For many people, professional sports are associated with luxurious lifestyles, fame, and all other comforts which come with recognition and performance at the top level. However, this perception is based on the very few which have achieved penultimate success. For majority of professional athletes, there are significant challenges which can quickly derail a career and even those at the very top can face significant consequences. Professional sports are a highly complex endeavor which places grueling pressure on an individual’s body and mind, resulting in challenges and barriers such as injuries, media/public pressure, and significant resources and time that has to be dedicated to achieving success.
Any physical activity creates potential for injury, but when an individual becomes significantly involved in a sport, both amateur and professional athletes face a serious risk of injury. Even if a person is healthy and proper precautions are taken such adequate preparation and recovery, it is likely that it some point an athlete will experience an injury. Professional athletes in the top 5 occupations for injuries, experiencing 2000 injuries per 10,000 people according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (Fitzgerald). The cause of injuries is a combination of factors that are dependent on the individual athlete as well as aspects such as the type of sport they engage in and even cultural factors.
Regardless, professional sport places a tremendous strain on the human body in the context of training, practicing, and competition which goes beyond the tolerance of the majority of people. Even with advances of modern sports science and medicine, biological limitations exist and when the whole purpose of professional sports is to test the limits of human possibilities and exert maximum performance, injuries are bound to occur.
The sport with the highest number of injuries is basketball, followed by football, soccer, baseball, and hockey, representing the topmost popular professional sports leagues in the United States. There are common injuries shared among virtually all sports such as ACL tears, shin splints, hamstring strains, and there are more specific injuries such as concussions which occur more often in physical contact activities such as football and hockey rather than basketball or tennis that typically see injuries to limbs and joints. Injuries can occur at all levels of sports with varying degrees of severity. There are two main types of injuries, acute and chronic.
Acute injuries are sudden injuries not based on previously existing conditions. Meanwhile, chronic injuries are a consequence of an overuse or a long-existing condition, often caused by a persistence of an acute injury or an injury not fully treated (Tuakli-Wosornu et al. 206)
There are arguments that injuries are an inevitable part of professional sports. Virtually all professional athletes engage in much greater injury prevention measures via recovery, receiving high-tech as well as traditional medical procedures, and working with a physiotherapist on a consistent basis. However, the prevalence of injuries is still high, and has been noted to have both short-term and long-term consequences. Injuries can often derail both promising and established careers. For example, the famous golfer Tiger Woods was strongly impacted by injuries and he had to undergo multiple surgeries, with his comeback to the pinnacle of his sport almost miraculous. Hundreds of professional athletes are less lucky, with injuries taking on a chronic nature and they can never successfully compete at high level competitions again (Putukian).
Furthermore, injuries often have a long-term impact, affecting both everyday lives outside of sports as well as life after retirement. In recent years it has been identified that multiple NFL athletes experienced CTE, a degenerative brain disease which stemmed from concussions and repeated hits to the head, despite the use protective gear and helmets. Overall, it is evident that injuries are a major challenge for professional sports and serves as one of the primary factors that athletes struggle with in their careers.
In the words of one of the greatest basketball stars Lebron James, “There is a lot of pressure put on me, but I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself. I feel if I play my game, it will take care of itself.” He is an example of an elite athlete that has achieved so much and learnt to deal with high pressure situations. However, most athletes at the elite level face significant pressure from the public, media, and even loved ones.
Underperforming can lead to lost sponsorships, place on a professional team or national delegation to international events, and exuberant public criticism, particularly for elite athletes that are seen as high-performing individuals and there is some reliance on them to win important matches and tournament events (Hartley). While most professional athletes realize that there is a health amount of pressure in high level sports, most are unprepared for the expectations that others place on their shoulders, often without preparation or justification. They are expected to perform and win regardless of other influencing factors, even when injuries are involved as described in the previous section (O’Neil et al. 87).
Professional athletes are also often recognizable public figures. Therefore, their actions, words and opinions are placed in the spotlight. It can be argued that for many athletes, it is not the performance pressure but the overwhelming lifechanging circumstances when they are cast in the public spotlight. A mistake or poor choices that could be made by any human being are criticized to significant extents, and as many public figures these athletes may face extensive hate speech online while their lives are picked apart in the public media sphere. Meanwhile, in the context of significant political tension and the so called ‘cancel culture’ professional athletes find themselves in difficult positions of being criticized for both remaining silent or actively supporting any sort of political or social issue.
