Professional Athlete Career (Individual Sports)

In contrast with amateur athletes who play or compete in amateur circles for titles or trophies only, professional athletes participate in individual sports such as tennis, figure skating, golf, running, or boxing, competing against others to win prizes and money.

Professional Athlete Career History

Professional AthleteThe origin of the first recreational activity—or sport—is not known. It can be assumed, however, that the notion of sport was born the first time anyone attempted to fish, hunt, or wrestle, simply for the pleasure of it or to compete against another person, rather than for self-preservation. Wrestling matches, for example, are believed to have taken place 5,000 years ago in ancient Sumeria; archeological excavations there turned up cave drawings depicting men wrestling one another while others looked on. Like the skills associated with hunting and fishing, wrestling and other hand-to-hand combat skills were developed in order to survive. Competitions to see who had the best skills in these areas inevitably resulted in a love of and devotion to the skill, or sport, itself.

The Olympic Games are generally credited as being the first instance of organized sports. Historians believe that they actually began as early as two centuries before the first written mention of them in 776 BC Rome’s conquest of ancient Greece didn’t bring the fabled games to a halt, but instead, the Romans added their own brand of sport to the list, including chariot-racing and gladiator battles. They built special arenas in which to stage these events, from the amphitheater to the renowned Colosseum in Rome. In AD 394, however, the Olympic Games were abolished and were not revived until 1896.

In the interim, popular support for organized sports developed slowly. Tennis rose to popularity in France in the 1400s; historical records indicate that a track-and-field competition was held in England in 1510; Mary, Queen of Scots, loved to play golf and popularized the sport during her reign from 1542 to 1567. Her son, James I of England, lifted a ban on football (now known to Americans as soccer). The first sweepstakes in horse racing was introduced in England in 1714.

The difference in the nature of sports before and after the 19th century largely has to do with organization. Prior to the 19th century, most sports were not officially organized; there were no official rules, competitions, or standards of play. During the 19th century, however, many sports underwent a transition from invented pastime to official sport. Rules governing play, the field of play, and competitions were agreed upon. The first modern track-and-field meet, for example, was held in England in 1825. Meanwhile, in the United States the English game of rugby evolved into American football. The first game was played between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869.

Baseball, basketball, golf, tennis, and then boxing began to attract large crowds of people in the years before World War II. As these sports and others grew in popularity, governing bodies and organizations were created to oversee the fair play of each sport. Gradually, coverage of sporting events on radio and in newspapers began to grow until sports quite literally became the national pastime for Americans. Sports stars became as renowned as movie stars or politicians, sometimes even more so.

Sports, both individual and team, have often provided the first opportunity to break political and social prejudices. At the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, before a primarily German crowd that included Adolph Hitler, an African American, Jesse Owens, won the 100-yard dash; won the long-jump and set a record that stood for 25 years; won the 220-yard dash and 220- yard low hurdles; and was a member of the winning 4 x 100-yard relay team, which Hitler had previously predicted would be a showcase for Aryan supremacy. Until the 1940s, professional sports remained segregated in the United States, with occasional exceptions in boxing and track and field. In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke racial lines when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed him.

Today the number of professional team sports is growing, but the numbers still favor male athletes. Only a few professional teams exist for female athletes, none of which are currently promoted or supported by the media and public to the degree that male teams are. Professional sports have long remained closed to women athletes for a number of reasons, from outright prejudice to finances. For centuries women weren’t allowed to exercise strenuously or play a sport, much less devote the time necessary to excelling in a specific sport. It was simply believed to be unappealing and unseemly for a woman to exert herself. The bias against women in sports went so far as to question the femininity of female athletes.

Women first made their entree into the sports world in individual sports, such as golf (Babe Didrikson Zaharias) and tennis (Suzanne Lenglen). These two women alone established standards for both male and female athletes. Didrikson Zaharias is considered the greatest woman athlete of the first half of the 20th century. At 16, she was named an All-American high school basketball player, and then proceeded to international fame in track and field, winning several U.S. titles and, in the 1932 Olympic Games, gold medals in the javelin and 80-meter hurdles, and a silver in the high jump. She became a professional golfer in 1948 after great success as an amateur. That year she captured the U.S. Women’s Open title, which she won again in 1950 and 1954. Didrikson Zaharias was the Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year in 1932, 1945–47, 1950, and 1954. Lenglen, who lost only one match between 1919 and 1926 and who won Wimbledon’s single’s title a record six times, was also the first tennis player to ever sign a contract and undertake a professional tour, which she did in 1926.

The success of these women did not necessarily pave the way for more women—the road would continue to be rough—but their presence in the world of sports certainly made admittance to it for other women a little easier. The stunning play of tennis stars Margaret Court Smith, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Venus Williams, and Serena Williams as well as golfers Kathy Whitworth, Nancy Lopez, JoAnne Carner, Pat Bradley, Amy Alcott, and Annika Sorenstam proves that women athletes can excel and entertain as well as their male counterparts.

