What Does it Take to Become a Professional Athlete?

First of all, it is a job.

It requires a skill set (qualifications), a resume, an application, an interview (or several), and a contract.

Unlike most other jobs, professional athlete’s contracts can reach many millions of dollars, ( Gilbert Arenas from the NBA recently signed a $111 million contract).

Aside from the financial rewards, early retirement is likely. Most careers end before age 40. In fact, majority of professional athlete’s careers only last several years or less due to injuries. Additionally, extreme stress caused by ceaseless competition wears down both body and mind.

It’s considered to be a high-risk-high-reward profession. Nobody gets there by chance. You don’t wake up one day, look in the mirror and realize you are an athlete. Attaining a job as a professional athlete is about being competitive in the sports industry; as being a plumber is about being competitive in the plumbing industry.

So, what does it take?

  • Spend hours training daily.
  • Know all the rules and strategies of the game.
  • Follow a strict diet.
  • Review own performance to identify weaknesses.
  • Be willing to work “odd” hours.
  • Be willing to travel often.

Everything from early life onward counts, especially high school and college. Most pro athletes are drafted from college.

In High School there is time to learn about the sport and how to work on a team. High school is also the place where you learn to maintain a GPA. College is where talent and skills are developed.

Doing well in biology and health helps learn about the body and to potentially avoid injuries. Avoiding injuries is important throughout an athlete’s career and life – an injured player is unable to compete.

All in all, “going pro” is extremely unlikely.

Only 1 in 5000 high school athletes becomes professional, according to one source. Few find it to be exactly what they thought it would be.

Most find that it is not what they expected. The median yearly earnings for a professional athlete were around $39,050 in 2011 – Compared with $79,830 average salary for an athlete’s manager.

The bottom 10% of professional athletes make less than $18,000 per year. Additionally, the data might be skewed by salaries of top earners.



It is baffling why more people want to be pro athletes than managers.


Considering the data, college is useful for several reasons. First, college is a place where professional athletes are scouted.

Secondly, a college degree will become useful after retirement from professional sports. Most athletes need a second career after retirement. The extremely well known, highly paid athletes are an exception, not the norm.

According to Business Insider’s interpretation of data collected by the NCAA, about 3.4% of male high school basketball players go to play in college. Of the male college basketball players, 1.2% go to the pros, or about .004% of the original players (from high school).

The highest percentage of college athletes who go to the pros come from male hockey, at 11.2%. For male baseball players that number is 8.6%. Meaning, becoming a professional athlete is extremely unlikely.

Source: Business Insider

It is advisable to study a degree in a related field such as sports management, physical education, coaching, or rehabilitation therapy.

While in school, grades (the GPA) must be the focus.

Who becomes a professional athlete?

Above all else, it takes desire. The intentions of the athlete must be clear. It takes grit. Playing sports professionally also takes sacrifice.

To train and become the best, time must be kept away from other activities and possibilities – such as family time. Another requirement is being able to deal with adversity and failure.

Along the way there will be obstacles and “road blocks”, “dead ends”, “limits”, and “glass ceilings”. Transcending these challenges is up to the athlete and no amount of coaching can motivate a person to do it. An athlete must be able to answer the following:

  1. How bad do you really want it?
  2. What are you willing to do to reach your goals?
  3. What are you willing to sacrifice?

From early on, physical and mental abilities must be increased with specific adherence to the athletic activity, (sport), of choice.

Values must be ingrained as well as coping strategies for stress.

Values of competitiveness, perseverance, teamwork, and patience are essential. Skills in business and psychology are also useful.

Only the most competitive move ahead and get noticed. There will be times when moving forward is difficult. There will be disappointment, hardships, and difficult people. 

Many skills are necessary which take repetition and time to develop. The training may include:

  • Ability to perform under pressure.
  • Competitive mindset.
  • Discipline.
  • Reflexes, and coordination.
  • Intention and goal setting.
  • Maintaining the body, “working out”.
  • Earning high grades in school.
  • Extroversion, (joining teams and clubs, traveling, etc…).

Aside from training, natural abilities are also important; including eyesight, physical fitness, and intelligence. Intelligence helps players use the clock, strategize, and work with others. Working to improve active memory helps as well.

Intelligence is also tied to the ability to predict opponent’s intentions and identify weaknesses, as well as strengths, of the opponent.

An athlete must likewise work on his/her personality and character to be noticed positively by scouts.

