Should You Become a Professional Athlete?

Pro Athletes Can Be Well-Compensated, but It's Not Easy to Become One

Professional athletes include football players
David Madison / Getty Images

A professional athlete competes individually or as part of a team in organized sports including football, basketball, soccer, tennis, golf, running, skiing, hockey, rugby, gymnastics, figure skating, and baseball. He or she practices and trains regularly to improve his or her skills and performance.

Many people try to become pro athletes because of how well it pays at the highest levels, particularly for popular sports. However, competition is high, and it typically takes years of playing school or club sports to get there. Even then, you may not get paid much unless you are a star.

The median pay for athletes and sports competitors is $50,650 per year, and there are around 13,500 jobs in this profession. The job outlook over the next decade is 6%, which is about average.

If you are hoping to one day be a professional athlete, here are some things you should know.

How to Get Your Start

Athletes who compete in team sports, such as football, hockey, baseball, or basketball, get their training by participating in high school, college, or club teams. Other athletes, including tennis players, golfers, swimmers, bicyclists, runners, and gymnasts, receive private or group lessons as part of their training.

If you want to compete professionally, you will need superior skills, extensive training, and dedication to a particular sport. You will also need soft skills that you won't necessarily acquire through this training. 

  • Interpersonal skills: Athletes must work well as members of a team, if they are playing a team sport.
  • Concentration: A strong ability to focus is essential.
  • Decision-making: You must be able to make decisions in an instant while on the field or court.
  • Hand-eye coordination: You must have the ability to match your hand and eye movements.
  • Physical stamina: You will need the endurance to stay physically active for long periods.

The Downsides of Being a Professional Athlete

There are many positives to being a professional athlete, from a high pay ceiling to staying in great shape. But there are downsides you should consider as well.

  • Expect to work when the public typically has the time to watch sports (for example, on weekends and holidays).
  • Your work schedule will be unbalanced. Athletes train, travel, and compete extensively during the season for their sport but have a lot of downtime at other times of the year. For example, Major League Baseball players are very busy between March, when spring training begins, and October, when the season ends.
  • Professional athletes can sustain injuries that will end their careers, so you should have an alternative career to fall back on after you retire from your sport.

Common Misconceptions

There are also some misconceptions about what it is like to be an athlete that you should be aware of before committing to this profession.

  • You will get to "play" all the time: While it may seem like athletes earn money while having fun, they also dedicate a lot of time to training for their sport.
  • A professional team will draft you: Most people who aspire to be professional athletes don't make it. Many who get drafted by minor league teams do not end up in the majors.
  • You will make a lot of money: High-profile players like Steph Curry have multi-million dollar contracts, but his lesser-known teammates earn only a tiny fraction of that. 
  • You will be famous: Have you heard of Eli Manning? The New York Giants' quarterback is a household name. Now, do you know who Weston Richberg is? You're not alone. He was the team's center before signing with the San Francisco 49ers in 2018. As Manning's teammate, he was on the field whenever the quarterback was, but like most pros, he isn't famous.

What Can You Do When You Retire?

Even if an injury doesn't end your professional career, you won't be able to—nor will you want to—compete forever. Athletes retire at relatively young ages and most want to continue to stay active. Here are a few common options for careers after being a professional athlete:

  • Coach: Teaches amateur and professional athletes the fundamentals of a sport
  • Scout: Recruits players for school and professional teams
  • Fitness trainer: Instructs people in exercise and related activities
  • Sports announcer: Narrates games, provides commentary, and interviews players
  • Sports reporter: Delivers news stories about sporting events on television and radio news, online, and in newspapers

Is This Occupation a Good Fit for You?

Before you decide to pursue an athlete career, especially if you are going to invest money and time in it, make sure it is a good match for your interestspersonality type, and work-related values.

If you're unsure, here are some related occupations you can consider as well:

  Description Required Education/Training
Dancer Conveys stories and ideas through music Many years of formal dance training
Umpire, Referee, Sports Official Officiates at athletic games to make sure they are played fairly Requirements vary by state and sport association