Europe’s top athletes turn to Flemish physio
Lieven Maesschalck may not look like you’d expect, but his results on the continent’s athletes speak for themselves
Not just a celebrity healer
“You have just one tool, your body,” he repeats. “The body is made to move. So you’re just creating a way for them to do it. You help the body heal itself.”
Maesschalck (pictured) has become the go-to physiotherapist for Europe’s top athletes seeking rehabilitation after injury. His Move To Cure clinic in the old Antwerp quays – brilliantly located in front of the MAS museum – has become a Mecca for footballers, runners, cyclists and others as they try to cut the time it takes to heal whatever breaks or aches. “It is all about functional rehabilitation,” Maesschalck says. “You treat people in a very functional way, in an active way. We try to rebuild the body using the body itself.”
Maesschalck refuses to name his clients, but among the footballers he is known to have treated are Ukrainian Andriy Shevchenko, Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o, former AC Milan captain Massimo Ambrosini, Brazil and AC Milan’s Kaká and West Ham and England centre-forward Andy Carroll. He knows almost all the therapists in England’s Premiership, who regularly call him when they want to send an injured player over.
In addition, Maesschalck is firmly entrenched in the Belgian national team, and he talks enthusiastically about Red Devils coach Marc Wilmots, who convinced him to join the team set-up, which will of course include going to the World Cup in Brazil next summer. Other local clients include cyclists Jurgen Van den Broeck, Tom Boonen and Kevin De Weert, former cyclo-cross world champion Niels Albert and tennis star Yanina Wickmayer.
But Maesschalck is careful to distance himself from suggestions that he is just a celebrity healer, stressing that only a quarter of his clients are “top-level sportsmen”. Although he accompanied the Belgian team to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, he no longer plays any formal role with the country’s athletic hopefuls.
“It’s not about who the person is, or what level they are, it’s about what we can do with them,” he says. “It’s about the injury and the recovery. I do everything in the body, from the feet to the neck. Shoulders are the most common injuries. Some 80% of lower back pain can be avoided by movement, by workouts. Even with a hernia, you can deal with the pain through movement. And science can measure it.”
The 49-year-old might look scatty – his trainers and tracksuit bottoms seem at odds with his sophisticated wool jumper – but he is sharp and energetic as he shows off his clinic. The main space is a gym floor where clients of all shapes, sizes and ages practice exercises aimed at rebuilding muscle and regaining balance. These involve free weights, machines, elastics and balance balls, and most of the clients seem to work one-on-one with members of Maesschalck’s 15-strong staff.
We try to rebuild the body using the body itself
The walls are decorated with inspirational quotes: sources include Nietzsche, sports stars, Japanese proverbs and Maesschalck himself. In a corner, there is a space to film clients doing specific movements, to better understand the dynamics of the injury and identify the strengths and weaknesses in their bodies. “You could have a weakness in the hip that gives you a lower back problem, or in the foot that gives you a shoulder problem,” Maesschalck explains.
So how did he earn his reputation? “It grew organically, by word of mouth,” he says. “It’s not about marketing. It’s step by step. In the beginning, it wasn’t even about sports injuries – it was just about treating people with orthopaedic problems. I started with only orthopaedic problems, which includes the muscles and the joints. I did it only with functional movements, adapting to different injuries and needs, levels and skills. And you see the muscle change in the end.”
Maesschalck’s interest was kindled by his physiotherapist father. Born in the East Flanders town of Lebbeke, the young Lieven didn’t do much sport, but earned a Master’s degree in physical therapy at the University of Ghent. After graduating and his year of national service, he spent three years working in his father’s Lebbeke clinic, before he took it over in 1988.
His second practice, in Antwerp, began in a small room in a fitness centre in Berchem before moving portside. Maesschalck sold the Lebbeke practice six months ago, though it is still mentioned on his Move To Cure website.
The sporting connection grew gradually. An athlete comes in, he says, “and you treat him, and he goes back at the highest level. In the end, you create a certain expertise. And you’re getting better over time, getting better scientifically, with new technologies. You create a system, step-by-step, by trial and error – this one works, and that one doesn’t.”
“The body is incredible”
Maesschalck’s unique selling point is his insight that rehabilitation can begin far sooner than previously thought. “You can start it almost right after the injury,” he says. “Before, they would say rest, rest, rest after surgery. Twenty years ago, you would be put in a cast. Now, after three days you can run. Twenty years ago it was all about deep massage, manipulation and ultrasounds. When you ruptured a muscle, it was four weeks before rehabilitation. I start on day three. I start them walking backwards, dealing with the calves.”
Twenty years ago, you would be put in a cast. Now, after three days, you can run
The idea, he says, is that while the bone, muscle, tendon or ligament might be damaged, everything around it is still working well and needs to maintain – or better, surpass – its previous strength to support the recovering body part.
“First of all, you have the lesion, of course. But you also have everything around it, so you have to be ready when the lesion is cured. So indirectly, you can help speed up the recovery. And that way, you can also help prevent future injuries,” he says. “It’s all about adapting. The secret is that there is no secret. There are people with a fast recovery, others with a slow recovery.”
Maesschalck has attracted scepticism from the trade, some of whom say he isn’t doing anything radically different from what other physios offer but is simply trading on his reputation. And Maesschalck accepts that many of his principles are obvious. “The body is incredible. The body will continue to move – it is the reason we limp, but you can’t stay limping all the time,” he says. “And if you don’t have a spontaneous recovery, then you have a problem. That is the whole principle. The dynamic system of recovery is the healing response. The body is made to recover – we have an immune system and healing processes. The question is how you influence it.”
Focus on quality
Technology helps too, Maesschalck says. Scanners can identify the scope of the injury better, and surgery is less invasive than before. And there is a better understanding of how different muscles interact. “We have to look at issues like compensation among the muscles that could, in time, create injuries. With rehab, you have to prevent what went wrong, so you can directly take it out,” he says.
We have an immune system and healing processes. The question is how you influence it
His clinic is only part of the recovery process, and Maesschalck says he always gives “homework” to clients after their sessions. Their time at the clinic can last from a few days to six months. And he insists on different training regimens, including what he calls the pre-warm-ups for footballers, before they even get into their warm-ups.
Maesschalck keeps himself fit with running – he managed 4h10min in the New York marathon, on just two runs a week – and cycling. “I never get injured,” he laughs. “But I do get hip pain when I run too much.”
He is planning to open a London practice shortly but insists his ambitions are more about service than size. “I want to grow in quality,” he says. “I want to ensure that my clients are happy. If your business gets too big, you can’t do your job properly. It takes a lot of investment and time. I see myself as an innovator, giving ideas to people to develop their skills and talents. I always want to inspire people.”
Photo: Filip Van Roe