Get ready for an exhilarating glimpse into the extraordinary lives of sports physiotherapists, the unsung heroes behind athletes’ triumphs and challenges. In this exclusive interview, we delve into the remarkable experiences of Dr. Swapnil Mate, a renowned sports physio who has worked closely with the Indian Olympics team. Brace yourself for inspiring insights and invaluable lessons from the world of sports physiotherapy.


Interviewer: Good day, sir. It is an absolute pleasure to be in your presence today. To start our interview, could you kindly share with us a glimpse into your background and what inspired you to embark on a remarkable career as a sports physiotherapist?

Dr. Swapnil: Hello, it’s a pleasure to be here. I completed my graduation from Topiwala National Medical College in Bombay in 2009, followed by further studies at the University of Salford in the UK. I also hold a diploma in Sports Medicine and Sports Physical Therapy from the International Olympic Committee. During the London Olympics, I had the opportunity to work with the shooting team and completed advanced rehabilitation programs and certifications. I specialize in soft tissue skills and have gained experience working with teams like the national team representing India, boxing team, pro kabaddi, and Mumbai City FC in the ISL. My passion for sports developed during my school days playing cricket at the district level. Personal shoulder injuries sparked my interest in physiotherapy, and I researched the field while preparing for medical entrance exams. Interactions with physical therapists in Bombay inspired me to pursue a career in sports physiotherapy, despite initial expectations to pursue a medical career.


Interviewer: Many patients and physiotherapy students struggle to distinguish between MSK (musculoskeletal) physiotherapy and sports physiotherapy. They often mistakenly believe that an MSK physiotherapist can fully function as a sports physiotherapist. Could you clarify the differences between these two specializations?

Dr. Swapnil:The difference between MSK (Musculoskeletal) physiotherapy and sports physiotherapy lies in their treatment approaches. MSK physiotherapy focuses on slower-paced rehabilitation in clinical settings, while sports physiotherapy targets faster recovery and pain management for athletes. Sports physiotherapy requires adapting techniques to meet the unique demands of the sporting world, pushing me to develop new strategies. Both branches are valuable, with MSK physiotherapy catering to a broader range of individuals and sports physiotherapy specializing in athletes’ needs. In my journey, I started as an MSK physiotherapist and later had the opportunity to work with sports teams. Adapting my techniques to meet the demands of the sporting world, I developed new strategies to ensure quick rehabilitation without compromising athletes’ fitness parameters. This journey allowed me to gain expertise in both MSK and sports physiotherapy, where the focus is on restoring function and enhancing quality of life.


Interviewer: When athletes are eager to rush their rehabilitation process and return to the field as quickly as possible, how do you handle such situations?

Dr. Swapnil: In the realm of sports physiotherapy, the focus is actually on facilitating a swift and efficient rehabilitation process for athletes, especially in prominent European leagues and sporting organizations. These leagues prioritize the rapid recovery of their players to ensure that their performance levels are not compromised upon their return from injury. As sports physiotherapists, our mission is to expedite the rehabilitation process by providing athletes with cutting-edge techniques, advanced interventions, and innovative resources. We meticulously monitor and maintain their fitness parameters throughout the recovery journey. Leveraging the advancements in sports medicine, we strive to accelerate athletes’ recovery, enabling them to resume their respective sports with minimal disruption. In this era of medical advancements and state-of-the-art materials, our ultimate goal is to ensure that athletes regain their full functionality as quickly as possible while safeguarding their coordination and overall fitness parameters.


Interviewer: During your team tours, how do you structure your schedule and effectively manage your workload to stay organized amidst the busyness of your role?

Dr. Swapnil : In my experience, when touring with a professional kabaddi team, the workload initially fell mainly on the physical therapist due to limited support staff. This included overseeing fitness training, addressing injuries, and providing rehabilitation measures, often resulting in long workdays of 16 to 17 hours. However, as the sport gained popularity, additional personnel like masseurs, strength and conditioning coaches, and sports medicine doctors were incorporated to enhance the rehabilitation process and distribute the workload more evenly. Despite the expanded team, being a sports physical therapist requires constant availability and vigilance, as emergencies can arise at any time. The evolving dynamics of workload management emphasize the importance of a well-structured support system for efficient and comprehensive athlete care.


Interviewer: Could you provide us with an overview of the other team members who accompany athletes on tour, aside from the physiotherapists?