Any potential misstep which draws public backlash or does not meet current standards could easily result in cancelled contracts and sponsorships, even if an athlete’s performance is excellent. This was the case with Roy Kaperniak who famously protested police injustice by kneeling during the national anthem, erupting a debate within the country, and despite having support and endorsements, effectively cannot play in the NFL anymore (Busbee).
While some elite athletes are able to win prize money and sign lucrative endorsement deals, for the vast majority of professional athletes that is not the case. A discussion arises every Olympics on the amount of resources necessary to become an Olympian. In non-media popular sports, such as basketball, soccer, tennis, hockey where people play on teams and have set contracts, most athletes can only monetize their skills through sponsorships.
Even if they receive salaries and bonuses for medals from their respective national sports federations, they are relatively small. Annual costs for a professional athlete range between $40,000 to $75,000 a year depending on the sport, accounting only for training and equipment, not daily living expenses (Abreu). Also, there are a number of other resource-intensive secondary elements to consider. For example, most successful athletes have to work with sports psychologists to effectively perform in front of huge audiences. Most athletes and their families have to commit incredible sacrifices in lost time, education, wages, and life experiences since so much has to be dedicated to training and subsequent recovery.
Even when an athlete has been able to achieve financial stability or even wealth due to their performance and status, they face the challenge of having to maintain that level. While most people at the elite level have some natural athletic talent, without continuous training and upkeeping it, they can quickly fade from the spotlight. Unfortunately, there are a number of examples where athletes simply retire early unable to cope with the pressure or expenses or use their newfound wealth and fame to overindulge leading to ruined relationships, poor media perception discussed above, and effectively cannot preserve neither their level of athletic performance nor financial success. While sponsorships, sports bodies, and teams are most usually financing training for elite athletes, it still requires commitment on their part, with any dip in performance or injury can significantly impact their career prospects.
How Athletes Overcome
Elite athletes are extremely strongminded and can perform under severe pressure in most challenging situations. These individuals are resilient and have often overcome adversity both in their personal lives as well as athletic competitions. Without such strong willpower and resilience, competition at the highest levels is virtually impossible. However, even the strongest athletes need help. They work with sports psychologists and mentors, but the most important aspect is the support of their loved ones. Strong support systems ultimately improve confidence and help in achieving success. Researchers have noted that ongoing support of friends and family is a critical factor influencing sports performance, with social support important to achieve self-belief and maintain levels of stress (Quinn). Research is also supported by anecdotal evidence of professional coaches and athletic mentors.
In the words of Dr. Tausig, a former pro tennis player and current sport psychology professional, “champions are not birthed in a bubble” and it takes the support and actions on many different individuals helping and guiding an athlete before they are able to win at the highest levels. In modern day, many elite athletes, both team and individual sports, maintain trusted teams around them to manage the many aspects of their lives and health while they commit fully to the training process (Tausig).
Professional sports are wrought with challenges, putting pressure on individual athletes. The more high profile of an athlete, especially in media popular sports, the more challenges they face. Injuries, media pressure, need for input time and resources are some of the major challenges and barriers that a professional athlete can face. Successful athletes are able to overcome the challenges with the help of strong support systems and other benefits offered to professionals. However, the ability to overcome and persevere is limited to a select few, requiring strong dedication and willpower. The majority of professional athletes ultimately falter when encountering one of the described barriers and while they may continue performing at some level, the difference between the very greats and the average is distinguished by the ability to navigate the challenges.
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Busbee, Jay. “Colin Kaepernick Recalls Kobe Bryant: ‘My Heart Aches’.” Yahoo! Sports. 2020. Web.
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O’Neill, Maureen, et al. “Pressures to Perform: An Interview Study of Australian High Performance School-Age Athletes’ Perceptions of Balancing Their School and Sporting Lives.” Performance Enhancement & Health, vol. 2, no. 3, 2013, pp. 87–93. Web.
Putukian, Margot. “Mind, Body and Sport: How Being Injured Affects Mental Health.” NCAA.org – The Official Site of the NCAA. 2017. Web.
Quinn, Elizabeth. “Enlist Supportive Friends and Family So You Can Excel in Sports.” Verywell Fit, 2020. Web.
Tausig, Justin. “Overcoming Obstacles in Sport with Dr. Justin Tausig.” USTA Player Development, 2020. Web.
Tuakli-Wosornu, Yetsa A., et al. “Acute and Chronic Musculoskeletal Injury in Para Sport.” Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinics of North America, vol. 29, no. 2, 2018, pp. 205–243. Web.