June 6th, 2014 was a hot day in Columbus, GA. That’s pretty normal for Columbus in June and I remember this day well because it was the last day of my service in the U.S. Army. I had spent the past seven years on active duty, either in school or serving as a Physical Therapist on an Army post. I’ve never had more mixed feelings of excitement, nervousness, joy, and fear at the same time. I remember giving my final out processing packet to a Sergeant that I had only spoken to once or twice. He asked me what I was going to do and I told him I was starting a Physical Therapy practice in a gym in Atlanta. His responded with, “Hmm, that sounds interesting. Good luck with that, sir,” and then he was back to filing the huge stack of other packets he had on his desk.
If I learned anything while I was in the Army, it’s that you’re not as special as you think you are. You don’t deserve special treatment, and you have to earn respect from others. Respect comes from being remarkable at what you do.
My goal for Athletes’ Potential was to create an environment that was remarkable - a level of healthcare quality and true attention to the patients that was, and in many cases is, still missing. June 9th, 2014 was the first day I actually saw a patient at Athletes’ Potential. His name was Sam, and he was a defense contractor that had driven in from Alabama to work with me. We had a lot to work on due to his years in the military and police departments. I worked with him for three hours straight that day. At the end of the visit, he paid me and what he did next surprised me. He gave me a big bear hug and thanked me for being the first healthcare professional that had actually listened to him and taught him how to take care of himself.
At this point, I had been a Physical Therapist for years and I never had a response like this from a patient. That day, I knew Athletes’ Potential was going to be different. It was going to change a lot of people’s lives and it was going to be worth all the hard work we had to put in.
Ashley and I like to think of Athletes’ Potential as our third kid. Our kids obviously come first, but our business is something very special to us. It’s allowed us to help thousands of people in the Atlanta area and live an incredible life.
Over the past five years, I’ve learned a lot of lessons about business, healthcare, and developing meaningful relationships with people. If you’re reading this, I know I’m basically fighting for your attention against Instagram, Netflix, and HBO. That’s some steep competition, so I’m going to keep this relatively short by highlighting the 5 Most Important Lessons I’ve learned over the past five years.
1. Make decisions based on how you would want your family treated.
Zig Ziglar once said, “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”
Helping others achieve their health and wellness goals is one of the core pillars at Athletes’ Potential. This also doesn’t always mean we are the right people to help individuals reaching out to us.
I remember seeing a patient about six months into starting Athletes’ Potential. She came to see me for some shoulder pain she was having. Within 10 minutes of talking to her, it was obvious that this shoulder pain did not sound like it was musculoskeletal. In particular, she had recently changed some medication she was on around the same time her shoulder started hurting.
I ended up taking her through an exam and it reaffirmed the fact that I didn’t think she actually had a shoulder problem.
I told her she needed to go back to her doctor because I thought she was having a reaction to this medication change. We ended up spending about 30-40 minutes together, and she left a little confused but happy to hear her shoulder was fine.
This is the first time I had to decide if a visit like this warranted a charge. I decided it didn’t since I couldn’t directly help her and she wasn’t appropriate for my skill set. She was pretty surprised that I refused to charge her for the visit and that I followed up directly with her physician about what I found.
Two weeks later, she emailed me to let me know her shoulder felt fine now. Her doctor switched her to a different medication and everything was fine. She was also emailing me to let me know she was setting up an appointment for her husband to get some help with his chronic lower back pain.
Years later we still get the occasional person referred from her and it’s because of a decision I made the day of her visit to focus on long-term decision making.
I didn’t do it in hopes that she would send someone else our way. I did it because it’s what I hope someone else would do if my mom went to see them for a similar issue. We make decisions based on how we would treat our family and because of that we have been able to develop an incredible level of trust with our patients.
2. Comparison is the thief of joy.
This is a quote credited to Teddy Roosevelt and it’s spot on. This applies to basically any element of our life.
For me, early on in business, I struggled with comparing our business to others. If you’re competitive at all, you probably struggle with comparing yourself to others as well. Over the past few years, I’ve realized that this is an utter waste of time.
For me to sit here and try to figure out who has more patient visits per month, who has more traffic to their site, or who’s using a new app on their website, is a waste of time.
The same can be said with anyone comparing themselves to others in their personal life. We can sit there and look at a friend, sibling, neighbor, or colleague and compare any number of variables. It’s so easy to do this now with social media and our kids have to deal with this on a level that many of us never had to when we were growing up.
Nothing but wasted time and stress comes from comparing ourselves to others. My advice is to focus on what you can change and that’s yourself. I look back five years ago and barely recognize myself. I didn’t know shit about business, being a parent, or developing meaningful relationships in life. I’m better in all of these areas today, but I’m nowhere near what I need to be.
This is a good thing and it’s one of our human superpowers. We can make a conscious decision to improve, progress, and work on ourselves. The more you focus on working on yourself and the less you compare yourself to others, the better off you will be five years from now.
3. Show up and listen.
According to the Journal of General Internal Medicine, the average doctor listens for 11 seconds before interrupting their patients.