Dr. Swapnil : During our collaboration with the Indian shooting team, we were fortunate to have a well-rounded support staff, including a sports physiotherapist, mental coach, and strength and conditioning coach. These key individuals formed the core of our team. Additionally, analysts, chiropractors, nutritionists, psychologists, and yoga specialists may be included depending on the team’s requirements. The composition of the support staff is tailored to address the specific needs of athletes, providing comprehensive care for physical, mental, and performance aspects. This collaborative approach ensures athletes are well-prepared and primed for success in their respective sports.


Interviewer: How do you approach determining the most suitable treatment plan for an athlete’s injury? Can you guide us through your decision-making process when addressing the needs of patients with injuries?

Dr. Swapnil: When determining a treatment protocol for athletes, our approach centers around specific goals and the severity of the injury. For minor injuries, we prioritize effective pain management, while more severe cases may require further investigations and potential surgical interventions. We incorporate advanced techniques such as dry needling, taping, and facial manipulation to expedite recovery and enhance performance. An example that highlights the challenges we face is the case of Samir, a key player in a professional kabaddi team who suffered a fracture in his radius ulna. We modified his playing style to reduce the risk of re-injury and implemented measures like tight arm casting to protect the affected area. This case underscores the dynamic nature of our profession and the need to adapt treatment goals for individual athletes. While managing common injuries falls within our expertise, there are instances where unconventional methods are required. These experiences highlight the complexities involved in addressing unique cases and showcase the ever-evolving nature of our profession.


Interviewer: How do you ensure that athletes have achieved full recovery and are prepared for competition?

Dr. Swapnil: When it comes to returning athletes to play, cricket stands out as a sport that strictly follows a structured ‘return to sports protocol.’ In contrast, many other sports often have coaches pushing athletes to participate even if they are not fully physically fit. Assessing an athlete’s fitness parameters and determining their readiness to play is crucial. This phase, known as “return to sport,” is particularly relevant in cricket and football at the elite level. However, in sports like Kabaddi, athletes are expected to play even if they are not fully recovered. 

In lower levels of sports, decisions about returning to play are often based on pain management and the athlete’s willingness to participate. Waiting for injuries to completely heal could result in athletes being unable to compete for an extended period. Therefore, certain injuries may be overlooked or considered acceptable for play.

Cricket, known for its inherent injury risk, often sees players competing with some level of pain. It is rare to find a player who claims to be completely injury-free. As long as the athlete can perform at their optimal level, having some amount of pain is considered acceptable. Practicality dictates that athletes frequently make decisions about playing based on various factors.

While cricket and football follow structured return-to-play protocols, European countries involve doctors alongside coaches and support staff in the decision-making process. In Indian sports, the coaches’ judgment often takes precedence over the recommendations of sports physical therapists. This can lead to situations where athletes, like Graham Smith with a broken wrist, defy theoretical expectations and play due to the demands of the sport. 

When determining an athlete’s treatment protocol, we conduct a thorough assessment of their fitness parameters before advising them to resume play. We prioritize injury management and educate athletes about the risks of not properly nursing their injury, as it could lead to relapse or further complications. It is crucial to educate not only the athletes but also the support staff, coaches, and the entire management team to make informed decisions that prioritize the athlete’s health and well-being.


Interviewer: Can you describe a situation where you encountered a challenging injury and had to think creatively to find a unique solution? Please share an example from your own experience.

Dr. Swapnil: There was a memorable incident during a boxing match where one of the fighters suffered a dislocated jaw due to a powerful punch. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the appropriate splints on hand to provide immediate support. However, we had to think on our feet and find a creative solution. We improvised by using tapes and a cardboard splint to stabilize the fighter’s jaw, enabling them to continue the match. Our primary goal was to ensure the completion of the fight without compromising the athlete’s well-being. In another instance, during a Kabaddi match, a player experienced a concussion. It was crucial to prioritize their safety, so we sought permission from the pro-Kabaddi management for the player to wear a helmet during the match. Since Kabaddi was still a relatively new sport with limited rules and regulations, this out-of-the-box thinking was necessary to provide the necessary protection and support. Dealing with physical injuries not only requires finding innovative solutions but also addressing the mental and emotional aspects of the athletes. It can be challenging for athletes to cope with the emotional and mental distress that often accompanies physical injuries. Therefore, we must consider and manage these factors effectively to support the athlete’s overall well-being and recovery.