Today, athletes who compete in individual sports at the professional level earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries or prize money at professional competitions. The top players or athletes in each individual sport earn as much or more in endorsements and advertising, usually for sports-related products and services, but increasingly for products or services completely unrelated to their sport.

Professional Athlete Job Description

Professional athletes participate in individual sports such as tennis, figure skating, golf, running, or boxing, competing against others to win prizes and money.

Depending on the nature of the specific sport, most athletes compete against a field of individuals. The field of competitors can be as small as one (tennis, boxing) or as large as the number of qualified competitors, anywhere from six to 30 (figure skating, golf, cycling). In certain individual events, such as the marathon or triathlon, the field may seem excessively large—often tens of thousands of runners compete in the New York Marathon—but for the professional runners competing in the race, only a handful of other runners represent real competition.

The athletic performances of those in individual sports are evaluated according to the nature and rules of each specific sport. For example, the winner of a foot race is whoever crosses the finish line first; in tennis the winner is the one who scores the highest in a set number of games; in boxing and figure skating, the winners are determined by a panel of judges. Competitions are organized by local, regional, national, and international organizations and associations whose primary functions are to promote the sport and sponsor competitive events. Within a professional sport there are usually different levels of competition based on age, ability, and gender. There are often different designations and events within one sport. Tennis, for example, consists of doubles and singles, while track and field contains many different events, from field events such as the javelin and shot putt, to track events such as the 110-meter dash and the two-mile relay race.

Athletes train year-round, on their own or with a coach, friend, parent, or trainer. In addition to stretching and exercising the specific muscles used in any given sport, athletes concentrate on developing excellent eating and sleeping habits that will help them remain in top condition throughout the year. Although certain sports have a particular season, most professional athletes train rigorously all year, varying the type and duration of their workouts to develop strength, cardiovascular ability, flexibility, endurance, speed, and quickness, as well as to focus on technique and control. Often, an athlete’s training focuses less on the overall game or program that the athlete will execute, than on specific areas or details of that game or program. Figure skaters, for example, won’t simply keep going through their entire long programs from start to finish but instead will focus on the jumps, turns, and hand movements that refine the program. Similarly, sprinters don’t keep running only the sprint distances they race in during a meet; instead, they vary their workouts to include some distance work, some sprints, a lot of weight training to build strength, and maybe some mental exercises to build control and focus while in the starter’s blocks. Tennis players routinely spend hours just practicing their forehand, down-the-line shots.

Athletes often watch videotapes or films of their previous practices or competitions to see where they can improve their performance. They also study what the other competitors are doing in order to prepare strategies for winning.

Professional Athlete Career Requirements

High School

A high school diploma will provide you with the basic skills that you will need in your long climb to becoming a professional athlete. Business and mathematics classes will teach you how to manage money wisely. Speech classes will help you become a better communicator. Physical education classes will help you build your strength, agility, and competitive spirit. You should, of course, participate in every organized sport that your school offers and that interests you.

Some individual sports such as tennis and gymnastics have professional competitors who are high school students. Teenagers in this situation often have private coaches with whom they practice both before and after going to school, and others are home-schooled as they travel to competitions.

Postsecondary Training

There are no formal education requirements for sports, although certain competitions and training opportunities are only available to those enrolled in four-year colleges and universities. Collegiate-level competitions are where most athletes in this area hone their skills; they may also compete in international or national competitions outside of college, but the chance to train and receive an education isn’t one many serious athletes refuse. In fact, outstanding ability in athletics is the way many students pay for their college educations. Given the chances of striking it rich financially, an education (especially a free one) is a wise investment and one fully supported by most professional sports organizations.

Other Requirements

There is so much competition to be among the world’s elite athletes in any given sport that talent alone isn’t the primary requirement. Diligence, perseverance, hard work, ambition, and courage are all essential qualities to the individual who dreams of making a career as a professional athlete. “If you want to be a pro, there’s no halfway. There’s no three-quarters way,” says Eric Roller, a former professional tennis player who competed primarily on the Florida circuit. Other, specific requirements will vary according to the sport. Jockeys, for example, are usually petite men and women.

Exploring Professional Athlete Career

Professional AthleteIf you are interested in pursuing a career in professional sports you should start participating in that sport as much and as early as possible. With some sports, an individual who is 15 years old may already be too old to realistically begin pursuing a professional career. By playing the sport and by talking to coaches, trainers, and athletes in the field, you can ascertain whether you like the sport enough to make it a career, determine if you have enough talent, and gain new insight into the field. You can also contact professional organizations and associations for information on how to best prepare for a career in their sport. Sometimes there are specialized training programs available, and the best way to find out is to get in contact with the people whose job it is to promote the sport.


Professional athletes who compete in individual sports are not employed in the same manner as most workers. They do not work for employers, but choose the competitions or tournaments they wish to compete in. For example, a professional runner may choose to enter the Boston Marathon and then travel to Atlanta for the Peachtree Road Race.