I know many of you have been there. You show up to your visit 15 minutes early to fill out a ridiculous amount of paperwork. Next, you sit there and wait. They finally call you back 30 minutes after your appointment time and bring you to a small treatment office. You proceed to wait there for another 30 minutes while counting the cotton balls in a jar since you have no cell phone service in the building. Finally, your doctor shows up. You are so excited to finally get out what’s worrying you and they stop you dead in your tracks by interrupting you. You barely get any time to explain what’s going on and within 10 minutes the doctor is out the door. You’ve been at the facility for 90 minutes and are lucky if you get 10 minutes of facetime with the doc.
This scenario is all too common and it’s the exact opposite of how we wanted to set up Athletes’ Potential.
There are a lot of things you can’t control in life but being on time is one of them. When you are late you are showing others that you value your time more than their time. This is not ok and it’s one of the reasons we work so hard to keep everything functioning on schedule even when we are very busy.
The other common frustration is a lack of time with the doc. This is the primary reason we have our visits set up for 60 minutes per visit. In particular, this allows our patients to explain to us in great detail what’s going on. Half of the time we barely do anything else but talk the first visit because of how important that information is toward making the right long-term decision.
There’s a reason why people pay behavioral health specialists and psychologists $200 an hour to listen to them and have a conversation. This is incredibly healthy and you have to verbalize your frustrations/fears. When you’ve been dealing with pain for five years, you’re going to be frustrated.
We are here to listen, support, and help you achieve the long-term change you want.
4. Focus on the whole person not just the injury.
Early on when I was a new Physical Therapist, I would ask patients, “So how’s your __________ (insert injured area) feeling today?”
Now my line of questioning is, “So, how are YOU feeling today?”
In the last five years in particular, I’ve learned a lot about dealing with people. There are so many factors in people’s lives that can directly affect how they feel and the decisions they make. This is why we focus on 4 Core Areas of health/wellness no matter what type of injury we are dealing with.
Those 4 areas are:
Look, your back might hurt, but if you’re sleeping four hours a night and living off coffee, you’re going to have a really tough time healing. Too often, other variables in health/wellness are missed because of tunnel vision we get on the injury bringing someone in to see us.
You cannot fix a problem in isolation unless you have ruled out the other contributing factors from the four areas listed above.
I recently saw a prior patient who came back with an unexplained hip injury. He had pain in the front of his hip and it hurt so bad he had to use his arms to help get his leg in and out of his car.
When he came in to see me, we spent 80% of the time talking about mindfulness work for stress management and how to improve sleep.
To give some context, he had just switched jobs and he was getting crushed at work. He also has two young kids at home and one wasn’t sleeping so well recently. This was taking a toll on his sleep as well as increasing stressors in his life. He had also been so busy he barely had worked out over the prior four weeks.
He left that day with some homework exercises we wanted him to do, and, more importantly, a game plan of how to optimize sleep and deal with stressors.
He came back a week later and his pain was completely gone. We barely touched his hip but all of his hip pain had resolved. This isn’t voodoo. It’s how the human body is designed. Pain in many ways is like a check engine light turning on in your car. It’s telling you something is wrong. Other variables can have very strong effects on how you feel and how you heal. They must be addressed and improved.
The goal for most people we work with is to lead a healthy life, stay active and maintain strong relationships with their loved ones. In order to do that you have to do an at least decent job with your sleep, nutrition, stress management, and movement.
5. Surround yourself with amazing people.
Easily my favorite thing about Athletes’ Potential has been the people that I’ve met along the way. I love meeting people and learning not just about what injury they have, but about their lives in general.
As soon as you shut up and start listening to people tell their story, you realize just how interesting seemingly normal people can be. We are so lucky to be able to work with the amazing people we call our athletes.
Here’s a snapshot of some of the awesome people we’ve worked with:
When we say, “If you have a body you’re an athlete,” we mean it. The human body is amazing and we get to see it uses for so many cool things.
Being around amazing people also applies to our entire staff. I’ve never been around a more selfless and dedicated group of people. They show up everyday to help our athletes achieve their goals. Our staff are not a group of employees. We are a family and I hope that is apparent to people who come to see us.
I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’m so proud of our team and what they’ve accomplished in the past five years. I’m not sure what the next five years holds for us, but I can promise you we will continue to serve our community to the best of our abilities.
If you're reading this and you’ve worked with us, I just want to say thank you. If it wasn’t for you, there wouldn’t be an Athletes’ Potential.
If you’re reading this and you’re a Physical Therapist thinking about starting your own practice, I hope this encourages you. This decision could very well change your life in many ways going forward.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for your time and attention. I know that’s a very rare and valuable thing. At least for the last few minutes, I have beaten HBO, but I think the final season of Game of Thrones will have the last laugh.
Thank you for reading. Thank you for being a part of our world in some way. Most importantly, thank you for taking a chance on a company with an odd name for a physical therapy practice that is trying to do things differently.
Danny Matta, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS
Dr. Danny and staff's views on performance improvement, injury prevention and sometimes other random thoughts.