Dr Swapnil treating an injured Kabaddi player.
Dr Swapnil treating an injured Kabaddi player.


Interviewer – How do you approach comprehensive athlete management?

Dr. Swapnil: Mental fitness is crucial in the world of shooting, as I experienced while working with Gagan Narang and the Indian shooting team. In a highly competitive field, even the smallest differences can determine success. As a sports physical therapist, I focus on rehabilitation while relying on dedicated mental coaching staff and sports psychologists to guide athletes in areas like focus and execution. Collaboration with specialists ensures comprehensive care, acknowledging the significance of mental fitness alongside physical well-being. Gagan Narang exemplifies the importance of both aspects in achieving peak performance.


Interviewer – Have there been instances where you had differing opinions from the coach or other support staff members?

Dr. Swapnil: Certainly, there have been several occasions where I’ve found myself in disagreement with the coach or other members of the support staff. The role of injuries in shaping a player’s performance is fascinating, and it’s crucial for coaches to understand the science behind them. However, in many cases, Indian coaches have been accustomed to leading teams without a dedicated physiotherapist, which can create challenges when introducing new perspectives. Navigating these differences is essential, and effective communication with the coach becomes paramount.

Educating coaches about the science of injuries and the importance of balanced training is crucial. Some coaches believe more playing time leads to better performance, but it’s about playing smart. Coach education programs promote collaboration and respect for the entire support team, including physiotherapists. We’re making progress by including these discussions in team meetings and development courses, prioritizing player performance and injury prevention through teamwork and effective communication.


Interviewer – Have you ever encountered a situation where either the coach or the patient suggested an alternative treatment approach?

Dr Swapnil – Certainly, there have been instances where the coach or the patient has expressed alternative treatment suggestions. One such case occurred during my time with the Bengal Warriors Kabaddi team. The coach and player proposed a specific remedy for a shoulder subluxation, which involved applying turmeric paste( haldi ka laep) to facilitate healing. Despite it being unconventional, I prioritized the player’s well-being and respected their beliefs by incorporating their suggested treatment. This dynamic is unique to Kabaddi, as players and coaches often have their own established methods of injury management. However, in most other sports, the trust in the expertise of sports physiotherapists results in minimal interference with treatment decisions. While navigating such situations can be challenging, it is crucial to find a balance between respecting the player’s input and maintaining professional expertise


Interviewer –Could you explain the rehabilitation process for an ACL tear? What are the sequential steps you follow when treating an ACL tear?.

Dr Swapnil: The rehabilitation process for an ACL tear typically consists of three stages. Initially, the focus is on pain management and ensuring proper recovery post-surgery. The next stage involves regaining normal range of motion and strengthening the affected leg. Proprioception training follows, leading to more advanced workouts targeting overall fitness. The aim is to facilitate a return to sports activities within three to four months, while also maintaining a balanced approach to avoid compromising the athlete’s performance and coordination. For non-operative cases, the emphasis is on pain management, support, and gradually introducing appropriate training. The choice of graft also influences recovery time. Educating patients about the importance of dedication, following prescribed exercises, and adhering to the recommended rehabilitation program is crucial. Setting targets and breaking them down into smaller steps helps athletes stay motivated and actively participate in their recovery journey.

Dr Swapnil in an educational teaching session.
Dr Swapnil in an educational teaching session.


Interviewer- Thank you for your valuable insights. As we conclude, what advice would you offer to aspiring BPT students who have a passion for becoming sports physiotherapists?

Dr Swapnil: As a sports physiotherapist with nearly five years of teaching experience, my advice to aspiring sports physiotherapists and BPT students is to prioritize the development of strong clinical examination skills and the ability to make accurate diagnoses. These fundamental aspects are crucial for effective rehabilitation. I recommend taking specialized courses in sports rehabilitation or focusing on musculoskeletal rotations to enhance expertise in these areas. It is also essential to continuously expand knowledge by staying updated with relevant literature and participating in further education. By immersing oneself in advancements and emerging trends, one can become a better clinician and provide optimal care to athletes. Embracing challenges, working hard, remaining humble, and persevering through adversity are key qualities for success in the field. By committing to continuous learning and demonstrating a passion for the profession, aspiring sports physiotherapists have the opportunity to make a profound impact on athletes’ lives.


In the article, Dr. Kashyap conducted an interview with Dr. Swapnil Mate.


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