, functional movement and hip and groin injury and rehabilitation. He spent the summer of 2016 as the lead performance coach for the German National Basketball Team and is a faculty member for the Institute of Clinical Excellence.