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canstockphoto39066029Three Ways to Become an Expert in Recreational Therapy

By: Danny Pettry, M.Ed., M.S., LPC, NCC, CTRS, Founder of DannyPettry.com and RecTherapyCEUs.com

Experts have knowledge and experience. They’re the best at what they do. Sometimes they’re called “gurus.” Experts often provide training, consultation, and coaching.

The are three things a person can do to become an expert. These include: gaining experience, gaining education, and gaining an expert reference group.

Below are tips on those three areas:

canstockphoto16769492# 1: You’ve got to gain the experience needed to be an expert.

Having direct experience counts. One of my favorite authors, Malcom Gladwell, author of Tipping Point, argues that a person needs to work at something for 10,000 hours to become skilled at something.

In example, if a woman wanted to become a master at playing the violin, she’d need to practice for 10,000 hours. Starting young gives people a leading advantage.

Example: Imagine a child who already knows her passion. She wants to be a professional tennis player. She starts playing tennis in 2nd-grade. She works every year putting in the hours of practice. Compere her journey to the young adult who is 18-years-old. She’s never played tennis before and she starts to learn. The 18-year-old has a long way to get 10,000 0hours of deliberate practice. The young girl will definitely hit 10,000 hours, pending she continues her interest in it.

They can’t be repeated hours. Danny Pettry comments: I took guitar lessons for almost two years during my teenage years. I did one hour of practice with my trainer weekly. I didn’t practice any during my own leisure time because honestly, I wasn’t into playing guitar. Twelve months by two years is about 24 hours. However, I’d argue that I only had about 1-real hour of practice playing guitar because I pretty much repeated that same hours over 23-more times before I quiet. Where was my passion? Skateboarding. I dreamed, slept, and lived skateboarding. I did it every second I could (pending it wasn’t raining or snowing). I was constantly improving my skills. At my peak year in skateboard (16), I was really good. I was putting in deliberate practice at getting better every day and pushing my game to go further. I slowed down my hardcore skating when I disclosed a shoulder from a skateboarding accident. I only skated the easy moves I already knew during my college years so I wouldn’t get hurt again. At that time, I was only repeating hours that I had already done. I wasn’t improving.

A recreational therapist could work five years and be the same level she was when she started. I read an interesting book a while back (which I can’t recall the title or I’d pay attribution). The author was talking about work experience. He gave examples of a guy who got a promotion for working 25-years at the company. The other guy complained, saying he too had worked 25-years at the company. The manager told him that he worked one-year at the company and repeated the same thing for 24 more years. He argued the other guy continued to improve and take on new roles and responsibilities.

Ten years of full-time employment in a specialty area is often considered the benchmark for being an expert in a field. Of course a person could meet their (Gladwell’s 10,000 hours) benchmark by working five years. Of course that means no down time. All 100% of those five years must be very dedicated practice at becoming better.

The National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC) offers five advanced specialty certificates to recognize those (distinct professional) with the Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS) who have advanced knowledge above and beyond the CTRS credential. These five areas include: a.) physical medicine/ rehabilitation; b.) geriatrics; c.) developmental disabilities; d.) behavioral health; and e.) community inclusion services.

A person must have 5-years of experience working in the specialty area to be eligible or (one-year of experience) with a graduate degree.

Danny Pettry experience: I’m definitely proud to say that I’ve worked 15+ years at a Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facility (PRTF) as a practitioner providing services for children and adolescents with various mental and behavioral health needs.  Disclaimer: I don’t have a specialty certification through NCTRC. I do have National Certified Counselor (NCC) credential through the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). The NCC is the Counseling equivalent of the CTRS. However, the NCC requires a master’s degree where the CTRS requires an undergraduate degree. The NCC requires 80-hours of continuing education in a five-year period and the CTRS requires 50-hours of continuing education in 5-years. The CTRS specialty certification requires 75 hours of continuing education in a five-year period in the specialty area. I’ve decided to just keep the NCC opposed to getting a CTRS-specialty certification in behavioral health.


canstockphoto1146065# 2. You’ve got to gain the education needed to be an expert.

Education helps a person to become an expert.

A person with advanced degrees demonstrate that they have focused education in an area.

Here is a reminder of the types of degrees and the estimated length of time to earn one.

  • Associate’s degree: Two years of education
  • (Undergraduate degree) Bachelor’s degree: Four years of education
  • (Graduate degree) Master’s degree: Six years of education
  • Doctorate: Eight years.

The majority of Recreational Therapists hold a Bachelor’s degree. That is the current entry-level education requirement for our profession. Those recreational therapists with a 4-year-degree have more knowledge about the profession compared to those who have completed a two-year associates, recreational therapy assistant degree.

There are some Recreational Therapists who hold a Master’s degree. These practitioners have more knowledge compared to those with only an undergraduate degree.

It appears that the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC) is attempting to get more people to earn a Master’s degree with their specialty certification program. A person with a graduate degree (with 9 graduate level hours in specialty focus) can earn a CTRS-specialty certification with only one year of professional experience.

Recreational therapy has a major gap in the number of people with a Ph.D. Currently, there are several colleges and universities that are posting opening positions and are having a difficult time finding people with a Ph.D. Many of those professionals with a Ph.D. in our profession are getting close to retirement meaning there are going to be even a greater need.

