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
  • Keep their sports equipment in good condition
  • Exercise, train, and follow special diets to stay in the best physical condition
  • Take instructions regarding strategy and tactics from coaches and other sports staff during practices and competitions
  • Follow the rules of the sport during competitions
  • Assess performance after each event and identify their strengths and weaknesses

Many people dream of becoming a professional athlete. Few people, however, make a full-time living from professional athletics—and when they do, professional athletes often have short careers with little job security.

When performing, athletes and sports competitors must understand the strategies involved in their sport while following its rules and regulations. The events in which athletes compete include team sports, such as baseball, football, hockey, and soccer, and individual sports, such as golf, racecar driver, and tennis. The level of play varies. Some athletes compete in regional events; others compete in national or international events.

Being an athlete involves more than competing in athletic events. Athletes spend most days practicing and improving their skills under the guidance of a coach or a sports instructor. They review videos to critique and improve their performance and technique. To gain a competitive advantage, athletes also study their opponents' tendencies and weaknesses.

Because of the physical demands required by many sports, career-ending injuries are always a risk. Some athletes work regularly with fitness trainers and instructors to gain muscle and stamina and to prevent injury. They also may work with athletic trainers or exercise physiologists to recover and rebuild from injuries, even minor ones.

Sports competition at the professional level is intense, and job security is always in question. Therefore, many pro athletes train throughout the year to maintain or improve their form and technique to remain in peak physical condition. Little downtime from the sport exists at the professional level.

Work Environment

Athletes and sports competitors held about 15,800 jobs in 2021. The largest employers of athletes and sports competitors were as follows:

Spectator sports 60%
Self-employed workers 17
Fitness and recreational sports centers      3

Athletes and sports competitors who participate in outdoor competitions may be exposed to 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.

Injuries and Illnesses

Athletes and sports competitors have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations. Many of these workers wear gloves, helmets, pads, and other protective gear to guard against injury. And although fatalities are uncommon, athletes and sports competitors experience one of the highest rates of occupational fatalities of all occupations.

Work Schedules

Athletes and sports competitors may work irregular schedules, including evenings, weekends, and holidays; part-time work is also common. During the sports season, they typically work more than 40 hours per week for several months as they practice, train, travel, and compete.

Education and Training

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


Although no formal educational credential is typically required to enter the occupation, most athletes and sports competitors have at least a high school diploma or equivalent. Some play their sport in college, where they take courses that may lead to a degree. 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 of competition. They often begin training at a young age and may compete on club teams or in high school and collegiate athletics. In addition, athletes may improve their skills by taking private or group lessons or attending sports camps.


It typically takes many years of practice and experience to become an athlete or sports competitor.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Some sports and states require athletes and sports competitors to be licensed or certified to practice. For example, racecar drivers need a driver’s license issued by their state and a certification or license from an automobile racing organization to compete in some races. State licensing boards and professional athletics associations, which serve as governing bodies of various sports, 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.


Turning professional is often the biggest advancement that aspiring athletes make in their careers. They may begin to compete immediately, although some also 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 typically earn a higher salary. They also may receive endorsements from companies and brands.

Personality and Interests

Athletes and sports competitors typically have an interest in the Building and
Persuading interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things. The Persuading interest area indicates a focus on influencing, motivating, and selling to other people.

If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Persuading interest which might fit with a career as an athlete and sports competitor, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Athletes and sports competitors should also possess the following specific 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 $77,300 in May 2021. 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 $25,270, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $208,000.

In May 2021, the median annual wages for athletes and sports competitors in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Spectator sports $85,390
Fitness and recreational sports centers      79,610

Athletes and sports competitors may work irregular schedules, including evenings, weekends, and holidays; part-time work is also common. During the sports season, they typically work more than 40 hours per week for several months as they practice, train, travel, and compete.

Job Outlook

Employment of athletes and sports competitors is projected to grow 36 percent from 2021 to 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations.

About 2,900 openings for athletes and sports competitors are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire. 


Much of the projected employment growth in this occupation is due to recovery from the COVID-19 recession of 2020. 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, forming new teams and job opportunities for prospective professional athletes. Employment growth also will stem from an increased public interest in professional sports.

Expansion is rare in professional sports leagues because forming new teams is costly and risky. However, several leagues discussing future expansion plans could affect the demand for athletes and sports competitors over the projections decade.

An interim rule change in college sports and legislation for a Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) policy in many states will allow student-athletes to sign endorsements. As a result, there should be an increase in self-employment for athletes and sports competitors over the projections decade.

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.


Where does this information come from?

The career information above is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. This excellent resource for occupational data is published by the U.S. Department of Labor every two years. Truity periodically updates our site with information from the BLS database.

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I think I have found an error or inaccurate information on this page. Who should I contact?

This information is taken directly from the Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Truity does not editorialize the information, including changing information that our readers believe is inaccurate, because we consider the BLS to be the authority on occupational information. However, if you would like to correct a typo or other technical error, you can reach us at

I am not sure if this career is right for me. How can I decide?

There are many excellent tools available that will allow you to measure your interests, profile your personality, and match these traits with appropriate careers. On this site, you can take the Career Personality Profiler assessment, the Holland Code assessment, or the Photo Career Quiz.

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