Super Bowl Chiropractor
Q&A with Seattle Seahawks team DC Jim Kurtz.
With opening night of the 2014 National Football League season only a month away, what better time to talk to Dr. Jim Kurtz, team chiropractor for the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks? In this interview, which appeared originally in the May/June 2014 issue of Health Insights Today and is reprinted with permission, Dr. Kurtz describes the joys of being a team chiropractor, along with the level of commitment required and the long work days involved. Sprinkled throughout are words of sage advice for young DCs with a passion for athletics.
Let's start with the 2014 Super Bowl, where the Seattle Seahawks defeated the Denver Broncos. As someone who has been the Seahawks' team chiropractor for the past four years, was your experience at the Super Bowl different than other games? It is different, of course, but in a way it's just another game. There's all the media hype and attention, and it's very special to win a world championship. It's great to see everyone's hard work – coaches, staff, players – finally pay off. It's an amazing experience that's hard to put into words.
Kind of a dream come true? Definitely.
A Team Effort
You've described the Seahawks' sports medicine staff as "outstanding and progressive." What other types of practitioners work with you on the staff? And how did you develop such a world-class level of collaboration? Much of the credit goes to Sam Ramsden, the Seahawks' head of human performance, and Donald Rich, who is the head athletic trainer. They bring a great deal of experience in the NFL, and working with athletes in general. They are very open to integrating a wide variety of treatment methods, new assessments or rehab protocols, and cutting-edge performance enhancement tools of all kinds. They have a great respect for chiropractic as part of that system.
First Big Break: Chosen as DC for the Professional Golfers Association
You were previously involved with the U.S. Olympic Committee and the Seattle Sounders [Major League Soccer]. Tell us about some of those experiences. Actually, my first big break came in 2002, when I was called to do an interview with the PGA [Professional Golfers Association] Tour. I eventually was selected as a member of their sports medicine staff and that was my first true big break in pro sports. I traveled extensively with them during the 2002-2004 seasons and really enjoyed working with some very top-notch physical therapists and athletic trainers on the PGA Tour staff.
Long Hours Require High Level of Commitment
You mentioned "the daily grind." With the PGA or one of the other experiences you've had in pro sports, what is a typical day like? That's a really a good question; no one's ever asked me that. Some of my patients or friends might see me on TV, or on the sidelines of an NFL game, and they see me standing there watching the game. What they don't realize is that we're working long hours during the week leading up to a game, or the weeks and months leading up to a golf tournament or an Olympic Games, etc.
The typical day starts early. For the PGA tour, it starts at 5:15 in the morning and goes all the way to 5:30 or 6:30 at night, with very little break in between.
So you have to be in good shape yourself to do this. Yes. You're seeing one athlete after another throughout the day. In the NFL, at the training facility, we start work at 6:45 in the morning, and we go until 5 or 6 at night. Before games, we treat right up until curfew, which is at 11 p.m. Then on game day, we get up early again at 7 a.m., and get to the stadium about 4 hours before the game and start treating players. The trainers are treating as well, getting guys ready, taping them, stretching them, running them through drills or rehab exercises. And then the game starts.
For a chiropractor, there's not a ton of activity during a game. I mean, if somebody needs my help during a game, it's usually not a good sign. There's a lot of equipment to be removed to treat them really effectively. We try to have guys taken care of before the game. Occasionally, I have to adjust a player on the sidelines or do some muscle work like [active release] on the sidelines. However, the bulk of the work is done before and after the games.
We work very long days, seven days a week. It's a big commitment to work at that level. Not to mention all the travel, which takes a toll on you and the players you work with after awhile.
"I Always Wanted to Be Involved"
You were starting to speak about your work with the U.S. Olympic Committee. This was the Paralympics, right? Which I guess is a different story. Yes, it certainly is. I could talk for hours about that. I always wanted to be involved with the Olympics. I was kind an Olympic nut as a kid. There was a gentleman I worked for in college who was a three-time Olympian. His name was Ed Burke and he owned a gym, and I was a personal trainer there. I was able to see him train and then compete in his last Olympics, at the Los Angeles Games when he was in his 40s. He carried the flag for Team USA in the opening ceremonies of the games in L.A.
Ed really inspired me. I don't remember the exact words, but he said something like, "Jim, there's no difference between me and some other person. I'm just willing to do things that other people are not willing to do to get to where I want to be." I totally saw that in him. He ran a successful business, was a husband and father, worked long hours, and he trained early in the morning and late at night. He became an American record holder and a world champion in the hammer throw. He taught me that dreams can come true if you apply yourself and work hard enough. Coincidentally, he is actually now coaching my son, who is a student at Cal Berkeley, in the hammer throw. So things kind of come full circle. Not to diverge too much...
No, that's beautiful. Please keep going. So I wanted to be involved in the Olympics. In the 1980s, when I was in chiropractic college, I had heard of Dr. Jan Corwin, who had been on the U.S. Olympic Medical Staff as a chiropractor. And I thought, I want to do that someday. So I applied in 2000 and was accepted in 2004, and went there and got a totally different experience than I ever thought I would.
An Unexpected Turn of Events
What was different? The first day, I was assigned to go to the gymnasium and told to help these ladies who were playing volleyball. I went over there by myself, found it, walked in the door, and my mouth dropped open. The reason it dropped open was that there were all these young ladies sitting on the floor of the volleyball court, and to my left was a bench. There were water bottles on the bench, but there was one other thing that was way different than I'd ever seen. There was an entire row of prosthetic legs propped up against the bench. I was trying not to look shocked. But I was shocked because nobody had prepared me.
