Schooling is Not Enough (And We Agree) Says Rick Merriam, Who Has Carved Out Unique Niches for Himself

Rick Merriam1. Tell us a bit more about you and your practice as it is today? i.e. are you a solo practitioner or a business owner? If solo, what kind of an establishment do you work for, how large is it, what is the clientele like, what is the specialty offered? If it is a business that you own, kindly include the same time of relevant information that will give the reader a good idea about your establishment/practice. Please also include where you live and work?

I’m a Solopreneur. And I have a blog where I write stories about human function over at EngagingMuscles.com. My primary focus is always on improving performance! I also work with injuries, and the prevention of injuries.

As a Solopreneur, I believe it is extremely important to provide more value in order to have sustainability. That being said, I have found ways to provide value in a bunch of different ways that are unique to me:

  • I’m very knowledgeable when it comes to fitting and recommending running/training shoes.
  • I have an extensive background as a Personal Fitness Trainer.

Throughout the course of my career, I have logged thousands of hours providing one-on-one training for clients. So, I’m very comfortable talking to people about exercises to avoid and stretches to avoid.

I currently rent space from a Podiatrist in Dallas, Texas. Although we’re not affiliated in any way, I feel like there is a tremendous amount of value to be in the same space as a doctor.

When I say we’re not affiliated in any way, what I’m really saying is this: I do the complete opposite of what the Podiatrist does. In other words, the Podiatrist recommends “custom” orthotics on regular basis. And I recommend that my athletes move away from artificially supporting their feet because at the end of the day, an orthotic is not only a Band-Aid, it’s also a crutch.

To say the same thing in a slightly different way, it’s impossible for an athlete to perform with efficiency when they have a “custom” molded orthotic blocking motion of their foot. I know this will probably come as a surprise; whenever there is something that is outside of the foot that is designed to provide a false sense of support, the athlete’s muscles will be (much!) weaker throughout the chain.

2. Tell us why you chose to go into massage and at what point in your life did you decide to do so? What were you doing at the time? Where did you first hear about the massage career? What factors influenced your decision? What were you looking to get out of this decision?

I feel *very* fortunate to have entered the massage therapy field at an early age. My original plan after high school was to buy a Subway franchise. Within a few months after graduating from high school, I was diagnosed with a bulging disc that left me with a tremendous amount of pain in my lower back.

Without any hesitation, I started going to a Chiropractor. After many visits to the Chiropractor, I had stretches of feeling better. But, I was not able to do anything athletic without a substantial amount of pain. I remember moving like a robot. So much so, that complete strangers would ask me if my lower back was bothering me.

Looking back on it now, I have a much better understanding of what was occurring: I didn’t have pain, but I still had (many!) faulty movement patterns.

A friend from high school was attending massage school at the time. It didn’t take long for him to recognize that there was a lot of restriction in my movement. Being that I had an injury, he felt like it would be great experience for him to work on me. Besides wanting the experience, and feeling like he could make a difference in my function, he also had massage practice hours that had to be completed.

I’ll never forget this: After one session of massage therapy from my friend (that was still a student), I noticed a substantial improvement in my overall function! After the session, my friend who was a natural body builder, encouraged me to start doing some strength training.

Around the same time, my plans to buy a Subway restaurant fell through, which meant it was time to pivot. So, somewhat out of the blue, I decided that I wanted to attend massage therapy school. To this day, I’m not completely sure that I knew what I was getting myself into. All I can say for sure is this: It just felt right. And that was enough for me to go forward.

3. What were some of your questions and concerns before further pursuing your massage therapy goals? Talk about concerns with school and the profession itself.

I was very fortunate to attend a very good Massage Therapy School. Within a very short amount of time, I realized that I was on the right path. In fact, I remember waking up in the middle of the night unable to get back to sleep because I felt like I was going to do *great* things in the field that I was entering.

Prior to that, I had never had that feeling with anything that I pursued in my life. Eighteen years into my career, there are moments where the same feeling comes over me. Sir Ken Robinson, Ph.D., calls that feeling, the Element.

