Becoming a professional athlete might be a dream for some sports enthusiasts and athletes, but it’s not always the best bet. Intense competition, a life on the road and grueling practice might take some of the fun out of enjoying a sport from an amateur standpoint. Although amateur and professional athletes have a few things in common, such as some shared skills and passion for their sport, the primary differences lies in the fact that for professionals, performance within a sport can make or break their careers.
Ready for Payday
Getting paid is the litmus test of professional versus amateur athletes. Not all pro athletes are millionaires, however. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual pay for professional athletes in 2010 was $43,740. In contrast, amateur athletes do not get paid for competing. They might receive perks related to participating in their league -- for example, team gear or sponsored post-game dinners from local businesses -- but they do not receive paychecks for playing.
Age Is Just a Number
In some cases, professional athletes might be older than amateur athletes because of rules established within sports organizations. For example, the NFL has rules in place barring young athletes from playing professionally directly after graduating high school; the idea is that they’ll protect their younger bodies from injury and have the chance to complete some higher education while continuing to develop their athletics chops in collegiate competitions. "The Sport Journal" states that some sports critics dispute this reasoning, though, saying that it allows amateur athletes to be exploited since they’re not being paid to play while in college. In some sports, younger athletes might opt to be home schooled and accept formal sponsorship in order to become professional earlier in their careers.
It’s a Grind
Amateur athletes might play baseball, tennis or volleyball just for fun, getting together on the weekend or after work for a pick-up game or to compete against other recreational teams. Professional athletes must frequently compete on weekends, evenings and holidays, depending on their competition schedule, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Time away from home can quickly accrue as pro athletes travel around the country, or around the world, during competition season.
Building the Body
Playing any sport involves some degree of risks, and some high-impact sports can be quite dangerous. Broken bones, concussions and other injuries create the potential for high medical bills and extended physical therapy. Some professional athletes might receive extensive medical benefits and insurance coverage as part of their contracts; other professionals or semi-pro athletes might receive travel money and contest fees but be expected to purchase their own health insurance. Amateur athletes who become injured will be personally liable for their injuries, covering medical costs of game-related injuries with their own coverage or paying out-of-pocket.