Massage competitions give therapists an opportunity to improve skills and network with colleagues—and they are growing in popularity throughout the U.S., driven in large part by a new organization, the United States Association of Massage Championships (USAMC).
Participation in a USAMC massage competition event means opening oneself up to a community of massage therapists, learning new techniques, and embracing experiences one simply cannot create on their own, said Andrew Rainey, LMT, who was awarded second place in both Western freestyle and clinical massage, and overall champion, at the USAMC Virginia Massage Championship in June 2023.
“I tried techniques and maneuvers that were foreign to me, or ones that I would never have given myself permission to try,” said Rainey, of his competition experience. “These are new tools and assets that I now enjoy applying. It also created dialogue and excitement between clients and I—and who better to celebrate with than those who see the growth and continue to trust you with their care?”
In this article, we will look at how USAMC competitions are judged, share insights from massage therapists who have competed in USAMC events, and explain how massage therapists can participate. Each month, MASSAGE Magazine will update this page with the latest competition winners in the first, second and third place categories.
What is the USAMC?
In 2022, massage therapist Melissa Strautman, LMT, began organizing a massage competition in Kentucky. Mike Hinkle, creator of the World Massage Festival (WMF), which hosts the annual American Massage Championships, heard about her work and approached Strautman to suggest she expand the competition to other states.
Since creating a structure whereby a person steps up to be a state director, there are now 41 USAMC-branded competitions throughout the U.S. Each state’s competition is organized by a USAMC-sanctioned director and is judged by USAMC-approved judges. The USAMC maintains a membership committee to vet participants and recommend directors, a judging committee to recommend judges, and an advisory committee for overall organizational development.
Strautman, who now holds the title of USAMC founder and president, said USAMC events generate interest in the massage field while educating therapists and students.
Each of the massage therapists who competed in USAMC events and spoke to MASSAGE Magazine say the experience made them a better therapist while igniting a newfound passion for massage therapy.
Massage Competition Improves Technique
Competing in a massage event is a skill unto itself and not the same as providing a regular massage session, said Strautman, who won gold in Swedish massage at the 2023 World Massage Championship, silver in facial massage at the 2023 American Massage Championship, and gold in Swedish massage at the 2022 American Massage Championship.
“When you’re doing your own massage in your own room, there are things you just do automatically, and if you have good flow, you just do them,” she said. “When you’re competing, what you want to do is bring attention to those things, for two reasons. One, you are trying to get the judges to understand what you’re doing, and two, other people are watching and learning and it’s a good thing to highlight those things that you do that are really effective and helpful.”
Participant Kana Wimolwan-Nildum, LMT, said her understanding of the art of massage deepened by watching master therapists who practice many different techniques at USAMC events. “[Those techniques are] adaptable into my work, such as a combination of Eastern and Western into customized massage,” she said. Wimolwan-Nildum was awarded first place in both freestyle Eastern and clinical massage, and District of Columbia overall champion at the USAMC Virginia Massage Championship held in September 2023.
“We can mix and match to make the sessions more fun and of more benefit for the clients,” Wimolwan-Nildum added. “There are so many different things in this world that we haven’t learned from school, and that makes it fascinating.”
At a competitive event, a massage therapist will notice more about their own style of massage and body mechanics, as well as detailed elements of their work, like the length of strokes and depth of pressure.
“Participating in a USAMC event redefined my perspective as a massage therapist,” said Michael Kirchgesner, LMT, BCTMB, who was awarded first place in clinical massage, second place in freestyle, and first place overall at the USAMC Illinois Massage Championship held in May 2023, and who went on to compete in the American Massage Championships in July.
“The platform illuminated not only my technique but also the depth of my dedication to the healing art of massage,” Kirchgesner added. “Being under the spotlight instills a drive to excel. It pushes us out of the shadows of complacency and breathes invigorating energy into our practices.”
The Positive Sandwich
Many USAMC events provide one-on-one feedback from judges. When she has served as a judge, Strautman said, she has offered competitors such feedback as, “‘When you’re on that leg, you are ankle-shearing. I don’t like the way that I see your body mechanics.’
“I would go to a table and I would show them, ‘Look, let’s do it this way. This will protect you, and you have so much more range of motion and your arms can extend farther and the flow will be better,’” she added.
Some massage therapists have voiced concern on social media about the idea of competing against colleagues, especially because massage techniques are meant to soothe and relax the person under one’s hands. However, the competitive element of these events is really about competing against oneself, rather than against fellow massage therapists, said Strautman. This is possible, she said, because participants are judged on a scale rather than against one another.
Here’s what that looks like: If two therapists are performing massage at a competition, a judge does not evaluate whether one therapist is performing something better than the other therapist.
Instead, the judge begins by looking the middle of a numbered scorecard and asking such questions as, “Is that person performing that stroke with enough length?” and “Is that person maintaining correct ergonomics?” If the answer is yes, the judge selects a higher number on the scorecard. If the answer is no, they select a lower number. At the end of the competition, the numbers are tallied and the first, second and third place winners are announced.