4. What is your specialty and what are the top three contributing factors to your success today?

Coming out of school, I knew that I wanted to pursue personal training. At that time, I had no idea how involved it could be. Very soon after I graduated from Massage Therapy School, I started working at a gym. As I remember it now, the owner of the gym gave me a room to do massage, and they had me training clients throughout the day.

Since I was just starting to work one-one-one with members of the gym, I decided to attend a fitness conference. Attending my first fitness conference was eye opening to say the least. While I was there, I realized how much more there was to being a Personal Trainer. Around the same time, I discovered the science of Biomechanics. And I was hooked.

Then, I traveled all over the country to learn from the most knowledgeable teachers in the area of Biomechanics. Most of the people that I studied with were Physical Therapists that worked one-on-one with clients/patients in a rehab and/or fitness environment.

There are many factors that have contributed to my success!

While I was in Massage Therapy School, the same friend that introduced me to the benefits of Massage Therapy, also, turned me on to Tony Robbins. Again, I was hooked. Like so many other things in my life, Tony Robbin’s work came into my life at just the right time.

To say it another way, throughout the years, I have become a BIG believer in this quote: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. Tony’s work lead me to Stephen Covey, Wayne Dyer and so many other great teachers! To this day, I still listen to podcasts, audiobooks and read anything that can help me to get where I want to go in life and work.

I feel like we live in a very exciting time as far as the available resources that are at our finger tips.

For the longest time, I felt like I was following my passion. Last year, I went to Canada to do some consulting at a sports performance facility. While in flight, I started reading a book entitled, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. One of the major messages in the book is this: Following your passion is not good advice.

Why? Because there are so many people that don’t have any idea what their passion is. So, this very common advice that is meant to be empowering, ends up being disempowering (and misleading). In order to find something (anything!) that has the potential to become a passion; it has to start with an interest, first.

Another thing that I think goes unnoticed is the ability to think critically. Like so many other things in life, the ability to think critically has to be developed with deliberate, deep practice.

I feel like it’s important to mention critical thinking because it has saved me a lot of money on education. And that seems to go unnoticed in the Massage Therapy field, as a whole. I mean, there are a ton of continuing educational programs that don’t deliver on a promise. And good people that want to help people, buy into the story that the guru is telling. And I’m saying that those pitfalls can be avoided when the well intentioned Massage Therapist has the ability to think critically.

Developing the ability to think critically has also helped me to ask better questions when figuring out what is going on with the human chain. But, in order to ask better questions, there has to be a solid foundation to begin with.

To say the same thing in a slightly different way, right out of Massage Therapy School, the graduate should have the ladder that they intend to climb leaning against the right wall. I can’t emphasize that enough. Because if it isn’t, that ladder is only going to take the new Massage Therapist to place that will only get harder and harder to move away from. Believe me when I say; I see this all of the time.

Just so I’m clear here, I don’t think it’s realistic to say that completing a great Massage Therapy Program is enough to provide a new graduate with a strong foundation. It’s what the Massage Therapist does outside of the school that makes ALL of the difference.

Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t advantages to going to a great school. But, I am saying that it’s highly unlikely that schooling alone is enough to prepare the new graduate with everything that they need to be successful in a world (that is constantly changing).

5. What do you like about your specialty? What do you like about what you do in general as a career? Why?

What I have come to realize is this: When you have a quality education combined with something that is unique, people will pay a great deal for it! Then, (and only then!) you can put yourself in a position to have more freedom in your life and work.

By the way, it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or the Massage Therapist that dreams about setting their own hours, everybody wants more freedom in their life.

And the best part is, there has never been a better time to find that freedom. As James Altucher has said, we are living in the Choose Yourself era!

That being said, I found a space that was being ignored. And as far as I know, I’m the only Massage Therapist that is capitalizing on it. Because of that, I highly recommend that Massage Therapists find their own unique space (and freedom!)

Finding that space has given me a considerable amount of freedom in my life. For example, I don’t work with everybody that wants to come in. Yes, it’s true. I only work with the clients/athletes that I feel are in the right mindset. And that small decision has made the biggest difference in my practice!

