Athletes and Sports Competitors

Quick Facts: Athletes and Sports Competitors
2017 Median Pay $51,370 per year
Typical Entry-Level Education No formal educational credential
Work Experience in a Related Occupation None
On-the-job Training Long-term on-the-job training
Number of Jobs, 2016 11,800
Job Outlook, 2016-26 7% (As fast as average)
Employment Change, 2016-26 900

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Athletes and Sports Competitors Career, Salary and Education Information

What Athletes and Sports Competitors Do

Athletes and sports competitors practice under the direction of coaches, sports instructors, or athletic trainers.


athletes and sports competitors

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 regarding strategy and tactics from coaches and other sports staff during games

  • 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 strategies involved 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 their skills and improving teamwork under the guidance of a coach or a sports instructor. They review videotapes to critique and improve their own performance and technique. Athletes also must 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

Athletes and sports competitors held about 11,800 jobs in 2016. The largest employers of athletes and sports competitors were as follows:

Spectator sports: 51%

Self-employed workers: 15%

Fitness and recreational sports centers: 6%

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. In addition, many athletes must travel to sporting events. Such travel may include long bus rides or plane trips, and, in some cases, international travel.

Work Schedules for athletes and sports competitors

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.

How to Become an Athlete and Sports Competitor

No formal educational credential is required for anyone to become an athlete or sports competitor. Athletes must have superior athletic talent and extensive knowledge of their sport. They usually get such knowledge through years of experience at lower levels of competition.


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

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Some sports and localities require athletes and sports competitors to be licensed or certified to practice. For example, race car 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.

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 and must block out distractions from fans and opponents. The difference between winning and losing can sometimes be a result of a momentary lapse in concentration.

Decisionmaking skills. Athletes and sports competitors often must make split-second decisions. Quarterbacks, for example, usually have only 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. In 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 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.


Turning professional is often the biggest advancement that aspiring athletes can make in their careers. 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; in turn, they earn a higher salary. Others may receive endorsements from companies and brands.

salaries for Athletes and Sports Competitors 

The median annual wage for athletes and sports competitors was $51,370 in May 2017. 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 $19,220, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $208,000.


In May 2017, the median annual wages for athletes and sports competitors in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Spectator sports: $56,710

Fitness and recreational sports centers: $47,510

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.

Job Outlook for athletes and sports competitors

Employment of athletes and sports competitors is projected to grow 7 percent from 2016 to 2026, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Employment 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 individuals 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 create only 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 of disbanding, 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.

Job Prospects for athletes and sports competitors

Competition for professional athlete jobs will continue to be extremely intense. A very small number of high school or college athletes become professional athletes. Most professional athletes can deliver peak performances for only a short time. Careers last just a few years because of debilitating injuries or retirements. Yearly replacement needs for these jobs is high and may create some job opportunities.

Employment projections data for Athletes and Sports Competitors, 2016-26

Employment, 2016: 11,800

Projected Employment, 2026: 12,700

Change, 2016-2026: +7%, +900

Careers Related to athletes and sports competitors

Coaches and Scouts

Coaches teach amateur or professional athletes the skills they need to succeed at their sport. Scouts look for new players and evaluate their skills and likelihood for success at the college, amateur, or professional level. Many coaches also are involved in scouting.

Fitness Trainers and Instructors

Fitness trainers and instructors lead, instruct, and motivate individuals or groups in exercise activities, including cardiovascular exercises (exercises for the heart and blood circulation), strength training, and stretching. They work with people of all ages and skill levels.

Recreation Workers

Recreation workers design and lead activities to help people stay active, improve fitness, and have fun. They work with groups in summer camps, fitness and recreational sports centers, nursing care facilities, nature parks, and other settings. They may lead such activities as arts and crafts, sports, music, dramatics, or games.

Umpires, Referees, and Other Sports Officials

Umpires, referees, and other sports officials preside over competitive athletic or sporting events to help maintain standards of play. They detect infractions and decide penalties according to the rules of the game.

Coaches and ScoutsBachelor's degree$32,270
Fitness Trainers and InstructorsHigh school diploma or equivalent$39,210
Recreation WorkersHigh school diploma or equivalent$24,540
Umpires, Referees, and Other Sports OfficialsHigh school diploma or equivalent$26,800


Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Athletes and Sports Competitors,
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