USAMC judges are encouraged to keep feedback on participants’ technique, draping methods and body mechanics uplifting, through what Strautman calls the positive sandwich.
“You tell a competitor something good they did, you give them a solution to something you think needs to be fixed, and then you give them another positive,” she explained. “Positive, negative, positive. It’s a positive sandwich, because we’re here not to tear them down, we’re here to encourage them and to help them.”
Instead of creating separation by pitting therapists against one other, the way USAMC events are judged fosters friendship and learning, said Strautman.
Massage Competition Builds Connections
A USAMC event can be intense in that the massage therapists perform massage in front of judges and colleagues. Because of that, said Strautman, participants “latch onto people and they just become such good friends—and it’s just heartwarming, it really is.
“They’re hugging the judges—even people who were at the bottom of the bottom don’t care [about their score],” she said. “They’re just so happy they learned so much and had so much fun.”
“I was super nervous to compete since I’ve only been a therapist for a few years,” said Valerie Karpiel, LMT, MTI, CEP, who was awarded first place in freestyle massage at the USAMC Rocky Mountain 5 Massage Championship in May 2023. “Entering this competition got me out of my comfort zone and I was able to make new lifelong connections with the other competitors, judges and director.”
Watching other therapists work at a USAMC event will give massage therapists a new perspective on techniques, draping methods and body mechanics, said Stephanie Ashcraft, LMBT, who will participate in the USAMC South Carolina Massage Championship and directs the North Carolina Massage Championship. “Then to turn it into your own work of art is where the magic happens for each therapist,” she said.
“We want to inspire new students coming into the industry, veteran therapists, and to motivate someone else to go to massage school,” said Ashcraft. “Full circle. Innovation is a part of the championships, which helps massage therapy bring new ideas to the table.”
When Ashcraft first heard about the opportunity to direct a USAMC event, she said she thought, “‘Why would someone want to do that?’
“I have to admit, I didn’t understand the reason behind it,” she recalled. “Mike Hinkle and Melissa Strautman both said, ‘Just join the conversation.’ I joined and after listening to Melissa and Mike speak with such passion about how the championships will help educate and elevate the massage community, I got it and it got me. Each year we will grow as more therapists hear about the championships and how they truly will change you and your career.”
Naphatsakan “Arthur” Wongphan, CMT, said competing in the, USAMC California Massage Championship, where he was awarded first place in both Asian massage and freestyle Western massage, as well as first place overall, was an encouraging and enriching experience.
“It provided a platform where I could showcase creativity and blend my diverse skills to create a unique signature treatment,” he said. Winning the championship, he said, validated his dedication to massage.
Walter Mitchell, LMT, who was awarded third place in clinical massage in the USAMC Virginia Championship, said he has never before “been exposed to such a vast display of positive energy from so many talented therapists under one roof.”
Since competing, Mitchell said, he’s become “obsessed” with watching massage competitions on YouTube to learn more about the craft of massage. “Every doubt that I had about this competition has been replaced with a drive more fierce to be better.”
Participate in a USAMC Massage Competition
Finding a USAMC competition is just a click away, as the USAMC maintains a U.S. map that shows every upcoming event.
Massage therapists can also subscribe to the USAMC e-newsletter or connect with the group on social media.
Each of the USAMC’s competitions is organized and run by a USAMC director. This person must be, or have been, a massage therapist. A director abides by USAMC guidelines, and also holds pre-event workshops to prepare therapists to compete and prepare judges, who must also have a massage therapy background, to judge.
Massage therapists who place in a USAMC event sometimes go on to compete in the American Massage Championships, an event that is sanctioned by the World Massage Championships, an event run by the International Massage Association—although placement at a USAMC event is not required to participate in either of those events.
Strautman envisions a future where there is a USAMC competition in every state. She is also planning to launch a massage-competition podcast with her husband, Michael, who recently became a massage therapist. They will interview judges and directors, winning massage therapists and those who didn’t place—to “just get people to understand what it is and why we’re doing it,” she said.
For the massage therapists who have competed in a USAMC event, the why is clear: To become a more skilled and colleague-connected massage therapist. They would like you to join them.
“Elevate your aspirations and rekindle your passion for the massage industry by attending a USAMC event,” said Kirchgesner. “It’s not just about achieving goals faster or finding renewed energy—it’s about forging invaluable connections, discovering newfound confidence and creating memories that last a lifetime.”
Participating in a USAMC event was “a transformative milestone in my career,” he added. “Dive in and experience the magic for yourself.”
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About the Author
Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor-in-chief – print and digital. Her articles for this publication include “This is How Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Practices Make Business Better,” one of the articles in the August 2021 issue of MASSAGE Magazine, a first-place winner of the national 2022 Folio Eddies Award for editorial excellence.