What about talent?

Running really fast in a straight line is an example of talent and nobody can teach you how to do that. There are no magical shoes or formulas which insert talent into a man or woman who has none.

Talent and skill are not the same thing. Many people who never do anything with it, have talent. Also, there are skills which no amount of talent can replace. Talent alone will not help an athlete overcome 4th quarter pressure and fatigue. Ditto for handling adversity, missed opportunities, and rejection.

Not giving up, vertical jumping ability, cutting and changing direction rapidly between bursts of sprinting – are some examples of skills. Talent can make a player explosive, extraordinary, and fun to watch, but it can’t replace skill. Players with both have the greatest advantage.

For example, Michael Jordan is arguably one of the most talented basketball players ever. When he entered the NBA his vertical leap was 38”. It increased to 48” because he continued to work. His jumping skills improved.

“Everybody has talent, but ability takes hard work.”
Michael Jordan 

Skills, once highly developed, become instincts.

Instincts help overcome unique situations during games which talent doesn’t cover. Being prepared for these moments can mean the difference between making it to the finals and winning the trophy. 

An athlete wishing to go pro, who has the skills necessary must register with the NCAA as a junior or senior in high school, and meet the requirements of ‘proposition 48‘ – (grades and test scores). Train hard, eat right, avoid injury, carefully build character and personality, start early enough and nothing remains impossible.


According to one article, (posted to the BleacherReport), there are 11 levels of athlete (10 are posted below):

Ten levels of athlete.

0 – Squandered Potential: someone who makes it to the pros and throws it all away by being lazy or scandalous

1 – College Burnout: worked hard In college but then did not perform well once making it to the pros. The success did not translate, turned out to be a one shot wonder, or suffered injuries early on.

2 – Desperate Team’s: There because the league needs to fill spots. Has low level of ability and is considered below standards for the pros. Bench players and players with the worst stats.

3 – Criminal: athletes who underachieve due to illicit and immoral or downright stupid activity. Showing up to games hung-over or maintaining addictions using earnings. This includes athletes committing felonies, assault, possessing guns, and doing illegal drugs like cocaine.

4 – Journeyman: athletes who move from team to team. There are many reasons for this type of athlete and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with skill level or talent.

5 – Hustler: Always giving 100% on the field, but lacking natural talent. Either too small, too thin, etc…, or not intelligent enough.

6 – The Selfish: athletes that score well and have talent but show no regard for the team.

7 – No Rings: superior athletes who never won a championship.

8 – Winner: athletes with less talent and ability who end up on the winning team.

9 – Superstar: most talented and capable athletes of our time, currently active.

10 – Legendary: most talented, innovative, and statistically dominant. Including hall-of-fame inductees.

Against all odds.

Here are some perks enjoyed by professional athletes:

  • At the pinnacle of professional athletics, a high salary.
  • Recognition and validation from many people.
  • Connections to top level people including celebrities.
  • Increased dating opportunities/higher quality wives or girlfriends.
  • Travelling to different places.
  • Becoming part of culture; starring on tv, having toys made in your image, a street named after you, having people name kids after you, and your image idolized.
  • Four to eight months’ vacation, depending on the sport.
  • Free stuff, experiences, and swag, (clothes), – through endorsements.
  • Having a voice in the community and a following.
  • The best health care and medicine.
  • Self expression is greatly encouraged (within reason)
  • Opportunities to make money through advertising and merchandising.
  • Never having to grow up – Immature attention seeking behavior is acceptable.
  • Top level physical training for free, maybe even paid for exercising.
  • Assistants to take care of life’s minutia, (such as appointments, mail, cleaning, phone calls, etc…).
  • Preferential treatment from lawyers, government officials, and government agencies.
  • Ability to truly give back, both in large donations and in quality of charity (pro sports team brand).



Additional Sources:

– http://www.si.com/edge/2014/10/16/tim-grover-talent-isnt-enough





Alex is a freelance writer and student of life. He spent some time attending University in NYC after high school where he studied Physical Education. He was born in Odessa, Ukraine on October 6, 1991 (25 years old) and moved to America when he was 9 years old. He started writing when he was in college, mostly by helping friends with their school papers. He enjoys music and plays guitar. He also composes for the classical guitar and produces original electronic music. He spent some time writing original books, but never published. His interests include reading books and playing basketball. If you would like to know more, ask a question, or simply say "hi", you can send him an e-mail at: [email protected]