Salary: Most amateur athletes start off competing purely for the love of their sport until they become skilled enough and start competing on a national and international level. Then they can begin to receive government funding and sponsorship money to support them. Amateur athletes can earn about $30,000 a year to just over $100,000, depending on their level of success.
Professional athletes, depending on the sport, can earn six-figure salaries, even into the millions. "You need to be realistic," Olympic gold-medal-winning swimmer Mark Tewksbury and the chef de mission of the 2012 Canadian Olympic team said at the recent XL Leadership Summit in Vancouver. "There is probably less than 1 per cent of athletes out there on the Olympic team that really are making a lot of money. It's very much driven by passion." For many athletes, it's not about the money. "The feeling of pride, the feeling of growth, the feeling of contributing to the team – all of that is equity," Mr. Tewksbury said.
Education: There is no formal educational requirement, but some education and other skills are important since athletes need to communicate with a wide range of people, from media to corporate sponsors. Athletes are often advised to get a postsecondary education in case their career in sports is short-lived. Many successful athletes can also transfer their skills into other careers, such as broadcasting or public speaking.
The role: The job requires an ability to perform on demand and often under tremendous pressure (as anyone watching the Olympics in Sochi, Russia can see). That requires long hours of training, both physically and mentally. Working with other people, whether teammates or coaches, and taking instruction, are also a big part of the job. "You need to learn from your mistakes because a lot of times you don't win," Mr. Tewksbury said. "People see the winning, but behind the win are a thousand losses."
By the numbers: About 2,400 Canadians identified their occupation as "athlete," in the 2011 National Household Survey. According to the classification, this includes amateur and professional athletes in sports ranging from hockey and skiing to baseball and golf.
Job prospects: Terrible for those who want to make a living. You need to have an athletic skill, perform it at a level better than most, and then find a way to make money doing it. Winning a medal or trophy, the measure of success for many athletes, is even more difficult. "Like many careers, the higher you go, the fewer positions there are," Mr. Tewksbury says. In the Olympics, for instance, dozens of athletes compete in an event but only three win medals.
Challenges: Physical injury if you overuse certain muscles and joints or compete in high-risk sports. There's also no guarantee of success. "You can put in thousands and thousands of hours and in the moment it counts the most, it just might not happen – and that's a very real possibility," Mr. Tewksbury says. Another big hurdle can be the mental demons that can can affect an athlete's performance. "You can be the best-trained athlete in the world physically, but mentally if it isn't there," that can be problem, he says. Being overconfident can also have the same negative impact.
Why they do it: "I think a lot of people chose it because they see it on television," Mr. Tewksbury says. "They get exposed to the best side of it." After finding they have a talent for a certain sport, many athletes pursue it as a career because they have a passion to compete or perform – or both. It was the performance part of the job that drove Mr. Tewksbury. "I never loved swimming per se. I liked swimming, but loved the thrill of competition and how sick I would feel putting myself up there on the starting block. Everything rides on this moment. I am a performer – and that's how come I could win the Olympics. On that day, when some people would just die under that pressure, I would say, 'Bring it on!'"
Misconceptions: "It's not that glamorous," Mr. Tewksbury says. There is a lot of drudgery and routine in the job, between training and travelling and ensuring that you eat and sleep properly. Another misconception is that athletes are rich, which is true only in a small number of cases. Mr. Tewksbury says there is also a mistaken belief that most athletes are activists. "Some have a social conscience, some don't," he says. "In some ways you are a role model for achievement, but you're not necessarily a human being role model."
Give us the scoop: Are you a professional athlete in Canada? Write a note in the comments area of this story or e-mail your comment to firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know what you would tell others who are interested in the profession.
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