Starting Out

Professional athletes must meet the requirements established by the organizing bodies of their respective sport. Sometimes this means meeting a physical requirement, such as age, height, or weight; and sometimes this means fulfilling a number of required stunts, or participating in a certain number of competitions. Professional organizations usually arrange it so that athletes can build up their skills and level of play by participating in lower-level competitions. College sports, as mentioned earlier, are an excellent way to improve one’s skills while pursuing an education.


Professional athletes advance into the elite numbers of their sport by working and practicing hard, and by winning. Professional athletes usually obtain representation by sports agents in the behind-the-scenes deals that determine for which teams they will be playing and what they will be paid. These agents may also be involved with other key decisions involving commercial endorsements, personal income taxes, and financial investments of the athlete’s revenues.

A college education can prepare all athletes for the day when their bodies can no longer compete at the top level, whether because of age or an unforeseen injury. Every athlete should be prepared to move into another career, related to the world of sports or not.


The U.S. Department of Labor reports that athletes had median annual earnings of $39,930 in 2005. Ten percent earned less than $14,430 while the top 10 percent earned $145,600 or much more.

Salaries, prize monies, and commercial endorsements will vary from sport to sport; a lot depends on the popularity of the sport and its ability to attract spectators, or on the sport’s professional organization and its ability to drum up sponsors for competitions and prize money. Still other sports, like boxing, depend on the skill of the fight’s promoters to create interest in the fight. An elite professional tennis player who wins Wimbledon, for example, usually earns more than half a million dollars in a matter of several hours. Add to that the incredible sums a Wimbledon-champion can make in endorsements and the tennis star can earn more than one million dollars a year. This scenario is misleading, however; to begin with, top athletes usually cannot perform at such a level for very long, which is why a good accountant and investment counselor comes in handy. Secondly, for every top athlete who earns millions of dollars in a year, there are hundreds of professional athletes who earn less than $40,000. The stakes are incredibly high, the competition fierce.

Perhaps the only caveat to the financial success of an elite athlete is the individual’s character or personality. An athlete with a bad temper or prone to unsportsmanlike behavior may still be able to set records or win games, but he or she won’t necessarily be able to cash in on commercial endorsements. Advertisers are notoriously fickle about the spokespeople they choose to endorse products; some athletes have lost million-dollar accounts because of their bad behavior on and off the field of play.

Other options exist, thankfully, for professional athletes. Many go into some area of coaching, sports administration, management, or broadcasting. The professional athlete’s unique insight and perspective can be a real asset in careers in these areas. Other athletes have been simultaneously pursuing other interests, some completely unrelated to their sport, such as education, business, social welfare, or the arts. Many continue to stay involved with the sport they have loved since childhood, coaching young children or volunteering with local school teams.

Work Environment

Athletes compete in many different conditions, according to the setting of the sport (indoors or outdoors) and the rules of the organizing or governing bodies. Track-and-field athletes often compete in hot or rainy conditions, but at any point, organizing officials can call off the meet, or postpone competition until better weather. Indoor events are less subject to cancellation. However, since it is in the best interests of an organization not to risk the athletes’ health, any condition that might adversely affect the outcome of a competition is usually reason enough to cancel or postpone it. An athlete, on the other hand, may withdraw from competition if he or she is injured or ill. Nerves and fear are not good reasons to default on a competition and part of ascending into the ranks of professional athletes means learning to cope with the anxiety that competition brings. Some athletes actually thrive on the nervous tension.

In order to reach the elite level of any sport, athletes must begin their careers early. Most professional athletes have been working at their sports since they were small children; skiers, figure skaters, and gymnasts, for example, begin skiing, skating, and tumbling as young as age two or three. Athletes have to fit hours of practice time into an already full day, usually several hours before school, and several hours after school. To make the situation more difficult, competitions and facilities for practice are often far from the young athlete’s home, which means they either commute to and from practice and competitions with a parent, or they live with a coach or trainer for most of the year. Separation from a child’s parents and family is an especially hard and frustrating element of the training program. When a child has demonstrated uncommon excellence in a sport, the family often decides to move to the city in which the sports facility is located, so that the child doesn’t have to travel or be separated from a normal family environment.

The expenses of a sport can be overwhelming, as can the time an athlete must devote to practice and travel to and from competitions. In addition to specialized equipment and clothing, the athlete must pay for a coach, travel expenses, competition fees and, depending on the sport, time at the facility or gym where he or she practices. Tennis, golf, figure skating, and skiing are among the most expensive sports to enter.

Even with the years of hard work, practice, and financial sacrifice that most athletes and their families must endure, there is no guarantee that an athlete will achieve the rarest of the rare in the sports world—financial reward. An athlete needs to truly love the sport at which he or she excels, and also have a nearly insatiable ambition and work ethic.

Professional Athlete Career Outlook

The outlook for professional athletes will vary depending on the sport, its popularity, and the number of athletes currently competing. On the whole, the outlook for the field of professional sports is healthy, but the number of jobs will not increase dramatically. Some sports, however, may experience an increase in popularity, which will translate into greater opportunities for higher salaries, prize monies, and commercial endorsements.

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