How Can I Become a Professional Athlete?

Explore the career requirements for professional athletes. Get the facts about education and licensure requirements, salary, and potential job growth to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Education - Sports Management degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Professional Athlete?

A professional athlete is an athlete who is paid to train and compete in official sporting events, often for entertainment purposes. Those who play team sports may join teams within organized professional leagues. Those who compete in individual sports, such as track or swimming, may make money from sponsorships, corporate endorsements or by winning major events.

The following table provides information about education, training, and licensure requirements as well as employment information for professional athletes.

Education RequiredHigh school diploma
Training RequiredSeveral years of training, practice, and athletic competition
Key SkillsAthleticism, concentration, decision-making skills, stamina
LicensureLicensure or certification is required for some sports and in some localities
Job Growth (2014-2024)6%*
Median Salary (2015)$44,680*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Skill Sets Should I Build?

Each athletic sport and player position requires unique skill sets and caters to distinct body types. Some sports, such as wrestling and boxing, delimit potential aspirants by weight. But from the earliest age possible, you should work on developing extremely proficient leg, arm and core body strength, hand-eye and foot-eye coordination, quickness, endurance and flexibility if your dream is to become a professional athlete. Your early coaches will typically also stress perseverance, teamwork and patience.

Becoming a professional athlete also requires mental fortitude. The ability to predict opposing players' movements and remain aware of things such as other players' weaknesses and strengths and your team's number of timeouts or the game clock are all important skills. Off the field, it doesn't hurt to familiarize yourself with the basics of business and psychology, as many professional athletes find themselves unprepared for the stresses of fame and finances that come with competing at the highest levels.

Sport-specific training regiments, knowledge and intuitions vary. Progressing from your freshman, junior varsity and varsity high school team's ranks to a starting position and status as a state standout is a must, as only the most competitive from this level are chosen for Division One college athletics. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), only about one in 5,000 high school athletes make it to the professional stage in their respective sports (www.bls.gov).

How Do I Make the Final Hurdle Into Pro Sports?

While some athletes get the starting spot fresh from college, many others, even hall of fame members and world record holders, sit on the bench for weeks or even years, waiting for their big break. For certain professional sporting leagues, potential ways to forgo this scenario include hiring a promoter or agent. An agent can help you find the team and coach ready to give you your chance. Helping out in your local community at fundraisers, team autograph signings or other social functions can help you show your dedication to the team, personality and down-to-earth attitude, all aspects that can help you add yourself to the starting roster.

What Are Some Drawbacks to Becoming a Professional Athlete?

Nonfatal on-the-job injuries for professional athletes are among the highest of any profession, according to the BLS. Not only are very few people employed as professional athletes, but fewer still stay at the top for more than a few years. Of these top stars, only a few will ever get the multimillion dollar endorsements and contracts.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Instead of competing as a professional athlete, you might be interested in getting a job as a fitness trainer or instructor. In this job, you could work with individuals or groups to teach them exercise techniques that promote general wellness or help them get in shape for a particular sport. The only education requirement for this job is a high school diploma, but it is important to note that many employers prefer candidates with an associate's degree or a bachelor's degree in a health or fitness-related subject. Another option is a job as a sports official, such as a referee or umpire. Depending on the sport in which they specialize, officials may call penalties, judge performances and inspect equipment in order to ensure the integrity of the competition. It is important to note that most sports officials only work part-time, so they may hold another job as well. A high school diploma is usually required for this job, but training requirements vary by state and sport.

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