How to Become a Sports Doctor


A young sports medicine doctor

A sports doctor can enjoy the coveted stability and satisfaction of a career treating patients in a hospital or clinic. And at the same time, this doctor could also work for professional or college sports teams, traveling with the players and enjoying games from the sidelines! Not many careers boast such a varied professional landscape, but this variety is just one of the many appeals of becoming a sports doctor.

Sports doctors are medical professionals whose specialty is the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of injuries from athletic activities. These doctors generally focus on joint, bone and muscle health, although they also offer more generalized medical care as well to the people with whom they work. Sports medicine prepares these doctors for work either in a traditional hospital or clinic setting, or in sporting events at both the professional and college levels. No matter where they choose to work, sports doctors enjoy the deep gratification of helping active people recover from sports-related injuries and return to the lifestyles they love.

Work Environment

The field of sports medicine is evolving. In addition to working with athletic teams and in private physicians’ offices, sports medicine doctors sometimes work in fitness centers, hospitals and clinics. Some doctors further focus on specific groups such as geriatric populations or school-age children.



Many students who are interested in going on to medical school complete a bachelor’s degree with a pre-med concentration that gives them a solid foundation in biology, chemistry and physics. Getting into medical school can be competitive, so students must complete the courses and have excellent grades to be a good applicant. Students will also be required to pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) in order to get into medical school. Those interested in sports medicine are usually sports lovers themselves, often involved in some kind of team or individual sports activity.

Most sports doctors complete a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) or a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree. These degree programs generally involve four years of academic coursework in biology, biochemistry, anatomy, pathology, psychology, physiology, medical ethics and pharmacology. Medical students must also complete a clinical residency, which gives hands-on practice in a variety of clinical settings under the supervision of doctors and healthcare professionals. 

Since sports medicine is a subspecialty, doctors must get a certification of added qualification (CAQ) in sports medicine. To prepare for this, doctors complete a two-year fellowship in sports medicine at a hospital, rehabilitation facility or university athletic department. These two years expose doctors to different types of athletic-related injuries and methods of diagnosing and treating them. Additionally, the fellowship provides experience with orthopedic surgeries, rehabilitative techniques, brain trauma, nutrition and performance psychology. Orthopedic surgeons can also apply for fellowships in this field but added qualification certification is not required.


A three-year residency in primary care, emergency, internal or rehabilitative medicine offers suitable training for a sports medicine specialization, though some students choose a five-year residency in orthopedic surgery. It may be possible to secure an elective rotation in sports medicine during this stage. 

Licensing and/or Certification

All states require medical doctors to be licensed, so sports doctors must check with their state’s licensing board for specific requirements.

In addition to a license, doctors may seek certification by a recognized professional organization. This certification will help make the doctor a better job candidate since it will show that he or she has met the organization’s professional requirements and is staying up-to-date in developments in this subspecialty through continuing education courses. Certification in sports medicine is offered by the following organizations:

  • American Board of Medical Specialists (ABMS)
  • American Osteopathic Association (AOA)

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Sports doctors possess empathy, compassion and good communication and problem-solving skills in order to provide the best treatment to their patients. This medical specialty also requires good dexterity and stamina. 

Opportunities for Advancement

A position in clinics or hospitals will provide the sports doctor with opportunities for advancement, depending on experience and continuing education. Doctors with several years of successful experience and continuing education may take on supervisory or management roles, potentially becoming head of a department.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a sports doctor, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics has estimated a median annual salary of $396,233 for all specialty physicians - a group that includes sports medicine doctors - as of 2012. Meanwhile, reports that the median salary for sports medicine doctors as of October 2014 is $204,054, with the top ten percent of earners making over $309,000.

Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth for physicians in general will be 18% from 2012 to 2022, which means physicians like sports medicine doctors will enjoy faster than average job growth even as they also enjoy salaries that are much higher than average. As more people discover the exhilaration and health benefits of exercise, and increasing numbers of people participate in extreme sports, the need for sports doctors will increase.

Interestingly, many professional sports teams no longer hire their own sports doctors; instead, some hospitals or clinics pay the team for the privilege of being listed as a sponsor and provide sports doctors from their staff to assist at practices and games.

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