What does it mean to be a 'Professional' Athlete?


“Professionalism shouldn’t be defined by a persons paycheck, role or title. It should be defined by a persons work ethic.”

~Janna Cachola

There is a certain level of prestige associated with being labeled a professional. It generally implies a higher level of skill, or money, or experience, but what I want to talk about today is the act of being a professional. There are many experts out there, and people who get paid a lot of money to do a specific job, but I find it increasingly rare to find individuals who respect the act of professionalism more than the title. This happens across the board, no matter the field of expertise. True professionals possess several important qualities, and it’s important to note that a person doesn’t necessarily have to be paid to be one. For example, there are amateur athletes out there who act far more professionally than those who play sport for a career. In my opinion, money doesn’t make a pro; it’s all about integrity.

Qualities of a Professional

1. Integrity

Above all else, I believe that a true professional has a lot of integrity. To me, having integrity means doing what you say you will do, even when no one is watching. It is so easy to “forget,” or to find excuses to avoid doing things that we don’t necessarily want to do. Professionals have integrity, and push through those hard days, to do what they are supposed to.

There are days when I don’t feel like doing my conditioning, or when I would much rather stay in bed instead of waking up at 6:00 am. It’s normal, and it happens to everyone. I call those days, “Grind Days.” In all honesty, if I did skip a workout, no one would even know, so what’s the big deal? The big deal is that I made a commitment to my coaches, to my teammates, and to myself to be the best I can be, so I will always be there putting quality work in, even if I don’t feel like it.

No matter what, I follow through with the things I have said that I will do. Professional integrity is incredibly important, and sets the best apart from the rest.

2. Being early

Being late is a massive pet peeve of mine, as it should be for any professional. Arriving late to an engagement, whether it be a meeting or a practice, gives the impression that it isn’t a priority, or that you don’t take it seriously. It is also incredibly rude to keep people waiting. Obviously, we all find ourselves in circumstances that are beyond our control sometimes. Making a habit of being late, though, is completely unprofessional.

Professionals make it a priority to be early to engagements. It demonstrates a willingness and an excitement to be present or included, and it is respectful to other people involved. Being early also maximizes the time we are able to spend on the task at hand.

3. Doing whatever you need to do to perform well

Being a professional means doing whatever possible to do a job well. A professional takes their job seriously, and wants to execute at a high level. So often, I meet people who do the bare minimum that is required of them, and sometimes barely that. What is the point of doing something, if not to put forth a complete effort?

For an athlete, doing whatever it takes to perform well means getting enough rest, adequately treating any injuries, and eating properly, among other things. I recently wrote a post on these issues that you can read here. Being a true professional extends beyond the court or field. It means making conscious decisions in your everyday life that will lead you towards your team and individual goals.

4. Showing respect

A professional is respectful of people, regardless of their position or title. It often happens that once people reach a certain level or status, they feel that they can treat people however they want. For me, this is the opposite of being professional.

There is nothing wrong with being proud of yourself or your accomplishments, but no one individual is “better” than any other, and to act as such is ludicrous. Every person, no matter their title or salary, or whether they are behind the scenes or centre stage, contributes to the success of a team. This is true of all settings.

Peyton Manning is an athlete I greatly admire. One of the things I respect most about him was the time he took to show people he cared and that he appreciated their work. He is a wonderful example of one of the great athletes showing the utmost respect to the people surrounding him, and the ones who helped him get to where he did. I recommend you watch this video.

5. Being honest and open in your communication

True professionals are open and honest in their communication with others. Like I have mentioned before, communication is one of the few things we have direct control over, and if we are in need or have concerns, we have to be able to voice them. I’m not saying that, in the name of being professional, you have carte blanche to criticize your coach’s practices, etc., but a respectful give and take is critical.

Open and honest communication also includes admitting mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, and sometimes it takes a lot of strength to admit them to others. In the pursuit of being both a good teammate and a professional, though, we have to be able to take responsibility for our mistakes. This way, we can learn and grow, and continue to have a productive work environment.

Is acting professional difficult? Sometimes. Like anything else, though, being professional becomes a habit once we practice it enough. Working on these points I outlined above will not only benefit you in sports or school, but also in the working world and beyond. You just have to make them a priority and have pride in the work you are doing.



About the Author: Olympian Sarah Pavan, is a Canadian indoor & beach volleyball player, who most recently represented her country on the golden beaches of Rio. Sarah has been playing indoor volleyball for over twenty years, and has been representing Canada a the elite level since 2001.  Follow Sarah on her Instagram, on Twitter and online.