15 Essential Skills Needed to Become a Physiotherapist

Do you have what it takes to pursue a career in physiotherapy?

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Illustration of a physiotherapist working with a female patient

Physiotherapy is one of the most rewarding careers to choose from in a labor market that many say is devoid of meaning. You’re truly making a difference, whether you’re working with a premature child whose physical development is slow or helping an adult who is learning to walk again.

It is not a position for everyone, as it entails a lot of physical energy, mental frustrations and long hours. In addition to holding the right qualifications, you also need to possess a diverse array of top skills that will enable you to do your job well. This is imperative because patients — young and old — are depending on you to ensure they can move their bodies, whether it’s balancing or moving a toe.

That said, we’ve compiled a list of the top 15 skills you will need to pursue a career as a physiotherapist.

Do you have what it takes?

1. Motor skills

As a physiotherapist, your time is spent helping others work on improving their motor skills with physical exercises or repeated motions. It’s always best to have the skills yourself prior to trying to teaching them in others.

Motor skills are broken down into two categories: gross and fine.

Gross motor skills will be the skills you utilize for sitting, walking, running, or crawling, all necessary for working as a physical therapist, as you may have to run to keep up with a client as you help them rehabilitate an injury.

Fine motor skills, on the other hand, are used for grasping, manipulating objects or drawing. These will come in handy if you need to rehabilitate clients by instructing them to string beads together on a necklace or make a chain of paperclips by linking them together.

2. Communication skills

While your time is spent rehabilitating your clients’ body, that doesn’t mean your communication skills should go out the window. In order to direct your clients to the appropriate exercise, it will require a great deal of communication as you articulate the required movements well enough that your client can visualize and also remember the instructions you verbalized along with them.

You may need to communicate in writing, too, as you conclude your sessions with take-home instructions from your session, along with tips to ensure they stay active in between sessions.

Without communication skills as a physiotherapist, your clients would be less productive, and your rehabilitation strategy may not operate as smoothly.

3. Interpersonal skills

Don’t underestimate the importance of interpersonal skills as a physiotherapist. When you’re taking a person’s rehabilitation in your hands, these skills are imperative.

You need to build a relationship with your client and effectively manage the situations that may come as they become frustrated with stalled rehab or the pain they are experiencing. Interpersonal skills, which include active listening, empathy and emotional intelligence, can help you both navigate through that effectively.

4. Team-working skills

As you work through a rehabilitation regimen with your client, some of your plans may be long term in nature, requiring more knowledge and assistance throughout.

Depending on your organization's structure, you may also be working independently and may not have the support of other physical therapists in the office. You can collaborate with others in your field outside of work through networking and maximize your knowledge that way.

5. Science acumen

Working as a physical requires a science-focused education. You’ll need a deep understanding of anatomy, biology, chemistry and physiology in order to effectively treat your clients, and may even go on to postgraduate work, depending on your passion.

A foundation of science will provide you the knowledge and skills to manipulate your patients’ body as is needed for rehabilitations. You’ll be able to use this knowledge to perform measurements and run calculations to better substantiate your recommended rehabilitation plan.

6. Physical awareness

Can you imagine a session with a client and asking them to perform a movement that isn’t possible at their current physical capability, the pain you may cause, the additional injury, and not to mention the loss of respect from the client?

As a physiotherapist, physical awareness is an important skill; understanding the way the body does and does not move will be helpful in your day-to-day tasks. These skills can be practiced by focusing on growing your knowledge of the human body to translate that to your clients’ physical wellbeing and mentally working through your sense of touch, as you may be required at times to physically assess your clients’ injuries and create a plan that works for them.

7. Critical thinking skills

The ability to think critically is crucial as a physiotherapist. Indeed, the ability to analyze a situation and offer a plan based on that analysis will be critical for your success in this role.

These careers, more often than not, have a substantial amount of autonomy. You’ll become more independent in this position, so having the ability to think critically through all aspects of the situation to formulate a conjecture on your own that will translate to physical rehabilitation for your client is imperative.

8. Creative thinking skills

As you walk through your critically thought-out, perfectly crafted rehabilitation plan, you may hit a snag, something setting you back in progress that you did not anticipate. That’s where creative thinking will come into play as a physical therapist.

It's time to be flexible and open-minded. You’re now going to take that new problem and apply critical thinking as you utilize your creative thinking skills and think outside of the box for a solution to help your client.

9. Organizational skills

In any professional role, organizational skills are imperative, and physiotherapists are no exception.

You’re going to be working with many moving parts — not to mention possibly dealing with multiple clients at a time. The more organized you are, the better off you’ll be.

Don’t set yourself up for disaster by losing a document your client needs to apply for medical leave, for example. Being organized will protect you and your clients as you walk together and manage their care.

10. Observational skills

The ability to observe more than just the surface of people is what would qualify observational skills. We’re not just talking about people-watching here.

As a physiotherapist, you’ll be looking to improve your attention to detail through observing attitudes and movements in reference to your client. This observation will allow you to personalize your patient plan, specific to not only your client’s physical needs but also their observed character and attitude needs.

11. Time management skills

As a physiotherapist, time management skills will go a long way with keeping positive relationships with your clients. Some clients may have a busy day — not to mention your own day will involve seeing back-to-back clients.

Be respectful of their time and incorporate the conversations while you're working on their rehabilitation plan all at once.

12. Multitasking skills

As you're effectively managing your time with your clients, it will be important to multitask. Your patients don’t want a physiotherapist who can't say anything while they’re performing their rehabilitation moves. In fact, most clients will welcome the distractive conversation about their life.

Having the ability to use your skills to physically help your client, all while mentally distracting them from any pain or discomfort they may be feeling, is essential as a physiotherapist.

13. Work ethic

Physiotherapy ranks up there for the best therapist jobs in the world, greatly in part to the work ethic of those in this role.

Your work hours, whether full time or part time, should still be focused and intentional time with their clients.

In this role, it may be difficult to “leave work at the door” when you come home with filing paperwork, thinking through treatments, and out-of-office communications with treatments. But remember: a strong work ethic is required to become a physiotherapist and succeed as a good one.

14. Patience

The pressure to take someone’s injury or mobility issue and make it better through a series of exercises can eat you up as a physiotherapist. The ability to stay calm under pressure and provide patience to yourself and your client is an essential skill for this role.

You may be faced with a difficult case, and your treatment plan isn't quite working out, but be patient with yourself. Likewise, your client may be stalled in their rehabilitation, mentally or physically; practice those interpersonal skills and empathetically walk them through the plan, the movements, and the outcome again.

15. Kindness

Potentially the most important skill needed to become a physiotherapist is kindness.

You’re faced daily with a number of people working to bring back mobility due to a devastating injury or working to relieve pain. Either way, showing a little kindness as they trust you with their outcome will continually make you stand out in a crowd.

Make sure your clients know you're on the journey with them and that there’s nothing you won’t face together.

Final thoughts

Physiotherapists keep the world moving — literally. So, the skills needed to become one are many.

When it comes to finding the right career and evaluating if you have the skills needed to become a physiotherapist, remember these key items:

  • Skills can be taught.
  • It's never too late to learn something new.
  • Practice makes perfect.

If you’re not proficient in every skill listed above, that doesn't mean you won’t make a great physiotherapist. With a little polishing of the old skills and adding a few new ones to your skillset, you’ll have everything you need to succeed in this career.

Can you think of any other skills that physical therapists need in their arsenal? Let us know in the comments section below.

Originally published on November 12, 2019.