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


Athletes and sports competitors typically do the following:

  • Practice to develop and improve their skills
  • Maintain the equipment they use in their sport in good condition
  • Stay in the best physical condition by training, exercising, and following special diets
  • Take instructions from coaches and other sports staff during games regarding strategy and tactics
  • Obey the rules of the sport during competitions and games
  • Assess how they did 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 obeying 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, where sometimes the best from around the world compete in events broadcast on international television.

Being an athlete involves more than competing in athletic events. Athletes spend many hours each day practicing skills and improving teamwork under the guidance of a coach or a sports instructor. They view videotapes to critique their own performances and techniques and to learn their opponents' tendencies and weaknesses so as to gain a competitive advantage.

Some athletes work regularly with strength trainers to gain muscle and stamina and to prevent injury. Many athletes push their bodies to the limit during both practice and play, so career-ending injury is 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 excellent form and technique and remain in peak physical condition. Very little downtime from the sport exists at the professional level.

Work Environment

Athletes and sports competitors held about 14,900 jobs in 2012. More than half were employed in the spectator sports industry.

Athletes and sports competitors who participate in competitions that are held outdoors 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. 

Work Schedules

Athletes and sports competitors often work irregular hours, including evenings, weekends, and holidays. They usually work more than 40 hours a week for several months during the sports season, if not most of the year.

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.

Education and Training

Athletes and sports competitors typically have at least a high school diploma or equivalent. They must have superior athletic talent and immense knowledge of their sport, which they usually get through years of experience at lower levels of competition.


Athletes and sports competitors typically have at least a high school diploma or equivalent. 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. They often learn by playing the sport in school or at a recreation center with the help of instructors or coaches. Some may attend camps that teach the fundamentals of the sport.

For most team sports, athletes compete in high school and collegiate athletics or on club teams. Other athletes may learn their sport by taking private or group lessons, such as in gymnastics or tennis.


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, in drag racing, drivers need to be licensed to compete in the various drag racing series. 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.


For most aspiring athletes, turning professional is the biggest advancement. 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, winning, and receiving accolades, and in turn they earn a higher salary.

Important Qualities

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. The difference between winning and losing can often be a result of a momentary lapse in concentration.

Decision-making 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 run with it.

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 essential for success.

Many professional athletes are also required to pass drug tests.


The median annual wage for athletes and sports competitors was $40,060 in May 2012. 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 $18,040, and the top 10 percent earned more than $187,200.

Athletes and sports competitors often work irregular hours, including evenings, weekends, and holidays. They usually work more than 40 hours a week for several months during the sports season, if not most of the year.

Job Outlook

Employment of athletes and sports competitors is projected to grow 7 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than 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.

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 would be created. Some teams and sports leagues may disband altogether because of a lack of interest in the sport.

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' 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.

For More Information

For more information about team and individual sports, visit

National Collegiate Athletic Association

National Council of Youth Sports

National Federation of State High School Associations

For more information related to individual sports, refer to the organization that represents the sport.