Athletes and Sports Competitors

Career, Salary and Education Information

What Athletes and Sports Competitors Do[About this section] [To Top]

Athletes and sports competitors participate in organized, officiated sporting events to entertain spectators.

Duties of Athletes and Sports Competitors

Athletes and sports competitors typically do the following:

  • Practice to develop and improve their skills
  • Maintain their sports equipment in good condition
  • Train, exercise, and follow special diets to stay in the best physical condition
  • Take instructions from coaches and other sports staff during games regarding strategy and tactics
  • Follow the rules of the sport during competitions and games
  • Assess their individual and team performance after each event and identify their strengths and weaknesses

Many people dream of becoming a paid professional athlete. Few people, however, beat the odds and make a full-time living from professional athletics. And when they do, professional athletes often have short careers with little job security.

When playing a game, athletes and sports competitors must understand the game strategies while following the rules and regulations of the sport. The events in which athletes compete include team sports, such as baseball, softball, hockey, and soccer, and individual sports, such as golf, tennis, swimming, and skiing. The level of play varies greatly. Some athletes may compete in regional competitions, while other athletes compete in national or international events.

Being an athlete involves more than competing in athletic events. Athletes spend most days practicing skills and improving teamwork under the guidance of a coach or a sports instructor. They review videotapes to critique and improve their own performances and techniques. Athletes must also study their opponents' tendencies and weaknesses so as to gain a competitive advantage.

Some athletes work regularly with fitness trainers and instructors to gain muscle and stamina and to prevent injury. Because of the physical demands required by many sports, career-ending injuries are always a risk. Even minor injuries may put a player at risk of replacement.

Because competition at all levels is extremely intense and job security is always in question, many athletes train throughout the year to maintain or improve their form and technique and remain in peak physical condition. Very little downtime from the sport exists at the professional level.

Work Environment for Athletes and Sports Competitors[About this section] [To Top]

Athletes and sports competitors hold about 13,700 jobs. More than half are employed in the spectator sports industry.

Athletes and sports competitors who participate in outdoor competitions may be exposed to all weather conditions of the season in which they play their sport. Additionally, many athletes must travel to sporting events, which may include long bus rides or plane trips, and, in some cases, international travel.

Athlete and Sports Competitor Work Schedules

Athletes and sports competitors often work irregular hours, including evenings, weekends, and holidays. During the sports season, they usually work more than 40 hours a week for several months as they practice, train, travel, and compete in events.

Injuries and Illnesses

Athletes who play a contact sport, such as football or hockey, are highly susceptible to injuries. Because of this, many athletes wear pads, gloves, goggles, helmets, and other protective gear to protect against injury.

How to Become an Athlete or Sports Competitor[About this section] [To Top]

Get the education you need: Find schools for Athletes and Sports Competitors near you!

No formal educational credential is required to become an athlete or sports competitor. Athletes must have superior athletic talent and immense knowledge of their sport, which they usually get through years of experience at lower levels of competition.

Athlete and Sports Competitor Education

Although athletes and sports competitors typically have at least a high school diploma or equivalent, no formal educational credential is required to enter the occupation. They must have extensive knowledge of the way the sport is played, especially its rules, regulations, and strategies.

Other Experience

Athletes typically learn the rules of the game and develop their skills by playing the sport at lower levels of competition. For most sports, athletes compete in high school and collegiate athletics or on club teams. In addition, athletes may improve their skills by taking private or group lessons or attending sports camps.

Athlete and Sports Competitor Training

It typically takes many years of practice and experience to become an athlete or sports competitor.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Some sports and localities require athletes and sports competitors to be licensed or certified to practice. For example, racecar drivers need to be licensed to compete in the various races. The governing body of the sport may revoke licenses and suspend participants who do not meet the required performance or training. In addition, athletes may have their licenses or certification suspended for inappropriate activity.

Advancement for Athletes and Sports Competitors

Turning professional is often the biggest advancement that an aspiring athlete can make in his or her career. They often begin to compete immediately, although some may spend more time on the bench (as a reserve) to gain experience. In some sports, such as baseball, athletes may begin their professional career on a minor league team before moving up to the major leagues. Professional athletes generally advance in their sport by displaying superior performance and receiving accolades, and in turn they earn a higher salary. Others may receive endorsements from companies and brands.

Important Qualities for Athletes and Sports Competitors

Athleticism. Nearly all athletes and sports competitors must possess superior athletic ability to be able to compete successfully against opponents.

Concentration. Athletes and sports competitors must be extremely focused when competing and block out distractions from fans and opponents. The difference between winning and losing can often be a result of a momentary lapse in concentration.

Decisionmaking skills. Athletes and sports competitors often must make split-second decisions. Football quarterbacks, for example, usually only have seconds to decide whether to pass the football or not.

Dedication. Athletes and sports competitors must practice regularly to develop their skills and improve or maintain their physical conditioning. It often takes years to become successful, so athletes must be dedicated to their sport.

Hand-eye coordination. For many sports, including tennis and baseball, the need to gauge and strike a fast-moving ball is highly dependent on the athlete’s hand-eye coordination.

Stamina. Endurance can benefit athletes and sports competitors, particularly those athletes who participate in long-lasting sports competitions, such as marathons.

Teamwork. Because many athletes compete in a team sport, such as hockey or soccer, the ability to work with teammates as a cohesive unit is important for success.

Many professional athletes are also required to pass drug tests.

Athlete and Sports Competitor Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

The median annual wage for athletes and sports competitors is $44,680. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $19,910, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $187,200.

Athletes and sports competitors often work irregular schedules, including evenings, weekends, and holidays. During the sports season, they usually work more than 40 hours a week for several months as they practice, train, travel, and compete in events.

Job Outlook for Athletes and Sports Competitors[About this section] [To Top]

Employment of athletes and sports competitors is projected to grow 6 percent through 2024, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Growth will be primarily due to population growth and increasing public interest in professional sports.

Growth and geographic shifts in population may lead to an increase in the number of professional sports teams. Some professional sports leagues may expand to new cities in the United States, creating new teams and new job opportunities for those looking to become professional athletes.

However, expansion is rare in professional sports leagues. Creating new teams is very costly and risky, requiring strong support from fans and both local and state government. When leagues do expand, they typically only create one or two teams at a time. Conversely, some teams and sports leagues may disband altogether because of a lack of interest in the sport.

Instead, some teams simply relocate to another city that has a greater interest in the sport and a larger fan base. In this case no new jobs for athletes would be created.

Athletes and Sports Competitors Job Prospects

Competition for professional athlete jobs will continue to be extremely intense. Very few high school or college athletes become professional athletes. In a major sport, such as basketball, only about 1 in 3,000 high school athletes make it to the professional level.

Most professional athletes can deliver peak performances for only a short time. Careers last only a few years because of debilitating injuries or retirements. Yearly replacement needs for these jobs is high and may create some job opportunities.

However, the talented young men and women who dream of becoming sports superstars greatly outnumber the number of openings.

Employment projections data for Athletes and Sports Competitors, 2014-24
Occupational Title Employment, 2014 Projected Employment, 2024 Change, 2014-24
Percent Numeric
Athletes and sports competitors 13,700 14,500 6 800


*Some content used by permission of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor.

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