And then there is this: I charge 3-4 times more than most Massage Therapists.

6. What do you not like about what you do? Why?

At the moment, I can’t think of anything.

7. If there were three things you could change about your work or the industry as a whole what would they be? Why would you change them? What would you change them to?

I’m always trying to figure out how to get the consumer/client/athlete to view massage therapy differently. As you can imagine, that’s a BIG challenge. But like anything in life, I feel like putting a lot of my energy there now has opened my mind to more possibilities over the long-haul. It’s also helped me to understand marketing and the ability to move people on a much deeper level. The truth is, I’m playing a different game than everybody in the field.

And I’m not afraid to admit that I’m driven by that! Because there are no gate keepers.

I mean, I have the very same qualifications to hold a license as every other Massage Therapist in the country, but instead of following the herd, I’m choosing innovation, creativity and art as tools to be leveraged. Meanwhile, everybody in the field continues to do the same thing (and expect a different result).

To say the same thing in a slightly different way, while most of the Massage Therapists in the field are being swayed towards the supposed value in research, I’m going in a completely different direction that continues to evolve as I continue to push the boundaries to what is possible. Where it stops, nobody knows (not even me).

8. How long do you plan to practice and what do you plan to do after?

I have no plans to stop any time soon. But that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about different scenarios down the road. I see myself teaching for a long time. When the timing feels right, I see myself writing a book (or two!?!).

9. Do you currently have another job or business whether full time or part time? Tell us a bit more about it and how you are able to juggle that with your massage career?

Ten years ago, out of necessity, I pursued teaching. And I have been doing it ever since!

I currently teach Kinesiology at the Parker University School of Massage Therapy, the only COMTA accredited school in Dallas, Texas. Since the Massage School is affiliated with the university, we have Tri-Semesters. I teach my Applied Anatomy and Kinesiology class for the first 60 hours of the Tri, then, I have approximately 2 ½ months off.

10. What are some mistakes you made in your career pursuit that you’d like to warn other students about so they can learn from your experience and avoid it?

One of the things that I recognized very early on: In order to be successful as a Solopreneur, it helps to have a significant other that can contribute to the day-to-day expenses while at the same time, the Starter is working diligently to build something (anything!).

That’s not to say that starting a small business without a significant other is impossible. It can definitely be achieved with a ton of hard work (and just the right amount of luck).

But I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that it’s much more stressful to go it alone. No matter how you slice it, it’s a much bigger risk to only have one income coming in while still trying to build something that has sustainability.

I mean, I was always willing to put in the work, but building a business takes a lot more than being able to do quality massage work. You have to be willing and capable of wearing many hats. And then, be willing to sacrifice (a lot).

For some reason, the sacrifice that goes along with being a Solopreneur is something that even the most successful Starters don’t mention. In other words, what is the Solopreneur willing to give up to build something that people continue to find value in on a consistent basis? That’s a question that can’t be taken lightly.

I can’t emphasize this enough: I was very *fortunate* to put my money into valuable continuing education early on. I know it’s hard to believe, but that is very often overlooked.

Believe me when I tell you, when I came out of a good Massage Therapy School, I thought I had a solid foundation. Luckily for me, I learned how to think critically very early in my career.

As odd as it might seem, developing critical thinking skills was never talked about in my training. Having the ability to think critically (something that I developed after I graduated from school), allowed me to see that there wasn’t much value in most of the continuing education classes that were offered. At least there wasn’t much value in the things that I was interested in, i.e., working with injuries and improving performance. And that is still the case today!

To say it another way, just based on principles alone, I recognized that there wasn’t going to be a huge return on my investment.

And that ended up being a game changer for me. Why? Because it forced me to go outside of the massage therapy field (for no continuing education credits) and find education that did allow for a big return on my investment. By taking that small step outside of the Massage Therapy field, I learned how to see the human chain through a different lens. That one decision alone, is something that continues to pay off to this day.

11. What would you advice someone who is looking at massage therapy schools? What do you recommend they look for and how? How do you recommend they determine whether the school is the right one for them?

