Back in August, Mark asked me to do a guest blog post regarding the theme “So you think you want my job?” At that time, I was just beginning the sports residency program at The Ohio State University. I was still finding my way as a new sports resident and as a brand new clinician. Who are we kidding? I am still trying to find my way, but I do believe the residency is doing its part in trying to accelerate the process. It goes without saying that as a new grad you will experience many highs and lows. Before I get in to the specifics of why I chose to do a sports residency, I believe it is important to understand the ups and downs that I myself experienced as an athlete. These experiences have helped shaped who I am today, teaching me many important life lessons that can be very applicable in my decision to pursue further education and training.
Throughout my youth and all the way through college, I played sports – basketball, specifically. For me, there was no better feeling than competing on the court and well, of course, winning. I am sure if you asked most people to describe me, one of the first words that would come to mind would be competitive. Sports just so happen to be more fun and enjoyable when you are fairly decent at it. For the longest time, it was that joy of competing and the desire to be the best that drove me to a Division I scholarship. That meant hours on the weekend or at night spent running an extra mile or shooting an additional 500 shots and less time spent having fun with my friends. But when you want to achieve something, that is exactly what you do because working hard and putting in effort requires zero skill.
When I played my last basketball game of my career on March 11, 2011, I felt lost afterwards. I did not know what the next step would be. I had no idea what I wanted to pursue. When you do something for so long, it becomes part of your identify and it is often difficult to separate from what has consumed more than half of your life. My senior year of college sports was far from perfect. In fact, it was probably the exact opposite. Most people envision ending their career riding off in the sunset, ending it on their own terms, and finishing it off with a championship of some sorts. The reality is, for most, the season ends on a loss. There can only be one champion, after all. My team finished my senior season with a record of 9-22. I battled injuries for most of the season, spending countless hours in the athletic training room just to prepare for a game, both physically and mentally. At times, I would wake up in the morning and wonder if making it through the game was even feasible. The majority of my season was played with bilateral navicular stress fractures. The problem was going on much longer than I even care to admit or cared to share with anyone else while it was going on. As a sports medicine major in undergrad, I was fairly in tune with what was going on with my body. So naturally I waited until the pain became unbearable and until it was too late to medically redshirt before I admitted to anyone I was injured.
Athletes just want to play. Everyone knows that. This comes as a surprise to no one. Despite the injuries, I knew it was my last season and that I wanted to do whatever I could to play through it. And that is exactly what I did. For the longest time, I did not take practices off. I did not take games off. I did nothing differently. I just played as hard as I could because that was all I ever knew. It was not until the middle of January during the season when I began resting during the week and participating in pre-game practices only to save my body for games. Deep down, I hated that. I felt like if I couldn’t do it during practice then how could I expect myself to perform during a game? In actuality, it was the best plan for me. My legs felt fresh during games and the pain was much more manageable. While I questioned at one point if I would make it through the season, this plan gave me hope that I would indeed be able to make it through the rest of my senior season.
That plan changed on February 5, 2011. Just 9 minutes in to our annual breast cancer awareness game, I dislocated my thumb. At the time, my only perception of dislocated fingers was the time Kobe Bryant did it. I remember him walking over to Gary Vitti, the Head Athletic Trainer of the Lakers at the time. Gary popped it back in and Kobe immediately went back to playing. I obviously did not factor in the difference between a thumb and a finger. I had my finger reduced, asked to be taped up, and then requested to be put back in the game. Only 2/3 of that went as planned. I would not reenter the game and would miss the next 7 days of practice including one game. I returned just in time for Senior Night with my thumb heavily taped. I was very frustrated, though. One thumb changed not only the way I dribbled, but how I caught and shot the ball. I felt that was how my season ended – with pure frustration. I lost my starting job and could not compete at 100 percent for multiple reasons.
When I sat in the locker room following the final game of my career, I had no idea what the future would hold. I tried desperately to hang on to the sport. The following season I became a graduate assistant women’s basketball coach at a university while simultaneously pursuing my Master’s degree in Kinesiology. But it ultimately did not seem to be where my heart was. Physical therapy came up as a career option multiple times throughout my one-year of coaching both through conversations with several of my friends who were currently in PT school and with athletes who suffered from injuries and were forced to pursue rehabilitation. At that time, I thought I had no chance of getting accepted into a physical therapy program. My grades during undergrad were not stellar. I decided to pursue it anyways.
