The "Practice" of Massage

When having people introduce themselves at the beginning of a seminar, I often ask attending therapists how long they have been practicing. As someone who has been a massage therapist since 1977, I have learned that having a massage practice does not, however, mean that the therapist is also involved in massage "practice". To fully understand this concept, we can gain insight from other disciplines, whether in the arts or athletics.

Professional golfers spend far more time on the driving range than they do on the golf course. The driving range is the place to experiment with new approaches to your shots, strategies, and techniques. Try these on the course and the odds are that you will end up far out of bounds, somewhere in a grove of trees or a field of broccoli. You are far less likely to experiment with new techniques while playing with others because your possible failures and struggles will affect your playing partners as well. The reasonable approach is to do what you know- predictability is paramount. Unfortunately, your score will also be fairly predictable. This is why many golfers play for decades with little improvement in their scores and accept that as the norm.

The same is often true with massage therapy. It is my experience that few therapists spend time practicing the component skills of massage outside of putting them to use in a session with actual clients.  Just like the golf course, the therapist is likely to default back to that which is comfortable, rather than that which is potentially more effective. The prospect of failing has consequences that discourage exploration and innovation. Learning is by nature fraught with failure and correction, something that makes it crucial that the learning environment is a place where is it is safe to fail.

What is necessary to begin such a practice? First, just like a sport, each component of the larger activity must be isolated. Once you know these components, exercises must be designed to explore a myriad of options to accomplish and perfect each component skill. This has to be repeated so many times that the practitioner moves from "conscious competence" to "unconscious competence". As an example, a baseball player does not say to themselves, upon seeing the ball leave the pitchers hand, that the rotation of the ball seems to be thus and so, therefore the ball is likely to move to the outside and then dip precipitously. The batter just reacts, having seen that ball rotation thousands of times, (with the resultant failures). We non-baseball players might say they reacted intuitively, but many hundreds of hours of struggle were involved in creating that instantaneous reaction.

I had the good fortune, when working for teams in the NBA and NFL many years ago, to observe how they "practiced". Elaborate exercises were developed and explored, at skill levels far higher than the actual game situations called for. I have also seen this process occur in the number world class musicians that who have graced my treatment table. They are grand students of their discipline, spending countless hours on the smallest of nuances. One client of mine, a world class pianist, told me what makes him excel is his ability to focus on subtleties. While other people are practicing elaborate pieces from Liszt and Rachmaninoff, he can spend hours striking the same key, trying to elicit different sounds by the quality of his touch.

What I have noticed about all performers, both artist and athletic, is their love of the process. They embrace the discipline of their chosen field and do not shy away from the hard work it takes to succeed. Time in the practice room, driving range, or practice court is a very personal time for renewal, growth, and exploration.

There are multiple ways that you can "practice" massage. The seventeen therapists on my clinic staff are involved in doing just that with a series of "refinement" small group meetings. They pick an area of the body or a small list of muscles to address. After comparing each therapist’s approach to that muscle, the very best is selected. Each therapist then tries to replicate exactly the winning approach, with a second therapist acting as participant, receiving the technique and giving precise feedback. The end result is an elevation of skill levels and the process is also a lot of fun. As a group, we learn from each other and each therapist has something to share. 

It is my hope that this article will inspire you to explore various ways to deepen your "practice" of massage. I invite you to reflect on the various components that make transform massage therapy into the realm of excellence.  Practice and deepen your understanding and mastery of those components and you (and your clients) will experience the difference.

This subject of mastery and practice will also be the entire theme of a conference I am sponsoring June 3-5, 2016.   (PNMT Colloquium 2016- The Path to Mastery).  I hope to see you there!


Douglas Nelson, LMT, CNMT, BCTMB