I highly recommend a COMTA accredited school! I’ve taught Kinesiology at two Massage Therapy Schools in Connecticut, and more recently, I taught at two Massage Therapy Schools in Texas. Out of the four Massage Therapy schools that I have taught Kinesiology, two were COMTA accredited.

In my ten years of teaching, I’m certain that the quality of education at the COMTA accredited schools was better. Not just a little better, they were way better on so many levels!

Another thing to look for: Does the school offer federal loans? Even if the student doesn’t need a loan, it’s a red flag for a school to not be capable of offering it.

I also recommend asking about the schools passing rate for the MBLEx and/or the NCTMB exam. But keep in mind, just because the question was asked, doesn’t mean the person is giving a straight answer. So, just to be sure, I recommend contacting a few Massage Therapists in the area to see what their overall experience was like.

12. What do you recommend for someone who wants to go to massage school but cannot afford it?

I can’t come up with an answer for that question.

13. What are your three biggest points of advice for an aspiring massage therapist today? What should they do/not do? What should they think about and consider?

Don’t rely on your business class in Massage Therapy School to give you ALL of the answers. No matter how good (or even great) the business class appeared to be, read plenty of books on selling, marketing and social media. And then, get very comfortable with selling.

Dive into social media. And plan to dig in early on. Because it’s very possible that you won’t see results for your efforts right away.

Start a blog as soon as possible. Starting my blog is by far one of the best things that I have done in my career. Creating content with my blog and YouTube channel has within a very short period of time, lead to so many opportunities that wouldn’t be possible if I never started.

And always remember, there are many different ways to give. So, give more (and expect less!). I can’t emphasize the value in giving enough.

Always be conscious of building career capital. Even when working in an environment that’s less than optimal, there are still valuable lessons to be learned. So, stay open to those lessons. Even when you feel like a miserable cog in the wheel of the factory, there are lessons there.

14. Any open thoughts / comments – anything else that you’d like to share about yourself, the massage industry, profession, future, etc? If nothing, make one prediction for the future of massage?

The future belongs to the Massage Therapists that are not afraid to think differently. There’s an open invitation to embrace being weird. I believe that the people that have the necessary skills to become specialists will always have work. So, look for a niche that people are willing to pay for.

There will always be a space that is open to anybody that wants to reach out and take advantage of it. Because the bottom line is this: The consumer is not getting the quality of care in Physical Therapy or Chiropractic. Both fields are relying on the next best guess.

And not only that, both fields will do anything to reach the masses. Because at the end of the day, they are consumed by the factory mindset. And that isn’t going to go away any time soon. Just look around, the massage franchises are all around and growing fast.

It’s impossible to provide a remarkable personalized experience when the focus is on the masses. So, that is a space that is open for the taking.  The people inside the factories aren’t willing to take the necessary time that it takes to restore function.

Which means more and more people are going to actively start looking for quality over quantity. And not only that, they are going to expect more. Because the reality is this, the consumer/client/athlete should function better than they did prior to the injury.

15. What is your passion outside of massage? What are your hobbies and interests which you pursue when you are not working? Tell us why you enjoy what you enjoy.

I find a lot of joy in reading, writing, learning and growing. I enjoy walking my dog. And most importantly, I love to spend time with my wife!

Rick Merriam, LMT is a former Sports Massage Therapist at ESPN.  He held a National Certification in Personal Training for 15 years and has also held a license and a National Certification in Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork for 18 years. He sits on the Massage Advisory Committee at Parker and teaches Sports Massage Therapy in the Continuing Education Program at The Parker University School of Massage Therapy. You can reach Rick on his blog here or on his YouTube channel here, You can connect with Rick on Facebook here.

Neal Lyons is a founding member and volunteer contributor at the MTSI Institute, an information based portal dedicated to guiding and assisting aspiring massage therapists establish a successful career in massage. Neal is a published author and has collaborated on several mobile applications that serve the massage profession. You can view his published work on Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Sony and Kobo. You can connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and on Google+

Posted in Interviews with Professionals

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