Danny Pettry comments: Some recreational therapists argue that they are not as respected as other allied professionals. Recreational Therapists work on treatment teams with other professionals. Some of those professionals require a Master’s degree for entry-level practice. These professionals may unintentionally think of recreational therapists as those professionals who only need an undergraduate degree, how much could they possibly know.

Some of our allied professionals require a higher number of continuing education compared to recreational therapists. In example, counselors must earn 80 hours to maintain NCC. Occupational Therapists in my state of West Virginia must earn 24 hours of continuing education every two-years. In four years, they must earn 48 hours (almost 50). Where a CTRS only needs to earn 50 in five-years. Our allied professionals are required to earn more continuing education.

There are some people in Recreational Therapy who want to move the entry level for our profession to a Master’s degree. Danny Pettry’s beliefs: I personally think our profession should keep the entry-level requirement at a 4-year-degree. I believe that because it makes our profession a little more marketable for colleges and universities. A person could learn the skills needed to be an entry-level practitioner with only 4-years-of training.

A person who wants to be an expert in recreational therapy must continue her education and training.

Danny Pettry’s Leisure Education experience: As a teenager, I got my education in skateboarding. I read Thrasher magazine and Transworld Skateboarding magazine. I watched 411-skatevideos and videos released by various skateboard companies: Alien Workshop, Toy Machine, Maple Skateboards, Blind, Vision, Powell.  I studied those skates who were slightly better than me.

Danny Pettry’s Professional Education: I’m definitely proud to share that I have a Master’s degree in Recreational Therapy from Indiana University (2006), which I feel makes me qualified to provide online continuing education training for recreational therapists with an undergraduate degree. I also have a Master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling (2012), which I believe makes me qualified to provide focused continuing education training in mental and behavioral health. My undergraduate degree is in Therapeutic Recreation (2002).

Plus – I love reading and learning. Those are my hobbies, so it makes it easier for me. I ready about two books per week. That is about 100 books per year. And I select my favorite books to required readings for my self-study CEU programs. I’ve read the books and I know which ones are worth reading and which ones are worth skipping. I also take a lot of trainings both online and at workshops. I hire personal coaches to teach me skills in areas that I feel I need to develop.


canstockphoto14579579# 3. You’ve got to be part of the expert association

My favorite inspirational speaker, the late Jim Rohn argued that a person is the average of the five people she spends the most time with.

Here are some examples:

  • If a teenager spends most of her time with five cheerleaders, then she is probably a cheerleader.
  • If a teenager spends most of his time with five “D-students,” then his average is probably a D, too.
  • If a person spends most of her time with five people who are very involved in the church, then you can imagine she is probably involved too.
  • If a woman spends most of her time with her five “besties” who happen to all be millionaires, then she is probably a…

Many different self-improvement gurus talk about Rohn’s (5-people principle). They have different names for it.  Napolean Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich calls it a “Mastermind Group.”  Author, Brian Tracy, calls it a “Reference Group.” Regardless of the term.

The good news is that you can surround yourself with experts through audio learning programs, video training, webinars, and books. This can help you gain their knowledge and thinking styles.

However, you must have real connections with experts too. There is something powerful about networking and connecting and being part of a group. Its cliché; but here are two that I’ll repeat it here: “Two heads are better than one” and “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” 

Where is the expert association for recreational therapists? I’d argue that it is the American Therapeutic Recreation Association (ATRA). It is the leading membership organization. You can meet and network and join committees with recreational therapists from around the world through ATRA. You can attend ATRA conferences so you can learn from experts (presenters) and then even talk to the presenter after the session.

Imagine if your professional network included the best recreational therapists. Wow, that would be amazing. You can join our professional association, ATRA. Many recreational therapists work solo, meaning they’re the only recreational therapist at their facility. Being part of ATRA gives those people a suppoRT group.

Danny Pettry’s teenage experience: as a teenager, I constantly sought out skateboarders who were slightly better than me. The people who I spent most of my time with were skateboarders! The good ol’ days. We formed out own skater-club. Some of those friends ended up getting sponsored by local companies. Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory is important too. If I skated with beginner skaters, I often felt bored. If I skated with the most advanced skaters, I often felt anxious. In order to get in the flow, the level of difficulty must be slightly greater than the current level of skill.

Danny Pettry’s disclaimers: I’m not a hired spokesperson for ATRA. I’m not an elected board member for the association. I am a Lifetime Member of ATRA! I won the 2004 Peg Connolly Scholarship (named in honor of the first president of ATRA and former executive director of NCTRC, Dr. Peg Connolly). I won the 2005 Recreational Therapy Advocate of the Year award. I’ve assisted with the supervision and training of the 2009 Peg Connolly Scholarship winners. I’ve severed on the Recreational Therapy Month committee when Norma Stumbo was present of ATRA. I would love to run for a board member position, however, I’m afraid it would be a conflict of interest since I operate an online continuing education program. So, I don’t run. I do offer to volunteer my time, money, and experience helping the board whenever possible, like submitting vital mental and behavioral health updates to the association, and presenting at national conferences. I was also a good-standing member of the West Virginia Therapeutic Recreation Association (WVTRA) branch of ATRA before it disband. I served several roles on the WVTRA board, including: student representative when I was a graduate student, CTRS representative when I started to work, and the ATRA Rep for WVTRA from WV.