The passion that I had about pursuing my DPT degree felt similar to how I once felt about the game of basketball. I spent an additional year finishing up pre-requisites and working as a physical therapy tech as I applied to several PT programs. I received multiple rejection letters, placed on the wait-list by a few, and a couple of acceptances. I ultimately settled in on attending Angelo State’s DPT program. I chose Angelo State for multiple reasons, but after undergoing the recruiting process for basketball, there is something to be said for the importance of a good atmosphere and solid support system being in place. During my interview at Angelo State, it instantly felt like family and that meant a lot to me. Additionally, it felt like a great place and opportunity for me to fully invest in my future profession as a physical therapist.
You may be wondering what does this all mean in terms of why I chose to pursue a sports residency. From the time I began PT school at Angelo State University in June 2013, I knew I wanted to pursue a sports residency. I feel that much of my past helps explain this. I think about my time as an athlete and the amount of hours I spent honing my skills. I take that same approach with me as I develop as a clinician. When you want to be good at your craft, you have to be willing to put in the work and effort that will help you excel. Surround yourself with people who know more than you do and will challenge you because they want to make you better. Put yourself in a situation that makes you want to go the extra mile to be successful. But most importantly, remember the ultimate reason for wanting to pursue further training – your patients. When I competed on the basketball court, I never wanted to let a teammate or coach down. That is why I competed as hard as I could for every practice and every game. As a physical therapist, I want my patients to get the best possible care. In a residency, you are not necessarily competing against anyone else per se, but you are most certainly competing against yourself to become the therapist you desire to be. During any given week, I could be preparing for an upcoming lecture for students in the DPT program, a presentation to faculty members of the residency program, a practical for an on-field scenario, or many other learning opportunities associated with the residency. While many may view this as just more schooling similar to the curriculum they just completed in PT school, I view it as an opportunity to become a leader in the sports medicine field. I view these as opportunities that I may not have had the opportunity to pursue had I not chosen to do a residency.
A residency may not be the best option for everyone to achieve their goals. You must consider multiple options. I knew a residency was the best avenue for me to pursue my goals. We will all learn through trial and error at some point in our careers. In many cases, we will reflect on our treatment of patients and think to ourselves the many ways we could have had our patients achieving their goals for therapy 4 weeks faster. Don’t get me wrong; as a resident, I still experience this type of learning. However, between the mentoring I am provided with both during and outside of treatment time, serving as a teaching assistant in musculoskeletal labs, providing event coverage for the OSU rugby team, participating in physician shadowing and surgery observation, partaking in a clinical research project, and performing various skills check-offs and practicals – I feel confident that this allows me to push myself in a way that I could not achieve on my own. It reminds me of the countless ways I used to pursue my dreams as an athlete. Both of these are experiences go to show you that a little extra work can go a long way in accomplishing your goals.
About the author: Jennifer Fath, PT, DPT, MS, CSCS
Jennifer completed her Bachelor’s Degree with a major in Sports Medicine at University of the Pacific (Stockton, CA) in 2011. While at Pacific, she competed as a Division I athlete on the women’s basketball team. Prior to completing her DPT degree, Jennifer served as a Graduate Assistant Women’s Basketball Coach at The University of Texas-Pan American (Edinburg, TX) during the 2011-2012 season while completing her Master of Science degree in Kinesiology. She earned her Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree from Angelo State University (San Angelo, TX) in 2016 and was awarded the “Outstanding Service” Award upon graduation. During her time in PT school, Jennifer served as Class President, the APTA Student Assembly Texas Core Ambassador as well as President of the TPTA Student Special Interest Group. Additionally, Jennifer worked as a Graduate Assistant, mentoring and assisting first year students throughout her time in PT school. Immediately following PT school, she pursued further education and is certified in the Selective Functional Movement Assessment, the Functional Movement Screen, and Y-Balance testing. Currently, Jennifer works as a Sports Resident Physical Therapist at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.