They all started laughing. They said, "Come on in, doc, we need a hand shagging balls." And I was thinking, "Oh my gosh, these people are missing a leg, or two legs." I was just shocked. So I went in, I shagged balls with them, got to know them. I mean, I almost tear up talking about this...
I then went in, that evening, for my first rotation in the sports med center. And some of those ladies came in and got treated. For many of them, it was their first experience being treated by a chiropractor. Pretty soon, they started telling their friends. I had wheelchair athletes, the [women's] wheelchair basketball team, people from all these different sports coming in. There were Olympic athletes there, too, but I was really touched and inspired by these Paralympic athletes, who are our nation's top athletes with a disability. I had no idea that these people even existed. In the 1990s, I had seen a chiropractor from Santa Barbara working with a disabled athlete who completed the Ironman. I thought, Wow! I was impressed by that.
But I [also] thought, that's just one guy. But here I was with all these athletes. In some cases, they had been in an accident and lost a limb. In others, they had some kind of birth defect. After hearing their stories of what they had each overcome to get to that level, I was really inspired.
"It Changed My Life"
Pretty soon, I didn't even notice their physical differences. I just realized that these athletes possessed incredible heart and determination. And they all had smiles.
It changed my life. I had been super-fearful about public speaking for my entire life. And when I came back, I told myself that if those people can do what they're doing, I can sure as hell deliver a speech in front of people. So I started doing that, and started teaching. I owe that to them. I doesn't seem like that big a deal, but when you're introverted, and crippled by your fears like that, it was a big deal for me. Something clicked for me. I thought, I am pathetic if I can't get over this.
We never know where our next inspiration is going to come from. This is such a beautiful story you're telling. And it would be beautiful even if it had not resulted in your overcoming your fear of public speaking. But the fact that it did that, too, is just fantastic. Thank you! It was really something [laughter]. So I went there with this idea of working with professional and big time Olympic athletes, and I was inspired by these other people that I didn't even expect to meet. Then two years went by, and I got a call. The U.S. Olympic Committee had decided to add a chiropractor to their medical team, for the first time ever, at a Paralympic Games. So I went to Rio de Janeiro in 2007 as Team USA's chiropractor to the ParaPan American Games. There were over a hundred athletes on the team, all with various disabilities. It was another incredible experience; not only being with them, but [also] being in the Olympic village with between 4,000 and 5,000 disabled athletes from all over the world.
I still remember so many things, I have so many pictures that I've hardly shared with anybody. I remember sitting at breakfast at one point toward the end of the Games, and watching a man across from me at the table, eating a bowl of cereal, with no arms. He had the spoon tucked under his collar bone and his chin, and he had trained himself to bend down, pick up the food, and somehow spin it around and put the food in his mouth. I'm sitting there eating and trying not to stare at people, him or anyone else. Most of us take so much for granted!
Do you recall what sport that man played? No. He wasn't from the United States and he didn't speak English, so I never found out.
It's amazing what people can overcome. It is amazing.
Secrets of Success
You've been a sports chiropractor for over 20 years. Please share with us how you developed and refined your skills. What trainings or directions were most helpful to you? I think my secret to success in sports chiropractic is that I love to learn and I am just crazy about sports. I attend a ton of continuing-education courses in all sorts of disciplines, and I kind of borrow techniques from everyone I work with and then make them my own. The other thing would be that I looked at other people that were doing the kinds of things that I wanted to do, and I got to know them.
I joined the ACA Sports and Rehab Councils and the ACBSP group. I attended all their annual sports symposiums, and learned [about] and became friends with a lot of people there that were working toward similar goals. I just worked a lot of different athletic events and learned by trial and error, as many people do. (That's basically my short answer.)
Were you an athlete yourself? I was an athlete. In high school I ran cross country and track, and I [suffered] a number of injuries. I saw a number of chiropractors and they altered my career path. They made me aware of chiropractic's benefits.
What's the role of rehabilitation in your work with the Seahawks, and in your practice overall? Your practice is called NW Sports Rehab. It's hugely important in my offices and with the team. My own experiences with my own sports injuries led me to conclude that I don't think you can effectively treat and resolve any musculoskeletal issue without using some kind of rehabilitation. That's where it started. I have athletic trainers in both of our offices who carry out our rehabilitation, and of course I do some of it myself. But I really enjoy working with athletic trainers and other health care professionals.
Utilizing rehabilitation in my offices has opened a lot of doors to medical doctors feeling OK about referring to a chiropractor. I still feel that this is an untapped area for chiropractors. I've had the opportunity to work with many MDs and become friends with them. One thing they often share with me is a concern that if they send a patient to a chiropractor, they will have to keep coming back over and over again. But these doctors understand the rehab model, most of them, and they get that we're effective at what we do. As soon as I incorporated that rehab model into my practice, the floodgates just opened up. That's been a great thing.
Your website shows several DCs on staff, as well as a range of other practitioners. Was something like this your vision from the start, or did it develop gradually? I had a vision from the get-go, going back to the early days [at] a gym where I was a personal trainer. They had a physical therapist there. I soon realized that if you combine what a physical therapist has to offer and what a chiropractor does, and some soft-tissue work, you can take care of most injuries.
My personal experience with my own injuries was that the problems did not resolve with just one thing. I used a combination of methods, so that was the vision for my office from early on. My wife is also a DC and an acupuncturist which is another great combo in the office. We have massage therapists, exercise science personnel, and other support staff.
What advice do you have for a chiropractic student who wants to be the best sports chiropractor that he or she is capable of becoming? Aside from being asked how I became the chiropractor for the Seahawks, that's the question I am asked most often. The best advice I could give would be to find someone who is doing what you want to do, and ask them how to get there. Join your national and state sports associations, and attend their annual symposiums. As I said before, get to know people who are doing what you want to do.